John Fowles, playful postmodernist who wrote 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', dies aged 79

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The reclusive author died on Saturday night at his home overlooking the sea in Lyme Regis in Dorset, which he shared with his second wife. He had been ill for several years following a stroke in 1988 and later developed heart problems.

Announcing his death, his publisher, Dan Franklin, of Jonathan Cape, said he had been "incredibly important" in shaking up the literary world in the 1960s and 70s. "When The French Lieutenant's Woman came out it was a bombshell because it had this incredible double ending. It was the first example of postmodern playfulness anyone had seen, and opened up new possibilities. People forget how dull the world was before he came along," said Mr Franklin.

But even though his writing career spanned 40 years - touching on such diverse genres as fantasy, science fiction and historical drama - his voice was always distinctive and unstintingly intellectual. And while his books, particularly the first three of his seven novels, proved successful and financially rewarding, his legacy has proved somewhat uncertain.

John Carey, former Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Booker Prize chairman, said he had been at his best when he kept it simple. "He wanted to be the standard bearer for post-modernism and despised conventionality and thought of himself as a writer who was breaking new ground. He may have tried to do that too hard. But The Collector, which is not very experimental in its techniques, is perhaps his best work."

The French Lieutenant's Woman, its screenplay adapted by Harold Pinter, was made into the five-times Oscar-nominated 1981 film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Set in his beloved Lyme Regis, where in later life Fowles concentrated on his twin passions of gardening and ornithology as well as completing his one-million-word memoirs, the book was hailed for its finale which offered the reader two alternative conclusions.

The Collector was turned into a film in 1965, with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar in the lead roles, while the adaptation of The Magus, which starred Michael Caine, was an embarrassing failure. His relationship with the cinema was, like most of the others in his life, ambiguous. His disdain for the medium is evident in Daniel Martin, the semi-autobiographical epic on which he worked throughout his most creative period. In it, the eponymous lead character is a disenchanted scriptwriter working amid the superficiality of Hollywood and whose real ambition is to write a novel. It failed to live up to the success of his earlier work.

Ambiguity was one of the defining themes. He often melded fantasy with meticulously researched historical detail, mixing up the narrative viewpoints and time settings. Much of his inspiration came to him during the hypnopompic state between dreaming and wakefulness.

His novels alarmed feminists, although it later emerged that his first wife, Elizabeth, who died of cancer in 1990, had been a powerful influence on his work. Others regarded his women characters among his finest.

Although he craved recognition, he had no time for fame or writers who courted celebrity.

The first volume of his diaries, published last year, was warmly received by the critics. The second and final volume was published last month.

Fowles at a glance

The Collector (1963): Disturbing portrait of the kidnap of an artistic young woman by a literal-minded butterfly collector, who observes her capture and death as if she were one of his specimens.

The Magus (1965): The story of a depressed English teacher's bizarre haunting at the hands of an eccentric millionaire on the Greek island of Phraxos became a 1960s cult classic drawing comparisons with The Tempest and The Odyssey.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969): A post-modern adaptation of the classical Victorian novel celebrated for its double-ending, charts the fortunes of a palaeontologist and the two women whose affections he seeks and rejects.

Ebony Tower (1974): A novella inspired by his translation of Marie de France's 12th-century Eliduc, switched to a château in modern-day Brittany.

Daniel Martin (1977): Peripatetic examination of 40 years in the life of a discontented British screenwriter working in Hollywood.

Mantissa (1982): Sexually charged exploration of a novelist's muse who appears to him in a number of beguiling forms.

A Maggot (1985): Complex novel blending elements of science fiction and fantasy with English folk history.