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Best-Selling English Author John Fowles Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

John Fowles, 79, the best-selling author of such erotic and enigmatic novels as "The Collector" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman," died Nov. 5 at his home in Lyme Regis, on England's southwest coast. He had a stroke several years ago and suffered from heart problems.

Mr. Fowles's books were richly ambitious in scope, style and structure. His chief theme, individual freedom, was laced into novels of tantalizing depth that he filled with passages of sex, longing and historical accuracy.

An obscure and impoverished English teacher, he became financially independent with his first published book, "The Collector" (1963), about a wealthy psychopath who kidnaps a young woman. He fumed at those who saw the book as principally a sex-tinged suspense yarn, insisting: "It's symbolic, it's an allegory. . . . I'm trying to show that our world is sick."

With each passing book, he became more comfortable with ambiguity in his endings, a characteristic found in "The Magus" (1966), a novel of psychological gamesmanship, and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969), a Victorian romance that also satirizes the literary style of that era with an omniscient modern-day commentator who occasionally intrudes.

The link between creativity and sexuality was also a preoccupation, evident in his published journals that depict Olympian-grade lust as well as novels such as "Mantissa" (1982), which features an amnesiac writer whose therapist -- and muse -- offers a sexual cure for his problem.

"I think the drive to write fiction is mainly a Freudian one," he once told a reporter. "Male novelists, anyway, are really all chasing a kind of lost figure -- they're haunted by the idea of the unattainable female and, of course, the prime unattainable female is always the mother."

John Robert Fowles was born March 31, 1926, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in eastern England.

His father was a tobacconist, whom he called "moody and overbearing." He said his mother was "very gentle, and I feel the more creative side of me comes from her, just as my emotions come from my father."

At the elite Bedford School in London, he became "head boy" because of his academic and athletic standing and largely conformed to the power structure he came to loathe. "I was chief of a Gestapo-like network of prefects," he later said. "By the age of 18, I had had dominion over 600 boys, and learnt all about power, hierarchy and the manipulation of law."

After compulsory service in the Royal Marines, he studied at Oxford University and was captivated by such French existentialist writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. After his graduation in 1950, he taught English at a boys' school on the Greek island of Spetsai and a girls' school in London.

He described having an active fantasy life that he eventually channeled into fiction. He once said that "teaching is a good profession for a writer, because it gives him a sharp sense of futility. I am sure this is a principal drive in all artists: the effort not to waste what one is."

He wrote a dozen books -- including what he called in retrospect a "perfectly wretched" book of travel pieces on Greece -- before "The Collector" was published.

The novel concerned an impotent clerk, Frederick Clegg, who comes into a fortune, moves to a secluded estate and kidnaps his long-held desire, an art student named Miranda Grey. After jailing her in a secret chamber, he tries to win her love, and she tries to win her freedom within limits he sets.

He intended the book as a statement on material excess and the contempt he saw among the wealthy for the less fortunate.

His next book was "Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas" (1964), in which he analyzed modern life. His inspiration was the 17th-century French scientist Blaise Pascal, whose collected philosophical musings were published as "Pensees."

He followed with "The Magus," a story set on a Greek island about a schoolteacher who comes under the sway of a sorcerer. He called it "a fable about the relationship between man and his conception of God." But critics dismissed it as pretentious, and Mr. Fowles largely agreed.

"The French Lieutenant's Woman" was hailed as Mr. Fowles's masterpiece, and he called the 1981 film version, with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, the best of the filmed adaptations of his works.

Over the years, he turned out collections of short stories and essays; text to accompany books of photographs; and several more novels, including "Daniel Martin" (1977), about a failed British playwright working as a Hollywood screenwriter, and "A Maggot" (1985), a detective tale involving mysterious travelers set in 18th-century England.

Mr. Fowles largely shunned social events and spent his spare time studying gardening and working as curator and archivist of his town's museum, where he took great delight in answering letters he regarded as pompous.

"I used to get very, very sick of letters from people asking me to trace a great-great-great grandfather related to some baronet. Just clawing at social status," he once said. "It was my chief joy to write back and say he was an ostler [a stablekeeper] at the local pub and a well-known drunk."

His first wife, Elizabeth Whitton Fowles, died in 1990.

Survivors include his second wife, Sarah Smith Fowles, whom he married in 1998.

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