The Journals, volume 1 by John Fowles

Let's have more moths, less about the author
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The Independent Culture

This first volume of John Fowles's journals presents a rags-to-riches tale. An unknown schoolteacher moves suddenly - after 550 long pages of preamble, and aged 38 - into public recognition. It takes us up to the film made in 1965, starring Terence Stamp, from Fowles's first bestseller, The Collector.

We begin in 1949. Young Fowles has escaped his stifling suburban home at Leigh-on-Sea, and is studying French at New College, Oxford. His undergraduate career is undistinguished. He hates "ordinariness" and soon flees to Greece. Here he teaches English on the island of Spetsai, finds inspiration for The Magus, and falls passionately in love with a fellow teacher's wife, whom, after much pain, he happily marries.

They set up house in north London and struggle to earn a living. Fowles suffers writerly ambitions, is hugely productive, but lives unpublished and unregarded. There is much on his terrors and self-doubt. He is an earnest loner, a bit of a prig, self-absorbed, melancholic, needy, with little sense of humour. And a nice chap.

He reads voraciously, hunting down what is rare, undervalued and foreign. He has interesting views about other authors, can vividly evoke those he meets, and explain truthfully what he feels about them, and himself. In one fabulous moment a humming-bird hawk moth flies into his room in Greece and - as DH Lawrence might have done - he evokes its mysterious, fragile life. One can forgive him much for this. I hungered for more about trees, moths and birds, and less about the author's soul.

He has a magnificent narrative gift. Some of McEwan's early tales of perverse love among the inarticulate owe much to Fowles's brilliant invention, in The Collector, of the horrible voice and mind of that kidnapper of girls, Frederick Clegg.

Yet this gift is not on display here. We get much about the dull predictability of other people, who weary him, he announces, because they are not "free" or "authentic". He fell in love, disastrously, with Existentialism, and its half-baked ideas befog him for decades. The Many, he repeatedly tells us, are stereotypes, while only the Few are true individualists. Existentialism is to blame for many pensées in that most regrettable of his books, The Aristos.

So what if Fowles lacks a first-rate intellect? Dickens pinched most of his ideas from Carlyle. But it bothers Fowles. He is not content to be a gripping spinner of yarns: he is determined to be an original mind. Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody had an intractable dandy-son - charmingly named Lupin - who despised his father's fuddy-duddy ways. Fowles sometimes recalls this rebellious child of Victorian Holloway.

This volume will please many old admirers, while not necessarily winning many fresh ones. More strenuous editing might have helped. A second volume will presumably cover the publishing, then filming, of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman. Meanwhile true devotees can find the complete unedited diaries - one million words, equivalent to 20 volumes - in the university library at Exeter.

Peter J Conradi's 'Iris Murdoch: a life' is published by HarperCollins