All entries for November 2006

November 29, 2006

The Intelligence of the Clumsy.

John Fowles:
The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The intelligence of the clumsy.

John Fowles was born on the 31st March in 1926, in Essex. He studied at Edinburgh University before going to New College, Oxford, where he concentrated on getting a BA degree in French. In 1968 he moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset, which would become the setting for one of his most famous novels, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which he wrote in 1969. This novel was inspired by a novel by the French eighteenth century writer, Clare de Duras (1777 – 1828). Her novel was called Ourike and was written in 1823, when it was revolutionary, as it was seen as the first earnest attempt for an author to associate herself with a racial and national critique that she was not directly a part of. It was based in the era of the French revolution, and controversially dealt with issues of race, nationality, exile, inter-racial love and kinship. Fowles translated this novel after he had written The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in 1977, although he was undoubtedly well acquainted with it well before he published the translated version. In 1981, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was made into an award winning film, starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. Fowles died on the 5th November in 2005.

The most interesting aspect of this startlingly well-written and absorbing book is the matter of the multiple endings. Indeed, it is this that has for many people, made the book so famous, especially after the release of the 1981 film in which they cleverly managed to incorporate both of the main endings.

He provides us, at the end of the book, with three possible outcomes for our hero and heroine – the Victorian gentleman, Charles, and the mysterious, passionate Sarah. First, Charles can marry his boring and conventional fiancée, Ernestina, but their marriage will be unhappy and unfulfilling, and in this ending, Fowles makes no reference to Sarah’s fate. The second ending, the “happy” ending, sees Charles giving in to his subdued passion and having sex with Sarah, and then returning home to break off his engagement, which sees him disgraced and disowned. Meanwhile, Sarah flees to London, and Charles spends years trying to find her – eventually he does, and she is living with a house of artists, with his child. We are left with the expectation that they can find reconciliation and build a life together. The final ending, the “sad” ending, finds their reunion unhappy, and Charles finally sees how Sarah has used and manipulated him. In this version she does not tell him of the child, and the reader knows that there can be no hope for them to be happy with each other.

Fowles broaches the problem of these multiple endings in chapter fifty-five (six chapters from the end), through his authorial intervention, as he claims he takes on a character in the story, a man watching Charles sleep on a train. He says “what the devil am I going to do with you? I have already thought of ending Charles’s career here and now; of leaving him for eternity on his way to London”. He appears to discuss with the reader the problems of having these different endings, the difficulty of appearing impartial as to which is the “favourite”, or the “true” ending, as in the format of a novel, one of them MUST come first. And indeed, he did have to make this decision- the “happy” ending comes first, and the novel ends with the “sad” alternative. In light of Fowles’ freely expressed concerns in chapter fifty-five therefore, the reader is forced to ask how the order in which they are presented effects the individual’s reading. In conventional literature, it could be considered odd that Fowles chooses to end the novel on an unhappy note, when an author who was seeking to please their readers would end on a “happy” ending, with Sarah and Charles reaching an understanding and looking forward, towards the future. However, it must be remembered that simply by the technique of the double endings, the novel is breaking with “conventional literature”, and therefore does not need to conform to expectations. It is important to consider that if Fowles had ended the novel on a hopeful note, would we as readers simply have dismissed the previous unhappy conclusion in preference for something more satisfying, idealistic, and, ultimately, fictional?

This device of the multiple endings also brings up the question of authorial intervention; is this an acceptable technique in literature, does it provoke thought and critique, or is it simply laziness on the part of the author, finding an escape from the completion – whether “satisfactory” or not – of their novel? Fowles is lucky in that he has the literary skill and the clever manipulation of language that enables him to pull this off successfully, as he manages to keep a certain sense of irony in his tone that eliminates the possibility of pretension. However, it is important to remember that this has been done by Fowles, and it has been successfully; to repeat the technique again would be mere clumsiness and would show an unacceptable level of ignorance and lack of originality, and ultimately, talent.

