Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

John Fowles’ beguiling literary art

Undoubtedly one of the great exponents of the novel in English, recently deceased John Fowles, wrote novels that, in addition to gripping narratives, integrated many insights and elements from disciplines such as natural science and psychoanalysis, sometimes in such a manner that these elements functioned as drivers for narrative action.

A case in point is his use of ‘hazard’ (risk, chance, unforeseeability) in his anti-Bildungsroman, The Magus, to integrate the events that befall the anti-hero, Nicholas, on the one hand, while also playing the role of an explanatory principle which extends from quantum mechanics to human decision-making. Put differently: just as in quantum mechanics – contrary to everything one experiences in ordinary, everyday social or physical reality – events demonstrably happen ‘without a cause’, that is, without any apparent, assignable cause, so, the novel would have us believe, even our best efforts to exercise ‘control’ over our lives are in vain. For this reason, the novel also shows in narrative terms, one cannot ever say that one has really ‘learned’ anything from experience (as Nicholas believes he can, only to be proved wrong every time), because it is an illusion that we could ever know the structure of experience in a predictable way.

Fowles also frequently employs trauma of some kind, or, to put it in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ineffable, supra-symbolic ‘real’ as narratological principle. In ‘The Magus’ there is the putative ‘suicide’ of Nicholas’s erstwhile girlfriend, as well as the ‘trial’ that he is forced to undergo, both of which instantiate what Lacan (in Seminar XI) calls ‘missed encounters’ that Nicholas has with the ‘real’. In brief, what this means is that one has an experience with something ‘one knows not what’ – as in the case of a serious motor car accident, a rape, an assault or the sudden loss of a loved one – which one typically tries, over and over, to comprehend, to the point of repeating certain words or phrases over and over, in a desperate attempt to grasp what has happened, but in vain. The ‘something’ eludes one, despite being subject to (what Freud called) the repetition compulsion.

In two of his later novels – ‘Daniel Martin and A Maggot’ (just as examples; this also goes for his other novels) – Fowles’ novelistic genius singles out specific events that signify the ‘real’ in such a pervasive, fundamental manner that, without them, the narrative would probably appear arbitrary and contrived. In Daniel Martin a vicarious brush with death, on the part of the young Dan, when a rabbit gets caught in the blades of a harvester, makes such an impression on him that he involuntarily, compulsively recalls it under specific circumstances when he is much older.

Similarly, an experience that he and a fellow student at Oxford, Jane – whose sister he goes on to marry – unexpectedly have with the rotting corpse of a murdered woman when they inadvertently come across it in the reeds while going up a river in a punt, triggers what may seem at the time like an inexplicable sexual act between them when they get back to Dan’s flat. This turns out, much later in the narrative, to have been the factor – an unassimilable kernel of the ‘real’ – that Jane’s husband and erstwhile friend of Dan’s, Anthony, could not ever come to terms with in his marriage with Jane (who confessed it to him before they wed), although he never brought it into the open.

And when Anthony, a well-known Oxford philosopher by then, contracts a deadly cancer, persuades Dan (who has become a moderately famous Hollywood scriptwriter) to see him before he dies, and commits suicide immediately after Dan’s departure – having finally made peace with Dan and himself – the (largely repressed) trauma of his death has other unforeseen consequences that I won’t divulge here, lest I spoil the novel for those who are interested in reading it (after reading this).

Why is this the case, one might ask. Why does certain kinds of experiential encounters affect human beings so deeply that a novelist – most exceptional novelists or playwrights, I would argue – can seize upon such fictional (or fictionalised) experiences so graphically and forcibly that they become the ‘quilting points’ (a Lacanian metaphor) around which the narrative threads are persuasively stitched together? What is the compelling connection between experiencing the impenetrable presence of death, sex, and the ‘real’ for example?

It is no accident that Freud posited Eros and Thanatos – the life-drive and the death-drive – as being fundamental to all human culture, the former being at the basis of all ‘constructive’ activities, from sex through art to constructing a dwelling, and the latter lying at the basis of aggression as well as conservative ‘returns’ to the familiar. Life and death are intertwined: from the time one is born (a result of sex), one can (and must unavoidably) die, and yet, ‘what’ life and death are, is in the realm of the ‘real’, which transcends language. This is why, as Shakespeare said through Hamlet, death “puzzles the will”.

This insight, by the way, lies at the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, completed just before he died – that masterly neo-noir of 1999, Eyes Wide Shut – where the doctor’s encounter with the unassimilable ‘real’ of his wife’s desired (albeit not actualised) sexual encounter with a sailor is so traumatic that it impels him to seek out a prostitute, but is fortuitously prevented from going through with his intention. The link between sought sex and unavoidable death presents itself when he returns there sometime later, and is informed by her friend that she was diagnosed as being HIV positive. His macabre adventure at the exclusive, masked orgy similarly implicates death – again no accident; Kubrick makes it very clear why this is a film noir.

To return to Fowles, this time to what is probably his most enigmatic (and perhaps also most inventive) novel – A Maggot (one meaning of which is ‘whim’) – sex and death again prove to comprise the primordial scenario where the elusive ‘real’ manifests itself in paradoxical fashion – ‘paradoxical’ because it ‘shows itself as that which does not show itself’ (in intelligible form). But this time a different kind of manifestation of the ‘real’ is worked into the narrative: apart from using multiple narrative perspectives on narrated events (on the basis of which the reader has to reconstruct, as best they can, what actually ‘happened’), what is arguably the most significant ‘event’ is presented in such a way that one gets a tangible feeling for the impossibility of the hermeneutic horizon of these early 18th-century people to accommodate an experience of something that could only be perceived by them as ‘devil’s work’.

In contrast, from a twentieth, or twenty-first century point of view, one cannot avoid reading their uncomprehending account of what was witnessed as a so-called ‘UFO’ experience- a ‘close encounter of the third kind’, as Spielberg might say, even if one has to see ‘through’ the distorting lenses of the varied accounts, which inescapably rely on the familiar to describe the alienating unfamiliar.

Here is perhaps Fowles’ most original literary invocation of the Lacanian ‘real’: something that was encountered in such a way that it was not ‘really’ encountered at all, but instead reduced to the most abominable caricature by imposing the strictures of a woefully limited language on an ineffable ‘(non-)experience’. And this ‘experience’ is what arguably drives the entire narrative in all its variegated linguistic and temperamental diversity, (perhaps just) enabling the enterprising and persevering reader to piece together the pieces of this delightful fictional literary puzzle.

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