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John Fowles

The last day of March, 1926, marks the birthday of novelist John Fowles.  He was born the son of Robert Fowles, a prosperous cigar merchant, and Gladys Richards Fowles in Leigh-on-Sea, a small town 40 miles from London in Essex County, England.  Of growing up in his community, Fowles recalled "A small town dominated by...the pursuit of respectability.  The rows of respectable little houses inhabited by respectable little people had an early depressive effect on me, and I believe that they partly caused my intense and continuing dislike of mankind en masse.  I like sparse populations and sparse meetings."

Fowles spent four years at Oxford, where he discovered the writings of the French existentialists.  He especially admired Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose writings supported his own ideas about conformity and the will of the individual.  He received a degree in French from Oxford in 1950 and began considering writing as a career.

For the next decade-and-a-half, he worked as a teacher at the University of Poitiers in France and at a boys' school at Anargyrios College on the Greek island Spetsai.  There he met his future wife, Elisabeth Whitton, whom he married in 1956.  In England, Fowles continued teaching at Ashridge College (1953-54) and at St. Godric's College (1954-63) while writing on the side.  Finally, after discarding more than a dozen manuscripts, he published his first novel, The Collector (1963), which he'd worked on for more than 13 years. 

It's the story of a butterfly collector who abducts a young woman and keeps her prisoner in his basement while trying to win her love.  The book received great reviews and became a bestseller and was translated into more than ten languages.

Fowles produced The Aristos, a collection of philosophical thoughts and musings on art, human nature, and other subjects, the following year.  In 1965, he published The Magus--drafts of which Fowles had been working on for over a decade.  Among the seven novels he'd published by that time, The Magus generated the most interest with the public, becoming something of a cult novel, especially in the U.S.

Paralleling Shakespeare's The Tempest and Homer's The Odyssey, it's the story of an epic quest revolving around the dilemmas created by freedom, hazard, and various ethereal uncertainties.  Fowles compared it to a detective story because of the way it teases the reader: "You mislead them ideally to lead them into a greater truth...it's a trap which I hope will hook the reader."

Apparently, he was right.

"One of the great fallacies of our time is that the Nazis rose to power because they imposed order on chaos.  Precisely the opposite is true - they were successful because they imposed chaos on order.  They tore up the commandments, they denied the super-ego, what you will.  They said, 'You may persecute the minority, you may kill, you may torture, you may couple and breed without love.'  They offered humanity all its great temptations.  Nothing is true, everything is permitted." - from The Magus

Fowles has since published many more wide, sweeping novels, including The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), which resembles a Victorian novel in structure and detail while pushing the traditional boundaries of narrative in a very modern manner.  The winner of several awards, it was made into a popular film starring Meryl Streep in the title role. 

They stopped.  He stared at the black figure, "But I'm intrigued.  Who is this French lieutenant?"
"A man she is said to have . . ."
"Fallen in love with?"
"Worse than that."
"And he abandoned her?  There is a child?"
"No.  I think no child.  It is all gossip."
"But what is she doing there?"
"They say she waits for him to return." - from The French Lieutenant's Woman

In 1988, while writing his latest novel, Fowles suffered a stroke, and, during his recovery, he found that he had lost his imagination and could no longer write fiction. Ever since, he has focused on writing philosophical essays, many of which are collected in his book, Wormholes (1998).

Fowles said, "Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want."

John Fowles died at his home in 2005 at the age of 79.

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