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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

Fowles Outbids Fowles – John Fowles (1926-2005)

John Fowles has a mobile intelligence, activated by the imp of irony. His novels are intellectual treats. The Collector turns a horrible experience (the kidnapping and killing of a young girl by a maniac) into a luminous memory. The core of the novel is the girl’s diary. She is an art student, in love with a professor. She hopes to get away and stay alive. She struggles, she remembers, she fails and finally dies of pneumonia. When the book was turned into a film, only the kidnapping was shown, and the story was suddenly terribly poor. The true essence of Fowles’s Collector is the mixture of maniacal gloom, absurdity and youthful purity of hope and love. The novelist makes these two extremes meet.

Like a magician – one of his novels is actually entitled The Magus –, Fowles mixes the most contradictory moods together, and ends up baffling all expectations. His plots end in the most weird and tantalizing way he manages to imagine. His novels are tantalizing on the whole, as a matter of fact, because his mind is always restless, always in search of something that should shock the reader.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) is a record. Sarah is the most baffling character in Post War fiction. Only an alert mind can keep up with the novelist’s racing moods. With Fowles you never have a moment of dull rest. If the scene fails to change spectacularly at some point or other, his direct irony comes in. He speaks in the name of the author, in the first person, more personally than Dickens himself ever did. Intellectually speaking, Fowles is shameless, and will resort to anything to make us gasp for breath as we go on reading him.

In short, Fowles’ss main narrative device is surprise. All experimentalists (Joyce, Woolf & co.) wanted to shock the reader, there is nothing new in that. But they tried to use methods opposite to those we find in the Victorian novel. They defied the Victorian novel, by abolishing plot, chronology, characters. Fowles defies everyone, the previous defiers included. He offers a plot, but it has two endings. He offers characters, but in the end we do not know how to understand them, because they have two faces and our doubts storm. He uses Victorian England as continuous time, but jumps into one page or another, addressing us from our own time. Diabolic resourcefulness is one major feature that marks a literary Desperado.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman begins in Lyme Bay, in March 1867. The narrator announces his presence from the very first page, by speaking in the first person, as detached from his story, viewing it from our own time. This is one of Fowles’s major tricks, to become solidary with the reader, allowing his characters a large share of ambiguity, of freedom.

Fowles is a professor of British literature. He knows Victorian literature thoroughly. He has studied in detail its plots and characters. Each chapter in The French Lieutenant’s Woman begins with a quotation from various Victorian authors. Each quotation (belonging to novels, poems, essays) is spotted by the careful eye of someone who takes notes while reading. He obviously has read Victorian literature with a mind of writing about it, of making it appealing to his students. His knowledge of Victorian writers is amazing. His novels, therefore, evince a certain pleasure of didactic organization, an ingenious plan to capture attention. He even quotes papers of the time, which shows that he has studied the society of the time, as well. The way he chooses his quotations shows sharp sensibility, a keen eye for the seducing words, and a remarkable intelligence, which throws a very clear light upon the authors used. Fowles’s novel is not only an entertaining, tantalizing, highly resourceful story, but also an invitation to read Victorian literature.

The plot of the novel is fairly uncomplicated. What makes it tantalizing is the narrative manner, the use of suspense. In short, Charles, a noble young man who expects to inherit his uncle’s fortune, is engaged to Ernestina, the daughter of a middle-class but very rich businessman. Ernestina is some ten years younger than Charles, a superficial, spoilt child. Charles is not much brighter himself, in spite of his interest in paleontology, but has a much larger doze of boredom in him. The French lieutenant’s woman is Sarah Woodruff, born of poor parents, and an ex-governess. She claims to have lost her heart and good name to a French lieutenant whose wound she took care of while he was a guest of the family that formerly employed her. She acts according to her nickname, like ‘Tragedy’ itself. She dresses in black, she takes long, solitary, dangerous walks close to the sea. Her second employment, with Mrs. Poulteney, is one more unendurable humiliation, which she accepts. Born poor, having learnt to live and enjoy things beyond her means, Sarah is the very image of impossible happiness. Charles, on the other hand, has everything she has not got, a young fiancée included, and is not any happier. It is in this light that Sarah spots him.

The atmosphere Fowles builds shows rich imagination and a real gift for novel-writing. Life is full of all sorts of thoughts, incidents, unexpected shocks. Every character has his or her own world, and they are all credible, interesting, rich. This is definitely a novel with (not without) characters, and very firmly outlined, too, if it comes to that. Sam, Charles’ manservant, for instance, is minutely described, by his deeds. He falls in love with Mary, the maid of Ernestina’s aunt (Tratner, by name), and ends by siding with Ernestina, because in the end he is to marry the maid and be helped by her mistress and Ernestina’s father.

