THE JOURNALS: Volume One: 1949-1965

By John Fowles

Edited by Charles Drazin. Knopf. 668 pp. $35

A case can be made for John Fowles as the greatest living writer of suspense novels. His first novel, The Collector (1963), borrows its plot -- young woman held prisoner in madman's cellar -- from Gothic fiction. His second, The Magus (1966, revised 1977), tasks its protagonist with penetrating a labyrinth of psychological gamesmanship on a remote Greek isle. Fowles's biggest critical and popular success, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), tantalizes the reader with a single, overriding question: Will a proper member of the British ruling class find the strength to break through the conventions that separate him from said Woman? It also features a device that not even Agatha Christie pulled from her bottomless bag of tricks: alternate endings. And his last novel to date, A Maggot (1985), centers on the decipherment of a bizarre, sexually charged ritual performed in rural 18th-century England.

But the Fowles revealed in this first volume of The Journals (a second is promised) is no fan of traditional whodunits. Rather, his favorite writers include the likes of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, of whom he admits, at the beginning of 1964, "I haven't felt so influenced for years." Fowles writes what can be loosely called mysteries not because of any allegiance to the genre but because he seems to view life as a puzzle that humans try endlessly to solve.

He was born in 1926, to middle-class parents from whom he later kept his distance because his artistry was lost on them. After graduating from Oxford, he taught at various prep schools, one of them on the island of Spetsai, which became the thinly disguised setting of The Magus. After years of toiling away at stillborn novels and unpublished poems, he earned so much from the book and film versions of The Collector and The Magus that he could dispense with teaching and all other forms of regular employment, although he has put in untold volunteer hours at a museum in Lyme Regis, where he lives.

As a diarist, Fowles practices ruthless honesty. Reading back over old entries in 1962, he reflects, "Fantastic outbursts of priggishness, of vanity, of expectations. The temptation is to suppress such blemishes. But that defeats the diary. This is, and always will be, what one was." He also believes that a writer's record of his private life should be considered part of his oeuvre: "Why not present all one's work . . . as it comes out; in years, or periods of time; short stories, fragments of plays, poems, essays, notes, criticisms, journals; the aim being a portrait of the total living artist, not a classified museum. Let the neurologists do the sorting."

One of the items neurologists might want to sort is a confession of homosexual feelings by this writer of so much woman-centered fiction. "I enjoy being with certain boys, have too many eyes for them, speak to them too often," he acknowledges in a 1952 entry from his Spetsai days. "It does not worry me; in fact, some of the young boys here, caught in that last budding year when their sexlessness makes them only more feminine, are very beautiful. . . . Not that I could ever . . . be swept away into allowing myself to seduce them. This is a thing of the spirit with me; to admit, indulge, since I see no evil in it, but not extend."

During his second year at Spetsai -- indisputably a seminal period -- Fowles fell in love with Elizabeth Christy, the wife of a new teacher. Eventually, she divorced her husband and married Fowles, with whom she stayed until her death in 1990, but the affair was exhilarating, agonizing and protracted: Elizabeth's first husband dragged out the divorce and insisted on having custody of their daughter, Anna, so that in the end Elizabeth had to choose between the man she loved and her child. Readers of Eileen Warburton's biography of Fowles know that Anna and her mother became close toward the end of the latter's life, but there is no hint of such a reconciliation in Fowles's account of the affair's progress. Like several other women in Fowles's life, Elizabeth acted as a muse. But she was also a valued editor. Warburton suggests that Fowles's Daniel Martin (1977), an autobiographical novel that got mixed reviews, reached its inordinate length because of his refusal to let Elizabeth vet it, as she had done with his previous books.

In addition to passages of self-scrutiny, The Journals are replete with apercus about writers, writing and the world at large. In 1954, the irreligious Fowles wonders: "Why does Plato's account of the death of Socrates always, always, make me cry? All the four gospels leave me cold and indifferent. It is an outrage that Jesus of Nazareth gets so much devotion, still: a monument of human stupidity, a symptom of their psychological imbalance."

On the other hand, he is willing to acknowledge that his main motive for writing is to overcome the condition that religion tries hardest to alleviate -- what he calls "nemo," from the Latin word for nobody. "Nemo -- is not this fear of inner nothingness a much more accurate definition of the psychic urge than Freud's libido or Adler's superiority-drive? Especially where writers are concerned. All writing is a reaction against nemo; most intellectuals behave in relation to certain ideals of life -- to certain ideal plans of life -- which are themselves related to the essential valuelessness of life. This is an inevitable result of death; if life was endless, there would always be a potential value in it. One day, the ideal might come. But so little time, and certain extinction, make the possession, and evaluation, of mortality the preoccupation of us all."

Fowles has repeatedly cited the influence on his work of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, a novel about a lost domain of adolescent romanticism. Devotees of Fowles's fiction might well regard the decade of the 1960s, when he produced his splendid first three novels and since which his fiction has fallen off in quantity and quality, as a kind of literary lost domain. But as Charles Drazin points out in his introduction, "To an extent, the diary itself supplanted a future novel by becoming [Fowles's] major literary preoccupation," especially after the death of Elizabeth.

One of Fowles's great consolations has always been the natural world. (For me, his masterpiece is not any of his novels but the text he added to Frank Horvat's photographs for their collaboration on The Tree (1979), an extended piece of artful environmental advocacy.) At one point on Spetsai, he tried to project himself into the mind of a colleague who took no interest in botany or geology: "Without natural history, the world is only a fraction seen." Now that these Journals are being published, they can serve as a natural history of John Fowles, who otherwise would be only "a fraction seen." *

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

John Fowles with his wife, Elizabeth