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The Collector

by John Fowles
Little, Brown, 305 pp., $4.95

This is a fashionably contrived novel (first person accounts from two different points of view) with a durably titillating subject (beauty imprisoned by beast), fortified with well-dropped OK names. It is not compelling reading, as they say—I would willingly have quit before the halfway mark—but on the other hand, it is far easier to swallow than other, more sincere novels of the moment. Naturally, people are talking about it. “Not a page which does not prove that its author is a master story teller,” says Alan Pryce-Jones, late of the TLS; “superb…sinister”—Time; a Detroit reviewer hails it as “pure excellence”; Gloria Vanderbilt confesses that “its impact is such that, once read, it becomes part of you.”

In spite of the suggestion that this is masterful story telling, The Collector is not notably strong on plot or development; it is, however, good as ventriloquism, and as a compendium of handy cultural references it is a bargain at the price. There is another novel on the best-seller list that makes a big fuss about what’s OK, though it presents it upside down and backwards; Mr. Fowles modestly gives it to us straight—or at least, since we don’t know anything much about him (no one has yet, so far as I know, acclaimed him the most intelligent man in England), we are free to judge him by what he offers us.

What is that? A confrontation between exemplars of two classes, or at any rate, two extremities of the comprehensive British middle class. A lower-middle-class chap, mind warped by an unlucky childhood (pp. 5-7), is suddenly given the means (large sum won in a lottery) to fulfill chastely kinky fantasies of kidnapping and keeping in luxurious captivity a young girl of higher rank than his own. He buys a remote country house, fits out a cellar room (one-time priest’s hole, of course) with orange carpet, gramophone, camp toilet, and other comforts, seizes the girl on her way home from the movies, and installs her. All goes rather smoothly, considering, though she makes it plain that she despises him for being so common.

Psycho man tells his version of the story in terms with which Wain, Braine, Sillitoe, et al. have acquainted us—they are far from authentic, but are properly suggestive. (Fowles may well set a lot more store by his mimetic accomplishments than his “thriller” plot.) “Nice” is the kidnapper’s term of approbation, vomit (n.) is “the sick,” he is easily “really shocked,” has bad taste in interior decoration, etc. (But then, he’s a butterfly collector too, a cue perhaps from Nabokov. There isn’t much in the way of chic decor missing from The Collector. Even its epigraph is in Provençal; I’m not sure what it means.)

The man carries the narrative (a tedious succession of days in dungeon jolted by a couple of escape attempts and an abortive seduction scene—virgin on the offensive) close to its conclusion; at which point the prisoner (Miranda) takes over and tells the tale in her (middle-middle-class tending towards upper-middle) breathy terms. Like this. Not real sentences. Phrases instead. But set in paragraphs. Since not much is happening in jail, she dwells at length on recollections of the vie bohème from which she’s been snatched, and what she’ll do after she’s let go. Warped man (real name Frederick, but he calls himself Ferdinand, a mere coincidence, since he is not well-read; Miranda goes one further—and calls him Caliban) has last chapters to himself: Miranda dies of pneumonia and another crime is seen, the size of a man’s hand, on the horizon as we close the book and get a last look at its nifty trompe I’oiel jacket.

That’s about it. A thriller without a real killer, since he didn’t really mean any harm. The fault was in the stars that ordained the class system. But the plot isn’t the point; The Collector’s real meat is what makes it so much This—or things being what they are, Last Year in Upper Bohemia: the culture bit. In the course of 304 pages (I give Fowles high marks for keeping his book brief) we have some seventy-five components of a complete how-to-be-with-it kit. A random sampling: Catcher in the Rye (3 references), John Bratby, Vogue, House and Garden, The Vale of Health, Emma (in fact, the heroine remarks, “I am Emma”), Victor Pasmore, Shostakovich, Augustus John, Gauguin, Matisse (twice), Henry Moore (twice), Graham Sutherland, Hiroshima, Constable, Ravi Shankar, Samuel Palmer, Blake, Anne Frank, Sir Thomas Beecham (bad), Bach (good—but more of this later), Mondrian, Anadyomene (“exit Anadyomene. Who’s she? I asked. He explained.”), Michelangelo’s David, Goya’s etchings, Bartok’s Music for Percussion and Celesta, the Goldberg Variations, raga, Dylan Thomas, Sense and Sensibility. Save the Children Fund, The Old Man of the Sea, Alan Sillitoe (a two-page book report on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Dante, The Tempest, Picasso (twice), Modern Jazz Quartet, Vanbrugh, Mozart, Cezanne, Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, the Lilywhite Boy (Auden? or Mother Goose?), Jackson Pollock, Berthe Morisot, Aldermaston, Major Barbara, Slade School—a pretty heady climate of haute vulgarisation. It is hard to see how all this could ever be part of one person. Oh, and an item I forgot: “After a while he said: you’ve read Jung? No, I said,” So much for Jung! So much for The Collector—an eclectic collection indeed.

But perhaps it would be fairer to give a few specimens of Mr. Fowles’s thinking in context; or anyway, Miranda’s thinking—though actually the sayings of Miranda’s painter friend G. P. (even Mum and Dad are referred to as M and D) come as close as we are likely to get to Fowles unmasked. “I hate scientists,” says Miranda, “people who collect things and classify them and give them names and then forget all about them. That’s what people are always doing in art…” On the class struggle: “I hate the uneducated and the ignorant…I hate all ordinary dull little people who aren’t ashamed of being dull and little. I hate what G. P. calls the New People, the new-class people with their cars and their money and their tellies and their stupid vulgarities and their stupid crawling imitation of the bourgeoisie…” Or try this, and note the semi-colon that provides the exquisitely well placed throb of vulgarity: “I clear my throat to show myself that everything’s normal. It’s like the little Japanese girl they found in the ruins of Hiroshima. Everything dead: and she was singing to her doll.” And here is G. P. himself: “Do you think Rembrandt got the teeniest bit bored when he painted? Do you think Bach made funny faces and giggled when he wrote that? Do you?” That being the Goldberg Variations, later described as follows: “Moon-music, so silvery, so far, so noble…beautiful silver sadness, like a Christ face…I would have gone to bed with him (G.P.) that night…not for his sake, but for being alive’s.” (Again, dig that syntax.) Having got as far as Bach, let’s go to the next step: “I’ve been sitting here and thinking about God. I don’t think I believe in God any more. It is not only me. I think of all the millions who must have lived like this in the war. The Anne Franks. And back through history.”

But why break butterflies on wheels? Meretricious and impertinent as it is, The Collector is a harmless book, mainly because one feels certain that Fowles doesn’t mean much of it. I doubt he will have told interviewers that his novel is really about the struggle between the Id and the Ego, or represents man in a godless universe. What is really worrying is the work of all the honest, earnest, even intelligent and feeling souls who are writing longwinded novels one can’t get past page seven of. How is it that evidently sensible people should spend their spiritual capital in this manner? Fowles, at any rate, is not living beyond his means. In that sense, his book is not dishonest, and he has done well by it. But I’m sorry to see, in a newer photograph than the one on the bookjacket, that the author has grown a beard. On the horizon, size of a man’s hand, one sees a career in the making.

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