Truth lies at the bottom of a well, or so the proverb tells us. In the case of John Fowles’s new novel—nonpareil, for better and for worse—it lies 450 pages deep.
The book begins with a circumstantial and powerful image of five ill-assorted travelers, a “somber cavalcade,” making their way across “dull and barbarous” Devonshire moorland in the year 1736. They are—that is, at this point we are given to believe that they are—a young gentleman hastening toward his beloved in defiance of his father or “jealous guardian,” the young man’s uncle, a lady’s maid ready to attend on the beloved, a seemingly idiotic and surely deaf and dumb male servant, and a conventionally boastful old soldier, called Sergeant Farthing, whose role is to protect the company from robbers.
As the tale slowly and tortuously unfolds, we gather otherwise: that the young gentleman is seeking a cure for sexual impotence, his supposed uncle is a hired actor and the old soldier a theater doorkeeper, the deaf mute is in some metaphorical or metaphysical sense a “twin” to the gentleman. The maid, alternatively known as Fanny and Louise, is a whore rented out from a notorious London bagnio, where her affected modesty has made her a great hit. The Quaker Maid, as she is called professionally, is a figure somewhere between Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill.
But things are still not what they seem, even though they are set out in front of us in the most copious and formal detail. The greater part of the book takes the form of depositions, question followed by answer, made to the lawyer, Henry Ayscough, who is acting for an undesignated duke, father to the missing young gentleman, himself always referred to as Mr. Bartholomew. If truth doesn’t lie at the bottom of a well, then—as Donne wrote—it stands on a huge hill, cragged and steep, “and he that will / Reach her, about must, and about must go”; and the strategy adopted by Fowles, though it possesses a certain hypnotic quality, is peculiarly long-winded. Ayscough is preternaturally precise, and a good deal of repetition sets in as one by one all those involved in the mystery—all except “Mr. Bartholomew”—are summoned to the lawyer’s office to relate the story, in fragments, as they saw it, or pretend to have seen it, or heard tell of it.
Much space is given, for example, to Mr. Bartholomew’s affair of the heart, which never existed. And Ayscough himself seems chiefly concerned to establish—or conceivably to confute—sodomy as occurring between the young master and his deaf and dumb servant, Dick. The liveliest deponent, in a fine period piece on the seamy side, is Mistress Claiborne, the brothel-keeper, who describes “Fanny” or “Louise” thus:
She was no ordinary piece of flesh, but pure as Hampstead water, and must be treated so. ‘Twas miracle her custom stood for it, and came back for more…. Prude, modest sister, Miss Fresh-from-the-country, Miss Timid Don’t-tempt-me, Miss Simple—would you have more? A novel of her tricks would make a book. She was innocent as a nest of vipers, the cunning hussy. None better at whipping, when she wanted…. Such as old Mr. Justice P—, doubtless you know him well, sir, that cannot spend till first he be well thrashed and striped. With him she’d be disdainful as an infanta and cruel as a tartar, all in the same bout. Which he craved, beside.
Further documentation of the age is provided by authorial intervention, for instance on the high figures of child death, and in pages reproduced from the “Historical Chronicle” of The Gentleman’s Magazine, reporting in fuzzy print fires and trials and executions, the doings of royalty, the Porteus riots in Edinburgh (September 1736), the London street-lighting tax (those who didn’t pay their dues would forfeit the right to vote), recipes for punch, and so forth. Fowles’s linguistic pastiche is masterly; along with authorial references to Freud go such allusions as “Mr. Cibber, the poet laureate,” and such terminology as “you extravagate, sir.” We hear about children’s games called lamp-loo and tutball, primitive precursors of tag and baseball. The narrating voice informs us that
modern lovers of the second game would have been shocked to see that here it was preponderantly played by the girls (and perhaps also to know that its traditional prize, for the most skilled, was not the million-dollar contract, but a mere tansy pudding).
And we are informed, in slightly scandalized tones, that Englishwomen, of any class, were still wearing nothing beneath their petticoats.
One might write an essay on this incomprehensible and little-known fact…. French and Italian women had long remedied the deficiency, and English men also; but not English women. All those graciously elegant and imposing upper-class ladies in their fashionable or court dresses, whose image has been so variously left us by the eighteenth-century painters, are—to put it brutally—knickerless.