Each destiny unfurls. As the stories intersect and build a really exciting, refined, highly intellectual plot (based on psychological analysis, that is), the author converses with us informally, brings us into the picture, talks as ‘I’ or ‘we’, and manages to make us sink into Victorianism with our 20th century minds. Remarkable debunking of tradition (so-called tradition, after all), which makes us experience the past with fresh gusto. This sequel of experiment, this Desperado game in and out of one or another time, is a remarkable discovery, but, once used, it cannot be imitated, it grows old at once. Fowles is also very hard to equal in his subtle analysis and thought, in his appealing, winning irony, in his position versus his characters, whom he both loves and mocks at.

Maybe we ought to be talking about Fowles’s mind, because it is there that everything springs from. All his novels are alert in a very intellectual way. They afford great intellectual pleasure. The reason for the novelist’s fearless presence as an ‘I’ in his pages is that he is aware of the charm of his thoughts, and is sure he can mesmerize us with them. He constantly comes up with a fresh idea, an overthrown expectation, an unexpected but very valid analysis.

Charles breaks his engagement to Ernestina. Sam and Mary get married and settle down comfortably in London. Mrs. Poulteney, who was a tyrant for all her servants while she was alive (Sarah included), dies and goes to hell – contrary to all her high expectations – in a very humorous scene, where we are taken straight to the realm after death. Here it is:

...Mrs. Poulteney died within two months of Charles’ last return to Lyme. Here, I am happy to say, I can summon up enough interest to look into the future – that is, into her after-life. Suitably dressed in black, she arrived in her barouche at the Heavenly Gates. Her footman – for naturally, as in ancient Egypt, her whole household had died with her – descended and gravely opened the carriage door. Mrs. Poulteney mounted the steps and after making a mental note to inform the Creator (when she knew Him better) that His domestics should be more on the alert for important callers, pulled the bellring. The butler at last appeared.
‘I am Mrs. Poulteney. I have come to take up residence. Kindly inform your Master.’
‘His Infinitude has been informed of your decease, Ma’m. His angels have already sung a Jubilate in celebration of the event.’
‘That is most proper and kind of Him.’ And the worthy lady, pluming and swelling, made to sweep into the imposing white hall she saw beyond the butler’s head. But the man did not move aside. Instead he rather impertinently jangled some keys he chanced to have in his hand.
‘My man! Make way. I am she. Mrs. Poulteney of Lyme Regis.’
‘Formerly of Lyme Regis, ma’m. And now of a much more tropical abode.’
With that, the brutal flunkey slammed the door in her face. Mrs. Poulteney’s immediate reaction was to look around, for fear her domestics might have overheard this scene. But her carriage, which she had thought to hear draw away to the servants’ quarters, had mysteriously disappeared. In fact everything had disappeared, road and landscape (rather resembling the Great Drive up to Windsor Castle, for some peculiar reason), all, all had vanished. There was nothing but space – and horror of horrors, a devouring space. One by one, the steps up which Mrs. Poulteney had so imperially mounted began to disappear. Only three were left; and then only two; then one. Mrs. Poulteney stood on nothing. She was most distinctly heard to say ‘Lady Cotton is behind this’; and then she fell, flouncing and bannering and ballooning, like a shot crow, down to where her real master waited.

The excerpt above proves quite a number of qualities. First of all, Fowles’s first-hand irony. Second, his affectionate smile, which prevents him on all occasions from slipping into bitterness. Third, a mobile, mocking imagination, which winks at us from the corner of the page, saying, ‘If you do believe in God, do not take me seriously, you can easily see I am joking. And if you do not...If you do not... well... so much the better.’ Last but not least, Mrs. Poulteney’s end is a great emotional satisfaction to all those who have followed her while she was unjust, tyrannical, whimsical, mean and hypocritical to her friends and servants alike. While she was slowly turning Sarah into a victim of society.

Which brings us to the two main destinies of the book: Sarah and Charles. In fact, very satisfactorily for all tastes, Fowles indulges our expectations by offering the two endings. One is the conventional Victorian happy end: Charles marries Tina and they live happily ever after. Although Charles was disinherited by his uncle, who got married in the meantime, and has to depend almost entirely on Tina’s money (which he – Charles – hates), and even go into her father’s business (even more repulsive to a noble idler and traveller like himself).

The second ending is in fact the one we relish, and which baffles us. Charles is deprived of his fortune. Under Sarah’s repeated attacks on his sensibility, he forms a growing physical and spiritual attachment to her, of which he professes to be unaware at first. Sarah knows exactly what she wants. She wants him. She acts as a victim of everything and everyone. She is helpless and will die unless she is saved. Tina is spoilt, independent and simple-minded. Sarah is shrewd, destitute, victimized and endlessly complicated. And Charles has a feeble mind. He falls in the trap. Fowles is happy to be able to mock at him. By making us sympathize with his refuted love, he mocks at our romance-devouring instinct, too.

