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 …