Greater cause for indignation lies in the condition of the denizens of a Manchester street of the time, the “pocked faces, rickety legs, malnutrition, the neck ulcers of scrofula, scurvy.” Fortunately these people weren’t aware of how much they would be pitied by a modern spectator. “Such was life, and change not imaginable; and a more fundamental principle of resilience applied. One survived as one could, or must.”
The soi-disant Mr. Bartholomew has referred to his mysterious errand as, variously, “a meeting with a learned stranger,” “a wild goose chase,” an opportunity “to play a part in history,” and a quest for “those waters that shall cure me.” He has been likened, variously, to an “anachronistic skinhead,” a sadist avant la lettre, and an equable and self-contained Buddhist monk. Fanny—or Louise, or, as we shall discover, Rebecca—is the true center of the author’s attention, and of his intention; to us her world “would seem abominably prescribed, with personal destiny fixed to an intolerable degree,” while to her our world would seem incredibly fluid and mobile,
rich in free will (if not indeed Midasrich, less to be envied than to be pitied our lack of absolutes and of social certainty); and above all anarchically, if not insanely, driven by self-esteem and self-interest.
The great climactic happening is first described by Sergeant Farthing, now revealed as a disreputable Welshman by the name of David Jones. The “uncle,” having served his turn, has been dismissed, and while the Welshman lurks on the fringe of the action, the three others enter a cavern on Exmoor, where the Devil, accompanied by witches, appears to them. The Devil copulates with the exlady’s maid, and a general orgy ensues, as a result of which the deaf-mute. Dick, runs off in terror and hangs himself. (Or is hanged by someone else.) This, however, is a total fabrication, which Rebecca Hocknell, as she is hereafter called, has told Jones, in part to frighten him into silence and in part because the truth was not for him. Fowles’s readers must long ago have wondered whether it is for them.
However, the truth, as Rebecca relates it to the disbelieving and outraged lawyer, is that Mr. Bartholomew, a student of the arcane, was in search of the waters that would cure not his impotence but his soul, and thereafter the whole world: the waters of Jordan. In the cavern Rebecca meets a father and his son—God the Father and God the Son—and also the antichrist. A huge maggot, as Rebecca terms it, “for it had a seeming head, and a tail, and was fat, and like in color,” is hovering in the air. The interior of the maggot is a palace, and when it rises and sweeps them away they pass over Bunyan’s celestial city, where there are no cripples, no sick, no beggars, no soldiers, no gaols, but people are transported on those moving pathways or mobile strips so popular in science fiction. Mr. Bartholomew remains in the maggot, presumably to return before long and play his part in redeeming the world.
It is all very well for Fowles to point out in the prologue that, besides the use of the word to signify quirk, fancy, or whim, a “maggot” is the larval stage of a winged creature. For most of us—and, I would think, for the majority of religious visionaries—it still remains a repulsive object, associated with death and decay, and remote indeed from any conception of a heavenly chariot. Yet it must be allowed that Rebecca’s account gains credibility, or her sincerity does, by departing so radically from popular tradition.
The diehard lawyer Ayscough, firm in the defense of king and class and country, senses heresy in this testimony, not merely religious heresy but its more dreadful companion, political heresy. Rebecca’s description of the “blessed land of June Eternal”—no mills, no markets, no guards, no rich garments, no one starving—draws from him the comment, “the rule of the mob. I smell it in thee.” To which she replies, as wholehearted in saintliness as she had been in whoredom: “No, it is Christian justice.” Pregnant by Dick, she has in the meanwhile married a John Lee, blacksmith and Quaker, living in Manchester; and from Quakerism she has moved to the sect of the French Prophets, or Camisards, who believe that the Second Coming is at hand. The new redeemer may well be a female; and her child, she knows, will be a girl, to be named Ann. Fowles reminds us gently that Ann Lee was the founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers. In 1774 “Mother Ann,” the “Female Christ,” left with a few followers for America, a land more hospitable toward them.