What happens, in fact? Charles helps Sarah leave Lyme Bay, but she instantly informs him where she is. She stages a perfect situation to make him go to bed with her. Upon which he discovers she is a virgin. No French lieutenant. Now she tells him the truth. She did go to give herself to that man, but found him with another woman, so that was that. On top of it all, Sarah disappears right after their first night. Charles sends Sam with a letter to her, offering her the social status she may have wanted. Sam betrays him, takes the letter (and a brooch) to Aunt Tratner, and thus breaks their communication. Inexplicably, for a good fifty pages, Sarah is lost.

When Charles finds her again (helped by Sam, although Charles never learns that), she is living with the family of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She has a daughter by Charles, but will have nothing to do with him. Our taste for love stories is utterly smashed. No alternative is left. Suddenly all characters crumble under the burden of their author’s ruthless irony. They become uninteresting. A question lingers, though: Do they really?...

What is it that in the last few chapters makes Fowles shatter his own novel, as he does with The Magus, The Collector and the rest? His novels, all of them afford a maximum of pleasure while we read. The satisfaction dies when the end is pronounced. Not only the emotional, but also the intellectual joy dies. It is as if Fowles had emptied his cup and will not take the trouble of filling it up again. It seems a pity. Lawrence Durrell, a Desperado, too, much older than Fowles though, does the same. Which proves they both suffer from the same disease. Although Desperado literature takes pride in isolation and utmost originality, this disease is catching. One of its signs is apparent here.

The age of experiment has left writers with the desire to shock. Durrell keeps us in a permanent state of dazzled amazement. Fowles is more relaxed, softer, but he insinuatingly does the same. Only he does it in a science-fiction way. He is present in two places at once: in and out of the novel. One of the last chapters (55) is significant. Charles is going to London, in his desperate search for Sarah. On the way there, he bumps into (would you believe it?) Fowles himself. Here is their alienating encounter:

‘The latecomer muttered a ‘Pardon me, sir’ and made his way to the far end of the compartment. He sat, a man of forty or so, his top hat firmly square, his hands on his knees, regaining his breath. There was something aggressively secure about him; he was perhaps not quite a gentleman... an ambitious butler (but butlers did not travel first class) or a successful lay preacher (...) A decidedly unpleasant man, thought Charles, and so typical of the age – and therefore emphatically to be snubbed if he tried to enter into conversation.’

The latecomer is the writer himself, who does not know how to end his novel:

‘Now the question I am asking, as I stare at Charles (...): what the devil am I going to do with you? I have already thought of ending Charles’ career here and now; of leaving him for eternity on his way to London. But the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open, the inconclusive ending; and I preached earlier of the freedom the characters must be given.’

So, the author throws a coin into the air, catches it and lets hazard decide. After which the train reaches the station, Charles gets off, followed by the bearded man, who disappears in the crowd.

The constant dialogue between author and readers begins as a prank, continues as a trick and ends in the form of a concentrated essay. It is obvious that in this procedure fiction, lyricism and essay mix. The frontiers between one literary genre and the other vanish. Fowles will refrain from nothing to catch our eye. Not our sympathy, though. He is not keen on our liking his heroes. I should even say he does not like them himself. What he loves about them is that they are all ‘figments’ of his imagination. Aside that, he is rather amused at them. He snubs them all the time. He makes the other characters gossip about one or another. He does so himself. He takes us into his confidence. But if he does not believe in his characters, we wonder who will? Here is one major feature of Fowles’s game: he undermines himself. He places dynamite under his own plot. Who is to blame then, if at the end of this baffling novel all readers run astray? If we fail to follow the story on and on in our minds, when Fowles himself has taught us that our minds are so unpredictable, unreliable? That he can snap his fingers and change the course of the novel just like that?

The game toys with the idea of game, and this is pure Desperado inventivity. Fowles is one of the authors for whom his work is not sacred. He has a delicious flexibility, which works as long as his reader is diligent, willing to go back to his text again and again. Rereading is easy with his novels. They are intellectually so entertaining, so full of a life of the mind, that there is no moment of dull rest. Only, once we have stopped reading or rereading the text, the book vanishes from our minds, which is a proof that Fowles writes books of ideas, not of action. We remember the flow. Even though the action seems to have kept us so alert, we tend to forget most incidents as minor details. Instead of the solid Victorian plot (think of implacable Dickens), we are left with an intriguing web, a lace of somersaults. Fowles outbids Fowles.



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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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