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May 02, 2006

Recipe for a happy marriage - don't let your spouse read your diaries: John Fowles: The Journals, Volume Two

Posted by Harry Phibbs

John Fowles: The Journals, Volume Two
edited by Charles Drazin
Pp. 463. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, 25

The novelist John Fowles, who died last year, already sounded like a grumpy old man in 1966 when everyone was supposed to be pouring out love for humanity. You might have thought he would be in good mood. We discover that he has sold the film rights for one of his books, The Magus, for 36,000. But his accountant tells him that if the taxman "got really nasty" he would only get 3,600. Understandably he is shocked that he will receive so little of his money. But on the next page he records:

feeling Marxist and contemptuous. And soiled.
On July 25th 1966 he writes:
An invitation I should normally have turned down, to do a double profile on Vanessa Redgrave and a new universal sex-object, a Raquel Welch, came as a sort of temptation to get into the world again.
But then he adds:
The magazine that is commissioning the article is an insult in itself - the egregious Cosmopolitan. This morning they wrote saying they wanted the "ordinary virile's man view" of the two girls. For "virile" read "sex crazed".
But once the film goes ahead he becomes preoccupied with arrangements for that.

The casting doesn't inspire him much. Fowles wrote on January 4th 1967:

We met Mike Caine just before Christmas. Dinner in the Terrazza. He is a thoroughly unlikeable man, so set on, and in, his stardom that his cursory obeisances towards writers and proper artistic standards in the cinema become only the more offensive.
On 29th October 1968 he goes along to the party hosted by his publishers Cape for their authors:
Edna O'Brien was also there. We are very evidently not on her list of knowable people any more. I affronted her by kissing her on the cheek when we met; and I think we affront her, or her life principle, by remaining married; or perhaps she sees me as some kind of dangerous literary rival, personifying a philosophy of permanence against her own steely determination to celebrate the very opposite. She is a treacherous woman, very much the classical siren. I watched her exerting her charms on the other men there; there is something in their eyes that is very much what must have been in Odysseus' sailors - say the word, and I'll unbind myself.
Filming for The French Lieutenant's Woman proves eventful. Meryl Streep:
walked out on a session with [the photographer, Lord] Snowdon, he took so long making up his mind. I had to take Snowdon round all the locations: not a very impressive human being, though he is polite and interested - I ended by feeling a little sorry for him, his limp, the way he is endlessly stared at and photographed himself, poor devil. Some stupid woman stood in his path with an idiot smile and demanded to know how his children were, why he hadn't brought them to Lyme.

"I sincerely hope they're working hard in class," says Snowdon, looking at his watch. One can't blame royalty, it's the high proportion of morons among their subjects who make them what they are.

The filming also gave a chance for his assessment of Harold Pinter:
Harold is at heart a dandy, I think; whence his acute sense of linguistic style and, less obviously, his truly bizarre social mask. He and Antonia stayed, when they were here, with some titled couple who have a house near Broadwindsor. In all small things he behaves like an Old Etonian: the voice, the mannerisms, everything else. Only his indifference to things rural and nature in general is Jewish still; and perhaps his obsessive neatness sartorially. There's a tiny echo of Mr Jorrocks about him: of a town fish eternally out of water.
In 1975 he is invited to Downing Street by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson's wife Mary was asked about Fowles's novels. Mrs Wilson says, very firmly:
I don't like them. Too rich for me. Too complicated. I like Arthur Hailey. He does such fine research and works it in so well. Except his last. There was too much violence. I hate violence in novels.
Later on the party goes better when Fowles encounters Michael Crawford:
Crawford puts on accents, plays his TV role of the brick-dropping innocent.
An apparent reference to Crawford's role as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

But the self pity does keep returning and as he goes into a decline he becomes more self absorbed with a greater concentration on attacking himself and his wife than transient celebrities. Fowles records in 1977:

My fifty-first birthday. Not good, I feel a growing depression; emptiness, staleness, boredom.
Skip a decade. Has he cheered up? He has not. Here we are in 1988, his wife Elizabeth is:
in a bad mood, in a temper with me and my dullness, my uselessness. I can't blame her, who wouldn't be?
I can't help feeling that allowing Elizabeth to read his diary can't have helped the marriage. She actually scrawled objections in the margins and these are printed as footnotes. For instance he says he made her go to the doctor. She writes:
You do not MAKE me. I telephone. I make my own choice.
On the death of Elizabeth's aunt, Fowles claimed that Elizabeth:
wouldn't touch her.
Elizabeth reads this, then writes in the margin:
I touched her hands. I fondled her hands. You see nothing. You feel nothing. You are inept. But imagine yourself all powerful.
Whether enjoying outstanding success, or during the later years of decline when the money ran out and the literary acclaim ceased, Fowles managed to maintain a steady gloom. A lot of his considerable talent was put to waste and his work rate declined.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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