Thomas Sutcliffe: The depressing truth about Fowles

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The Independent Online

John Fowles's death got me thinking about cultural disillusionment. This wasn't anything to do with the published extracts from his diaries, which revealed him to be a figure of comically unvarying gloom. Somewhere in an alternative universe, you can't help but feel, Eeyore, Savonarola and Cassandra are sitting round a table, chewing the fat, and one of them is muttering, "Don't look now... here comes that misery-guts Fowles. Just say that chair's taken - or we'll be here all day." But, although there used be a time when I credulously believed that sensitivity to language and ideas had some direct connection to serenity of spirit - that time is long gone.

I think the final nail in the coffin was the depressing day when I witnessed a much-admired university teacher - a man of great erudition and literary acuteness - having a snitty row with his wife about who'd burnt the sausages. Pure folly, of course, to think that a grasp of the subtleties of Miltonic diction might inoculate you against such indignities, but then most of the the things we think about art when we're young are foolish.

I still remember with a blush the occasion when I decided that the surest way to the heart of a girl I admired at school was to behave like Mr Knightley in Emma, and rebuke her, more in sorrow than in anger, for some minor social infraction. Bad plan... and the first and last time that I used the novels of Jane Austen as a guide to courtship.

It wasn't either that I'd once read John Fowles passionately - and had since outgrown him - always a faintly melancholy experience, since you can never quite be sure whether it is a falsely inflated estimate of worth that you've left behind you or the capacity for passion itself. Browsing through the novels on my shelf I thought he'd stood up pretty well, actually. The callow sexual enigmas of The Magus now seem very Sixties - as blatantly of their time as the notionally futuristic hairstyles in old science-fiction movies. But The Collector is chillingly pure and obsessional and, while reading The French Lieutenant's Woman, I found myself slipping inexorably from analysis and into the narrative's grip. I'd forgotten what happens in the book - and Fowles's modish kind of street magic (showing you how the trick is done but still fooling you with it) is still effective. What it was that summoned the memories of an old disappointment was a passage in Daniel Martin - Fowles's baggy, autobiographical portrait of an artist.

Several years after reading the novel, I'd attended a conference in Austria, where one of the delegates was an exuberant Arab playwright. Among his boasts - and he had quite a few - was his insistence that he figured as a character in Fowles's book. I didn't entirely believe him at the time but when I got back I pulled the novel out and hunted down the passage where Daniel Martin visits Cairo. And, sure enough, there was a character called Ahmed Sabry, an exact physical match for my recent acquaintance. Fowles had not just captured his manner and his Mort Sahl mordancy though - he'd also written out five or six of the vaguely insurrectionary jokes with which this man had entertained his fellow delegates in Salzburg. They were very nearly identical, word for word, and came with descriptions of the accompanying stage effects and comic grace notes.

And, oddly, my first thought about this was not that Fowles had succeeded in a literary task but that he'd cheated. Was that really what it came down to, writing a novel? Collaging together pages from one's personal journal - and hardly even bothering to conceal the joins? Sabry, after all, would have been instantly recognisable to anyone who knew him. Only the name had been changed - and there lurked the suspicion that that was to protect John Fowles, rather than the original model for the character. Of course the assumption that this was not what all novelists do, one way or another, was just as naive as my assumption that Mr Knightley's grave moral admonitions would go down well as a sexual overture.

But the starkness of the transcription and the fact that it read as if it had barely been modified from the kind of thing you would scribble down in a writer's notebook before you turned in for the night was still distinctly depressing. I've never felt the same way about the book since - suspicious that the rest of it might turn out to be simply a kind of journalism too. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, and perhaps I left it embarrassingly late to absorb the banal truth that there is nothing particularly enchanted about a novel. But a bit of me wishes I still didn't know - and a bit of me blames John Fowles for spoiling my innocence.

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