Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Ebony Tower by John Fowles

"Is this your first book?" Tom Maschler recalls asking John Fowles on reading "The Collector." "Good God, no," Fowles replied, telling Maschler he'd written 9 full novels before his "debut", two of which, Maschler disovered later, were "totally rewritten as The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman." I'd been coming back to Fowles for a while, following a couple of conversations with writer friends, and reading this anecdote in Maschler's gossipy autobiography, "Publisher". Fowles has always struck me as a polarising writer, but what is it that polarises? One of the few English writers of the sixties and seventies whose work stands up to renewed scrutiny, the polarisation appears to be betwen those earlier books, and those later less successful ones. Though there might be things to admire in his odd piece of Victoriana "A Maggot" or the misanthropic "Daniel Martin", it is those earlier books on which his reputation depends.

The novella "The Ebony Tower", thankfully belongs in the earlier camp. A young abstract painter, who also writes art criticism, has an opportunity to visit an older master in isolation in the Brittany countryside. Arriving, fortuitously, without his wife; David Williams finds that Henry Breasley is not quite alone - but attended to by 2 young nymphs, "the mouse" and "the freak," frequently found naked, and with an ambiguous relationship with Breasley, his art and his bed. The scene is set for an elegantly staged psychodrama, but the subtext is "what is art?" Breasley never forgets a painting, but is in articulate, and rude and boorish when drunk. Williams is exactly the sort of painter that Breasley has no time for. Yet Breasley represents for Williams the losing side of an argument - however great his work might have been.

In this strange menage, Williams is stripped of his pretensions, the young girl - "the mouse" - who had brought him here, (though he hardly knew that at first), leaving him with an indelible impression. Here, it seems, is life, whereas his work has abstracted itself from it. Is this the ebony tower? The contrast with the "ivory tower" ruminations of critics and intellectuals is clear. Breasley, in life, is inarticulate, but watching him paint - and Fowles provides brilliant depictions of the artist at work - all pretense falls away. Its as if the old man has escaped from the irrelevance of being "judged" according to the contemporary mores of the day and has become part of his own history - and of the history of art itself. Williams, in contrast, is as uncomplex as his everyman name, with limited talent, not just in his work, but in his life. The story is both short enough to maintain the intensity of this brief encounter, and long enough to be a psychological character study. The older Breton couple who are Breasley's housekeeper and gardener hover in the background; whilst Williams absent wife, and his life back in London becomes increasingly dreamlike as the story progresses.

Here in a small nugget of his fiction, are all Fowles strengths - his layering of meaning; his beautifully descriptive prose; his characterisation of larger-than-life, but highly believable gargoyles; and his psychological probing. Published in 1974, it was made into a film in the 80s with Lawrence Olivier, inevitably, in the Breasley role.

1 comment:

rohit said...

An enjoyable read The Collector John Fowles . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.