England’s “favourite and sempiternal national hobby,” we were told near the book’s beginning in one of the author’s rather schoolmasterly addresses, consists in “retreating deep within itself, and united only in a constipated hatred of change of any kind.” Fowles clarifies his meaning, and the purport of the novel, in an epilogue. Though himself an atheist, he admires the religious dissenters as men and women who exerted a revolutionary influence on their time—on its rigid conventions, its tyrannous and unjust social system, its worship of money. They were democrats (one of Ayscough’s dirty words), in some degree feminists—Rebecca horrifies the lawyer by asserting that all women are whores in that “we may not say what we believe, nor say what we think, for fear we be mocked because we are woman. If men think a thing be so, so must it be, we must obey”—and in their early stages at any rate they provoked change. Speaking of England as it is today, Fowles laments that we have become mediocre, in the modern sense of the word, by abandoning moderation and yielding to the cult of the self, “the Devil’s great I.”
That phenomenon itself, we may reckon, is part of change, the too rapid changes that are responsible for many of the country’s present discontents and disorders. Yet we must feel sympathy with the author’s closing sentence. “I mourn not the outward form, but the lost spirit, courage and imagination of Mother Ann Lee’s word, her Logos; its almost divine maggot.” For all the impressive writing, in diverse modes, that has gone before, we could wish this point had been reached earlier.
Jonathan Raban is known as a superior travel writer. In Foreign Land, his first novel, the traveler returns to his native place, Britain, barely able to recognize it. Change there has been in plenty, but not the sort of change John Fowles has spoken of.
George Grey has spent forty years abroad, latterly as a bunkerer or ship’s provisioner in Bom Porto, in Montedor, a former Portuguese colony, “one block down from Senegal,” as he explains to people who don’t know or care where Senegal is either. His reactions to contemporary Britain are authentic enough, as I know from my own feelings on returning after twenty years of absence. Smoking he finds—he is a pipe smoker himself—has become a social crime almost on a par with child rape or terrorism; which is odd when you think how filthy the streets are, how evil-smelling are such public conveniences as phone booths. Strange, too, that whereas most things have to be waited for for ages, a television set is delivered on the dot, as if nonpossession were a medical emergency; and, unlike the doctor, the repairman comes running.
Television programs are a mystery to him, all of them continually referring to others. “Do you by any chance know who a man called Russell Harty is?” he asks. He thinks he should perhaps accept the invitation to join a local video club and find out, not realizing that what the club specializes in is so-called adult viewing. And the radio (“wireless” is the word used) is hardly more comprehensible: what on earth can “rate-capping” be? The newspapers might tell him, but George belongs to a time when you could read them without having to juggle with misplaced lines of print.
His daughter, of whose babyhood he has fond memories, is a big girl now, shacked up with an illiterate though well-meaning giant, “famous as a Schweitzer of abandoned objects.” She has published a book entitled The Noblest Station, which he had supposed was a brief, sensitive novel about adolescence: it turns out to be an encyclopedia-size study of female submission in Western culture. Most of the people he meets in the unnaturally benighted Cornish village where he tries to settle down in his parents’ house are odious to the point of caricature, either suppurating pseudogentry or sullen and deceitful proletarians. And South London, he finds, is more violent than anywhere in darkest Africa.
It may have been in an attempt to preserve credibility that the author introduced the amiable Diana Pym, formerly a singer known as Julie Midnight, now chastened by experience. Little is made of her, but the reader feels grateful for her presence. More gratuitous is the account of a bleak encounter with a prostitute in Geneva, where George has gone to collect a “Christmas bonus” from the Montedorian government, deposited ten years before. Now he has a special need for the money.
An old sailor, all at sea on this foreign land, George buys an aging ketch, the Calliope, and spends days out at sea in it. There he seems physically twice the size he was; Diana observes that as he gathers in the sails he looks “like a man fighting with eagles.” It is she who recognizes that the boat is his “ark”:
When George slept in the boat he was a crucial eighteen inches—a whole world—away from Cornwall; when he dreamed, as he did almost continuously, the horizon was always empty and enormous.
Most of what we learn about his past life—home, school, navy, marriage to a silly, unfaithful wife, a mistress in Bom Porto shared with his squash partner, the Minister of Communications—comes in the shape of hallucinatory fragments in the “echo chamber” of the Calliope. Only there is it just about tolerable. George has been peculiarly unfortunate in his circle of acquaintances and relations. But then, he really is a born dupe, likable and decent, but a poor fish; he should never have crawled out of the sea.