However, it must be questioned, as to whether it is merely the talent of the author that allows the double ending to be acceptable; does the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman lend itself to a double ending? It is possible to answer in the affirmative, or at least to say that it is not a story that is adverse to the technique Fowles imposes upon it; Sarah’s constant aura of mystery, and Charles’ inability to think independently, mean that it is almost necessary for Fowles to step in and lay out the options, not only for the readers but for his characters themselves. It is almost as though he is saying to them, these are your possible paths, now you must decide which you will take. It is debatable as to whether they will be able to choose; perhaps despite Fowles’ best efforts, Charles will remain asleep on the train, and Sarah will remain lost in London, simply because they do not have the independent will to move forward. These observations lead automatically onto the question of whether this indecision is no more than an echo of the situation of the author, for he can decide for them. He is a novelist who has fallen in love with his characters and cannot bear to let them go, and places them in a limbo, refusing to allow them to live their lives if he cannot be their manipulative God.

This novel therefore raises interesting questions of the intentions of an author, and the idea that authorship is no more than a desperate, psychological need for control and power. In their novel, the author is able to create their own characters and situations and manipulate them to their own whims, making the entire facility of the imagination no more than a display of the individual victory of control and power.

However, it cannot be ignored that this is effected by the readers, for do not they have the ability to interpret the novel in their own individual way, a way that is outside of the control of the author? Therefore, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is Fowles acknowledging this weakness, or is he securing against it by detailing our possible interpretations of the ending for us – he is giving us both “happy” and “sad”. Is he therefore underestimating the intelligence and ability of independent thought of his readers? Or does he have an accurate understanding of the principle concerns of the majority of the reading public; “this is a happy story” versus “this is a sad story”.

It is important to remember when considering Fowles’ manipulation of his readers, that he is doing this throughout the novel, constantly mixing the nineteenth century stereotypes with a twentieth century perception, creating a world that would normally struggle to exist, even within the realms of fiction, as he is constantly creating twists and contradictions that again, survive only through his talent as a writer which makes the reader blind to the historical and contextual inconsistencies. Indeed, it can be argued that these even enhance the quality of the novel, as it enables a twentieth century readership to relate more closely to this novel, apparently set firmly in the nineteenth century.

Fowles’ use of endings in this novel, and the questions it raises have long been debated by critics, who endlessly attempt to find answers to the questions he raises. However, Fowles warns against this in his final sentences of the novel, where he reminds us of the fluxuating nature of the world, whether contemporary, past, real or fictionalised, and our understanding can never be truly complete, never truly resolved; “He [Charles] has at last found an atom of faith in himself; has already begun… to realise that life is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one loosing throw of the dice; bit it is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly, into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, into the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.”


November 10, 2006

Daniel.

That night she dreamt of blood flowing from his eyes and mouth, blue light flashing against his skin, and when she awoke she mistook the alarm for the bleep of the life-machine. But he was laid beside her, his skin papery and loose, though still whole and as soft as it had been when they had first met, years ago in the room of broken hearts at the community centre; here he was, the only difference that now she could imagine the nightmare, now she knew, that before the year ended, he would no longer be there in anything other than the ring that had been placed on her hand the day before, fifty years in the making.

There had, of course, been a time without him, a time when she had been happy, ignorant in the knowledge of his existence, but now she knew him, now she loved him and hated him and revolved around him. It was foolish to think she’d find a happiness again that did not involve him, that did not have her laughing with him, and taking his face between her hands and kissing him, silencing his protestations that they were too old. It was foolish to attempt to reach an understanding of what had happened, a seed planted so many years ago – five years before they met – that had only now decided to grow and flourish deep within him, and was slowly taking him away, away from her and their lives together. Perhaps it was the poison of his first marriage, perhaps it was the poison from hers, perhaps it was their punishment for their fifty years of living together, in and out of “marriage” – for they had decided years ago that that their only religion was love, and they would devote themselves to it, risking God’s unreasonable anger. But perhaps the risk had not paid off; perhaps they were now paying the awful price. But when he had asked her the day they’d heard the news, if she wished they’d done things differently, she’d pursed her lips and shook her head; no, I don’t think we’re that sort. We’d resent each other if we married.

