Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nature of the diarist

‘What a diary must preserve - the attitudes and nature of the diarist. Therefore, all excision, amendment, clarification, cleaning; one must think. The language can be cleaned, perhaps; but every change from the written word is a lie.’ This is John Robert Fowles, British author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, born 90 years ago today. In the last years of his life, he revealed himself as one of the 20th century’s most interesting diarists, publishing two volumes of intimate and very revealing journals.

Fowles was born on 31 March 1926 in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, an only child until his sister was born 15 years later. His father ran a tobacco firm in London. Schooled locally, and much interested in nature, he won a scholarship to board at Bedford School, which he didn’t much like at first, though in time he excelled at sports and became Head of School. His parents, meanwhile, had moved to Ipplepen in Devon, where he spent his holidays in a rural idyll, and where he lived during the early war years. After completing his national service in the Royal Marines, at the tail end of the war, he went to New College, Oxford, in 1947 to read modern languages, completing his degree in French. His university years, biographers suggest, led to a flourishing of experiences, social and cultural, that set him on a road far removed from that of the youth that had been a head boy and a marine.

Although receiving an offer of a job from Winchester College, Fowles chose to become English master at a school on the Greek island of Spetses. There, he began an affair with Elizabeth Christy, wife of another teacher. After a couple of years he and other staff were dismissed for trying to bring in reforms, and Fowles ended up in Hampstead, London, teaching English as a foreign language at St. Godric’s College, where he remained for a decade. In 1954, he married Christy; her daughter, Anna, lived with them. His first published book, The Collector (1963), was a literary hit and was quickly adapted into a film (1965), allowing Fowles to forego teaching for full-time writing. The year 1965 saw a move to Dorset and publication of The Magus, a long and complex novel he had written (before The Collector) based on his experiences in Greece. He and his family lived first at Underhill Farm, west of Lyme Regis, but when a section of their land eroded into the sea they moved to the town itself, to Belmont House.

Fowles remained in Lyme for the rest of his life, although occasionally he took long trips to Greece and France. In 1969, he published The French Lieutenant’s Woman (described as a ‘postmodern historical fiction novel’), his most famous book, and critically acclaimed film, which established his international reputation (and, incidentally, did wonders for Lyme Regis tourism). This was followed by a collection of long stories, The Ebony Tower (1974), and then his most autobiographical novel Daniel Martin (1977). From 1979 to 1988, when he had a stroke, Fowles served as curator at the Lyme Regis Museum. During this time, he also published his last two novels, Mantissa and A Maggot. Elizabeth died in 1990, and Fowles married Sarah Smith in 1998. After several years of poor health, he died in 2005. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Paris Review, or The London Review of Books.

Although Fowles was considered something of a recluse in his later years, intriguingly his last published works were two volumes of private journals, which are among the most intimate and revealing of any literary diaries. John Fowles - The Journals - Volume 1 was published in 2003 by Jonathan Cape (edited and with an introduction by Charles Drazin). A second volume followed posthumously, in 2006. According to Drazin: ‘The diary itself supplanted a future novel by becoming the major literary preoccupation after the death of his first wife Elizabeth in 1990. At this critical stage, it provided the obvious means to look back over his life, to attempt the self-understanding that was an important aim of the novels themselves.’

In his introduction, Drazin explains that he made a conscious effort not to censor the diaries in any way, though ‘it was impossible not to have qualms about many passages that were bound to upset people’. ‘I thought it was important,’ he goes on to say, ‘that John should have the opportunity to consider whether there were any comments that he regretted and wished to remain private. From our resulting conversations it quickly became clear that there were many comments he regretted, but he had made them and, however foolish or wrong or hurtful they might seem now, the vital quality of the journal was to record how he had felt at the time. The decision to leave such comments, even when they tended to be particularly hurtful to his closest friends - who after all were the most readily available victims - stems from his deepest instincts as a writer.’

Extracts from the journals can be read at the John Fowles Books or Penguin Random House websites or at Amazon; and The Guardian website has an interview with Fowles about publishing his diaries. Here, though, are several extracts from the first volume.

3 October 1952
‘To Greece again: at the last moment I packed this diary, unable to cut myself off from such bitter-sweet memories. Here the sun and strange existence is already burning the past away. Never so much difficulty in writing as here; a constant temptation to be idle in lotusland.’

6 October 1955
‘This diary has suffered these last two years. It no longer - it seems to me - adequately reflects either my physical or my mental life. It does all - this period - seem something of a desert, in any case. I lack no confidence that the desert will end. I can think. I can write; I know that. But waiting-rooms are always dull.