It is when Raban is writing about the sea that the book is at its best and liveliest. Not in the least romantic—George spots the body of a suicide and apologizes when the hull bumps against it—but rough and invigorating. And also expert in technical matters: now we know exactly why a speed of one nautical mile per hour is called a “knot.” As the sea chuckles behind the Calliope and the abyss opens under the keel, the book ends with the words, “George was home and dry.” Whether he will make it back to Bom Porto is left in doubt, for there is rot in the boat’s stem which he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about. And whether he would like what he found there is equally doubtful; his friend the Minister had invited him to come back “and be a quango”—British acronym for “quasi-autonomous national government organization”—but there has since been an ugly coup in Montedor.
In its depiction of the malaise of contemporary Britain, accurate but onesided, Foreign Land is in the main a depressing experience. I think I should enjoy the sequel more, coup or no coup.
Family and Friends, from the winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, opens with a formal wedding photograph and closes with one. In between there is a sequence of photographic studies of the members of a wealthy European and (very faintly) Jewish family living in England, between prewar and postwar times. (The war itself happens offstage.) It is, I have to confess, an England I can barely recognize. These beautiful people, cosseted and cultivated, with their Mamas and Papas, their schnapps and Madeira and marzipan cake, their music and dancing, their finishing schools in Switzerland, their cigars and family businesses, seem rather to be inmates of Marienbad or Vienna around the turn of the century.
The matriarchal widow, Sofka, has named her two sons, Frederick and Alfred, after kings and emperors, and her two daughters, Mireille (Mimi) and Babette (Betty), after—it would seem—musical comedy characters: “Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt.” They don’t follow the paths she has laid down for them, but neither do they come to any great harm, to anything worse than the heartache and the shocks that all flesh is heir to. Still in the historical present, Mimi marries, safely though not gloriously; Betty gets to Hollywood, fails as an actress but marries a Hungarian maker of slightly arty TV police dramas; Frederick urbanely manages a hotel in Bordighera; the dutiful Alfred yearns, too late, for a “life of risk and impropriety.”
The technique and the flavor of Anita Brookner’s writing display themselves in passages contrasting Sofka with Evie, who is considered unsuitable, even though her father owns hotels on the Italian Riviera, when she makes a play for Frederick, his mother’s favorite, an elusive playboy or, as the author has it, “the original homo ludens.”
The traditional sort of woman in whose mould Sofka is irrevocably cast might rely on a mild and subtle influence compounded of glancing opinions, smiling obliquities, tender and persuasive flatteries, the occasional withdrawal into ancestral hauteur; these would be thought legitimate, permitted, respectable.
Sofka finds Evie noisy, untidy, charmless, and far too large, but
Evie is in fact of middle height and average weight; she has, to be sure, rather large hands, but she is not bad-looking. She is not bad-looking if you abandon all thoughts of feminine beauty in the more regular or conservative sense: Evie is not bad-looking as a member of the species. And it is as a member of the species, in those days before the lava cooled, that she is most viable.
Doomed to disaster though we might expect the marriage between Frederick and Evie to be, in the end—by one of the author’s lightly penciled ironies—it proves eminently successful, with two fine children and fatuous contentment all around.
Anita Brookner’s prose is impeccably elegant and she is unsentimental with it. The question is, how deeply can we involve ourselves with people who are described solely from the outside? Dickens combines set descriptions with the immediate presence of his characters as they interact self-revealingly with other people and with events. There is a closeness of atmosphere, almost claustrophobic, in Family and Friends, as if we were alternating between a discreetly perfumed lady’s boudoir and the smoking room of a superior gentlemen’s club.
There is no mistaking the originality as well as the skill and consistency with which the novel so beautifully conforms to its genre and its intentions. It is a relief to discover a novel with Jewish characters but no Holocaust—a novel free from the usual violence and offering sexual intimations instead of poster-painted crudities. We cannot but admire. In a sense the pictures in this album are akin to John Fowles’s juridical depositions: one admires them rather more than one enjoys them.
December 5, 1985