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A final word with John Fowles

In a 1973 interview with John Fowles, who died a month ago, the author of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman,' 'The Collector' and 'The Magus' talked about his life and literature

By James Campbell  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

I found myself one Saturday lunchtime in December 1973 being greeted at the door of Belmont House, Lyme Regis, by Fowles, whisky in one hand, cigarette in the other. He was "bearded and burly", as I later jotted down. His wife Elizabeth had picked me up from Axminster Station (Fowles didn't drive), after a phone call to let them know I was stranded there without hope of catching a bus.

Fowles sounded grumpy on the telephone but Elizabeth, I can see now, was accustomed to compensating with kindness. "Are you a Hardy fan?" she asked as she sped us down the country roads. Fowles made initial attempts to be chatty and cheerful, but it wasn't his mode.

When he saw the tape recorder, he said, "Oh, you use one of those things, do you?" For a long time afterwards, I made it a point of principle not to. When my Scottish two-pin plug failed to fit his English three-pin socket, he scowled. Elizabeth stepped in and drove me to a shop where we bought an adaptor. I would happily have spent the afternoon being shepherded round the town by her.

By the time we got "down to business," as he put it, Fowles had recovered his mood and spoke generously to an interlo-cutor who must have struck him as unendurably callow. "Some critics have said The Magus did not achieve what it set out to do." Did I really say that? What critics? Why did I pay attention to them instead of relying on my sense of gratitude and wonder? "No argument from me," Fowles replied disarmingly. At my prodding, he expanded: "You must remember it was a first novel and I tried to say too much. It was written by a young man who really didn't have very much experience of life, but who had a tremendous love of narrative. It says so many things and nothing really is concluded. One thing that worries me about it now is that it's not terribly well written. One day I hope to rewrite it."

Three years later, he did so. I asked about the literature of drugs, and he said that drugs were "something I've no experience of whatsoever". None at all? "I smoked kif once in Tangier and it made me terribly sick." I probably added that, in spite of my dark attachment to Alexander Trocchi and others, that was my usual reaction.

However, looking over the transcript as a whole -- the tape was lost years ago -- I am relieved to find that many questions were less jejune.

We talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, then still in vogue, and Fowles made the point that "the English nouveau roman -- as practised by Christine Brooke-Rose and others -- doesn't work. A brave failure."

As with the novels of Camus and Sartre, "it's something that's grown out of the texture of the French language. I don't think you can do it in English. The English tradition is inherently pragmatic and realistic."

Nevertheless, he described his characters in The Magus in existentialist terms. Nicholas was "a typical inauthentic man of the 1945 to 1950 period," whereas Alison was "supposed to be someone who is choosing herself." When I asked if the authorial interventions in The French Lieutenant's Woman were in obedience to Sartre's dictum that the novelist cannot act like God, Fowles replied that Sartre was being "silly."

He went on to say that The Aristos, his carnet of "personal philosophy," was "the sort of book a French writer would publish naturally." His publisher had advised against it, "but you have to take the iron fist with publishers occasionally. I wouldn't want this American situation where your publishing editor dominates your life."

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