Wormholes--Reviewed by Professor James Aubrey
Note: James Aubrey is a professor of English at
Metropolitan State College of Denver. His 1991 book John
Fowles: A Reference Companion contains the most detailed
biography of Fowles to date, along with explanatory notes
about obscure details and references in all of Fowles' novels
(available from Greenwood Press, www.greenwood.com). Aubrey
has also edited a collection of essays titled John
Fowles and Nature: Fourteen Perspectives on Landscape.
The following is his review of John Fowles' book Wormholes.
Readers sometimes wonder what ever happened to John Fowles.
His first three novels were best sellers, The French Lieutenant's
Woman at #1 for six months. His later novels were less
popular, from Daniel Martin's Anglo-American social
realism to A Maggot's uncategorizable hybrid of mystery
and history that seems to docu-dramatize an abduction by aliens
in the eighteenth century. Since 1986, Fowles hasn't published
His new collection of essays, Wormholes, does not
constitute a comeback, exactly, but it shows that he can still
write remarkably intelligent essays, most of them as quirky
as his novels (or his titles). The collection ranges across
his career, from some of his most recent work to pieces from
the 1960s, from autobiography and occasional writing to philosophical
meditations and literary criticism. Together the essays reveal
a fascinating mind at work, eccentrically English yet at the
same time transatlantic, even global in outlook, and typically
engaged with vital issues.
This is a John Fowles that most of his admirers won't know,
although they might have guessed at his green-left politics
and feminism from his fiction, and might have expected essays
like this from a writer whose best-known novel is as much
a commentary on Victorian life as it is a love story. Wormholes
is a personal look at twentieth century life by a writer who
is curious about everything--and wants others to wonder, too.
He thinks hard, and he demands a lot of his audience, who
may find daunting his casual assumption that readers know
John Clare as well as they know Henry David Thoreau, for example,
or that they know Calvados from scrumpy. The essays are never
easy but are always intriguing.
And just who is Fowles? He describes himself as a magpie
in one piece, which turns into an essay on the unsystematic
way he reads. Another essay describes what he was thinking
about, even dreaming about when he was writing The French
Lieutenant's Woman, including the way a nearly-forgotten,
black, female character from an obscure French novel seems
to have emerged from his unconscious as a white woman in a
black cloak standing on the Lyme Regis breakwater staring
across the English Channel toward France. In "Greece"
Fowles vividly recalls the island of Spetses, which became
the setting for his novel The Magus. France, too,
he says, helped form who he is, partly via Sarte and Camus
and French studies at Oxford University.
Fowles declares himself to be "English, not British"
in a 1964 essay, and he elaborates on what that means in a
discussion of Robin Hood, whose practice of hiding in the
woods Fowles sees as quintessentially English behavior, equivalent
to hiding one's feelings from others--the classic English
reserve that outsiders cannot penetrate. What he means by
British behavior includes flag waving and empire building,
a topic he returns to in a withering critique of the 1982
war over the Falkland Islands. American culture, too, comes
in for its share of criticism in his pre-feminist critique
of Hollywood starlets--and the men besotted with them. It
may be in his eclecticism as a critic of culture that Fowles
is most like a magpie.
More than one-third of Wormholes is made up of essays
on literary figures--not potted biographies or textbook introductions,
but intelligent treatments with an attitude. Who but Fowles
would seriously argue that medieval poet Marie de France was
the first woman novelist? After reading the essay, who would
want to deny it? In a piece inspired by a Harvard psychiatrist's
musings about creativity, Fowles speculates about Thomas Hardy's
obsession with a lost love. In another essay, Fowles meditates
on his only meeting with William Golding, over lunch, and
on the notion of author as celebrity. Or Fowles shows why
we read Kafka, writing perversely about how little he can
remember of Kafka's novels. Or Fowles pleads for a revaluation
upward of D.H. Lawrence, whose reputation has so declined
in the last half of this century. Indeed, Fowles' literary
criticism is sometimes reminiscent of Lawrence's Studies
in Classical American Literature, with its strong readings
of work by other writers.
Perhaps the heart of the book is in the writing about nature.
"Weeds, Bugs, Americans" criticizes our preoccupation
with herbicides and insecticides (if you're proud of your
lawn, you won't like this one). "The Blinded Eye"
urges us to see nature poetically rather than sentimentally
or scientifically, drawing from Zen Buddhism to show us how.
In "The Nature of Nature" Fowles verges on mysticism,
where wild nature is not only to be known or felt but somehow
experienced as a heartbeat, sensed as a "strange otherness"
that generates joy in a green universe.
Wormholes could not include all the non-fiction
Fowles has written, but one exclusion that surprises me is
The Tree, Fowles' meditation on woods and gardens,
writing and walking--perhaps his best work and surely a centerpiece
of his thinking. The Tree is long but no longer than
Islands, which is included in its entirety. The
Tree has much more in common with the other essays grouped
as writing about "Nature and the Nature of Nature"
than does Shipwrecks. I can only suppose that Fowles
and his editor, Jan Relf, decided that The Tree had
been often enough re-printed or anthologized that it might
be omitted here.
Wormholes reminds us how good a writer Fowles is.
Will he write any more fiction? In the last section of the
book, he tells Dianne Vipond that he is working on a novel
to be set in the Balkans, with a female protagonist. However,
he downplayed the prospect of another novel during his recent
visit to the U.S. For the time being, Wormholes will
have to satisfy most readers, but it should do so--whether
they are hopeful or just curious.
a signed first edition--or a special
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Wormholes, visit our First
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