written around the 16th or 17th March?
Years and years and years ago, I read all the novels by John Fowles.
I was introduced to his work via The French-Lieutenant’s Woman in a first year English literature undergraduate class, and I was hooked. I remember reading Daniel Martin and enjoying it in the brief two and a half years between university and starting this blog, and there is a brief, dismissive, review of A Maggot in one of the first posts I put up here, summarising books I’d read in the previous few months.
The memories I’ve retained of A Maggot are more positive than this little comment would have led me to expect, but – still – I haven’t opened a book by John Fowles since early 2013 at the latest.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. At my grandmother’s wake in the Autumn of 2014, I stole a copy of the revised edition of The Magus from a clearly bought-by-the-metre decorative bookshelf in the function room of a provincial hotel. The book would have a better future with me than it would on that shelf, I reasoned, and it has done. That book travelled with me to Spain for six months and then even flew over the Atlantic, too. Soon, I imagine, I’ll read it.
Because I have remembered that I love the writing of John Fowles.
I’ve never read any of Fowles’ non-fiction before, so the reminder that it exists (I found Wormholes, a 1998 selected essays, in a secondhand bookshop a few weeks ago) is somewhat exciting: there are at least two more (I think) book-length texts by Fowles for me to one day read fresh. And there’s that copy of The Magus in my book chest (yes, I have a book chest, of course I have a book chest) with all its exciting revisions.
It’s been so long – almost thirteen years – since I read The Magus the first time around, that I won’t be comparing the revised text with the original, I’ll instead be comparing the impression left by its narrative on an ageing bald man with the impression left by its narrative on the young, floppy-haired, optimistic, beautiful and fucking naive Scott Manley Hadley of over a decade ago.
I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it, but I’m scared I won’t.
I always seem to have been a better judge of books than I have been of people.
Wormholes is a selected essays, so though there are themes and ideas (and even anecdotes!) that recur in these texts collected from across 30 plus years, there is no true link between them other than their shared writer.
Some of the essays are short (one is less than a page) and the longest is about 40 pages, but most of the 30ish pieces are about 10 pages. The right length for an essay, I suppose: enough time to get into a topic but not too long to go deep enough to leave the reader distracted or bored.
There are topics here that I found less interesting (Fowles was a naturalist with pro-wildlife opinions, yawn), but there is a clear and [written equivalent of] vocal effort to avoid the trad chauvinisms of his age and class (Oxford educated, born entre–deux–guerres) which means that – for me at least – Wormholes is a more comfortable read than it might have been.
There are great pieces on DH Lawrence, on the history of shipwrecks, on the Sicily Isles, on Conan Doyle, Kafka, on the Falklands War, on the problems of “Britishness”, on writing, on having novels adapted for the screen, and other things I’ve probably forgotten in the swirl of everything changing as we adapt to coronavirus.
I enjoyed it, though there were enough pieces I wasn’t that excited by for the book as a whole to take me longer to read than a longer, more exciting, book would’ve done.
But that’s a minor gripe. It was fun, enjoyable, interesting. And, of course, society is collapsing around me, which makes literary pleasure all the more important to find…
Send free money to Scott Manley Hadley.