Yet, despite that, yesterday they had spent ten minutes before lunch in the registry office, signing away their lives to each other. A last minute panic? Perhaps. He had told her that morning of a conversation he’d had with his son, and about his fear that she would be entitled to nothing after he’d gone, that his son would exact his revenge, his angry, bitter revenge. And so she had signed herself to him, and the irony did not escape her, that it was only now, when she knew he was leaving her, that she would, could, commit – until death do us part. He had, of course, been unable to get up from his wheelchair, so she too had sat, and as his hand trembled, so did hers. She watched him recite the pointless words, the loose skin dead and swaying, his hair, thinned almost to the point of non-existence; his hand, unable to grasp hers. She knew that when she spoke, her voice would be even quieter than his, for he is taking her breathe away with him.

She cannot cry. When they met, she had been told that he was “a twenty – five year old male, a university tutor in mathematics, recent divorcee with children, looking for someone who knows, and who can show me what I’m missing.” I need someone who can show me how to smile. I can’t smile, she’d told him through the tattooed tears, and he’d nodded, understanding; I need someone to show me how to cry. I’ve done everything, but I can’t cry. And so, they had taught each other, gently and gradually over their allotted fifty-year slot. They had held each other as they cried, and had kissed through smiles, unable to stop themselves. But now, she could not cry, and he could not smile. For what would they do with their tears and with smiles? Catalogue them as a reminder? A reminder that would be too painful to forget. No, the easiest thing was to ignore the lessons they’d learnt, to pretend they were two strangers, sharing a bed only from necessity.

Perhaps in the day, amidst the washing, ironing, cooking, gardening, visiting, that still needed to be done, she could do this. Perhaps she could pretend in the daylight hours, that she was a devoted wife, caring for her dying husband. Pretend that she was the nurse, and he the patient. For isn’t that what marriage had become? Isn’t that what this marriage should be? But at night, when he was feigning sleep, she could not force herself to become the caring wife, as the darkness illuminated her memories and she once again became the lover. For they did not have a marriage, they had a love affair; something passionate, something consuming, something that was about no one but the single entity that they had become. And yes, their love affair was played out on their bed, but it extended further than that, deeper, it extended to who was doing the washing up, who was going to Sainsbury’s, why couldn’t he ever manage to put the washing machine on the right cycle so that it didn’t shrink everything, and why was she never honest about how much money she spent every week? It extended to the mortgage, to the electricity bills, to the decorating and extensions, to the theatre tickets, and he had even tried to extend it to paying for his funeral.

- There’s enough there. Use the joint account to pay for everything.
- No. It’s your god – damned funeral, you can bloody well pay for it yourself.
- Janet –
- That account pays for us, Daniel. And there won’t be an us.
- But there’s a lot of money, you can’t just leave it there!
- Oh, can’t I? Well once you’ve left, I’ll be able to do what the hell I want with it, won’t I? I can leave it there to rot if I want to then, can’t I?

She had been repentant later, and had gone to him, kneeling by his chair. He had taken her head in his fragile hands, and had kissed her, and told her that only when she had stopped yelling at him, would he feel he had died. You’re dying. That was all she could say, for what else mattered, really. And he had kissed her again, and again, and again.

She looked at him now, his head nestled to the pillow, and although she knew he wasn’t asleep, she appreciated the gesture, allowing her to watch him and think, and remember, and attempt to imagine the future. It was not that she could not see how it would be like without him – she could – but what she could not bear, was that although she knew she would manage without him, she was not being given the choice. If this test, if that’s what it was, was meant to make her repentant, it did not, it made her sick and angry, and more and more in love with the thing that was slipping away from her. Like a selfish chid she was clinging to her most – loved toy, whose body she’d broken with too much love, and who was now being taken away from her, for he was no longer of any use.

Her fist clutched the pillow as she watched him.

I hate you Daniel.

He opened his eyes, looking directly into and through and within her, and she repeated herself.

I hate you Daniel. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you so much I can’t breathe. I hate you, I hate you more with each day. I hate you like I’ve hated nothing before. Daniel. Daniel. I hate you.

She knows that he knows, that he’s known from the moment they met, that he’s never questioned it, and that he will die knowing it without a single doubt.

I hate you. I hate you so much it hurts. I hate you.

He had cradled her in his arms the night they had first made love, and told her through his tears, that no matter what, no matter what life threw at them, he would never leave her, and that he loved her. He loved her so much he couldn’t breathe. He loved her so much it hurt.

Daniel.


November 2006

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