Writing: the Greek book has been criticized by the agent’s reader - he calls it ‘shapeless, discursive’; but Paul Scott thinks it worth a trial with the publishers. I have just finished an opuscule - ‘For a Casebook’ - which I intend to try on the London Magazine and Encounter.

Meanwhile, this:; I’ve decided to keep, for a month, a ritual day-to-day account of events; what’s interesting me; what we do.’

28 April 1958
‘What a diary must preserve - the attitudes and nature of the diarist. Therefore, all excision, amendment, clarification, cleaning; one must think. The language can be cleaned, perhaps; but every change from the written word is a lie. In my case, if I ever revised, I should want to hide the self-excusing, the priggishness.’

2 April 1957
‘We got married today; a grey day, a grey day, but mist-grey; and the mist cleared when we went off; E in a pale yellowy-green suit, olive shoes, an egg-custard-yellow hat. We met the Kemps, whom we haven’t seen for months, but they do not change; if we saw them after a thousand years it would be like a week - we met them at Belsize Park, had a drink. I felt nervous; didn’t want to be seen, as no one at the college knows. I’m going back tomorrow; and couldn’t stand the odd looks such unromantic behaviour would bring me. But no one saw us; we slipped in. A sort of boardroom with canvas and steel tube pile-chairs; a large gilt basket of faded flowers; two men, one rather bored and beery, the other suave. The silly little ritual, so short, so empty. Outside a tired little garden, and the chimney of the hospital furnace gently smoking in the pale blue sky. I paid the 11/3, we slipped out, up the road to the nearest pub. Then home to our nice new flat, and a nice good lunch, and Asti Spumante, and the sun in the room, and a feeling that it is good to be married, because it was fundamentally unnecessary - marriage won’t alter our relationship which is outside anthropology; because none the less we are now what the others think, or expect, or hope, we are - legal; and as a sort of symbol, a crowned, sealed look-we-have-come- throughness.

The Kemps gave us a pepper-mill; and a friend of E’s, a Canadian architect, brash, glossy, like a sober American car, bought a nice Persian vase.

So we’re married.’

7 November 1964
The Magus. First complete draft finished.’

15 March 1965
‘Miserable cross-currented days, windless above and seething below, waiting for the first reactions to The Magus. Tom Maschler came the other night and took away a typescript of it. As usual, he was full of himself, of the excitement of publishing - but full less in a natural than an aggressive way. Some strange drive in him forces him to humiliate, to depress the writers he comes in contact with - Edna O’Brien said the same thing the other day. As if you are the writer he mistrusts, has no confidence in. Instead of joining his writers, he isolates them.

Anthony Sheil came to lunch today. He has been reading the typescript in bits all through the week, as he has to fly to the States tomorrow. ‘It’s superbly written and I’m sure it will be a success, but.. .’ and there followed a long list of criticisms. I don’t doubt he means them sincerely, I don’t doubt, even, that quite a lot of them are valid, but no one realizes the ludicrously tender state of the writer at this stage. One is the shorn lamb, and even the warmest breezes cool. And then too, as soon as one enters the literary world, all motives are suspect. Tom M would never say good of the book, because it might prejudice the buying price. A. Sheil has his agent’s prerogative to protect - his right to ‘guide’ and ‘criticize’ - and in our age inability to find fault is almost synonymous with lack of intelligence.

Meanwhile my nerves jangle I don’t lose whatever fundamental confidence I have in John Fowies the novelist, but if lose all confidence in novel-writing as a significant activity, I feel like giving up that side of writing, of concentrating on poetry, think-pieces - even learning to paint. Partly this is because I have a fascinated horror of the showbiz side of writing (rather, a horrified fascination!) The other day we took Edna OB, and Terry Stamp and his girlfriend. Jean Shrimpton the model, out to dinner; and then the next evening we went to a party at Edna’s, where she has a sort of microcosm of All London - all artistic London, anyway. Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard and Mordecai Richler and Wesker and the film directors Clayton and Donner and Desmond Davies. Edna thrives in all this glitter of names; this demi-paradise of celebrity. And at one level I feel envious of her (though I like her as well as any writer I have met). But I distrust intensely that drive to be in the limelight, in the okayest current of the age: where the cinema and the novel meet. Everyone in this world is driven frantically to destroy his or her nemo; all the talk is half vainly of one’s own prospects, or half enviously of other people’s. Who has an option on So-and-so’s book, who will direct this, who will act in that. All this must be inimical to good writing, let alone good living.’

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