She vanishes. He sits in silence for a few seconds, then finishes the whiskey. Then he goes to where his jacket lies and takes out a pocket diary, through which he leafs as he walks toward the telephone. He dials a number and, waiting for an answer, stares back across to the bedroom door - which like that other door, like reality itself, that ultimate ambiguous fiction of the wasted past, seems poised eternally in two minds; inviting, forbidding, accusing, forgiving; and always waiting . . . for someone at last to get the feeling right.
LYME REGIS, England - "No photographs. I find picture sessions offensive." It is the one thing John Fowles asks in return for an interview at his seaside home here. The cab driver, who frequently shuttles visitors the five miles from Axminster train station to Fowles' Belmont House, suggests that photos reveal, expose too much.
"A funny man, that writer," the cabbie says. "Doesn't drive a car. Walks for hours and speaks to no one. Lives in his own world."
For Fowlss at 52, is his world, or vice-versa. His million-selling "French Lientenant's Woman," a gothic romance with a twist, is set in this very town, a century before the author moved here:
"So perhaps I am writing a transposed autobiography," he noted in that book. "Perhaps I now live in one of the houses I have brought into the fiction . . . It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live."
"A novel is not about historical accuracy," he says. (On, no. We had a railway here which I forgot about and I shifted buildings around and . . . It makes no difference. Now non fiction, that is another story. (This is Fowles who reads French at Oxford and who is the newly appointed curator of the town museum taluing.) I'm just transcribing an interview with a 96-year-old lady, and she's speaking of pea-soup lines for the poor back before 1900 and a weird old custom of rolling burning tar barrels down the hills on Guy Fawkes night . . ."
Impressive, this Fowles fellow, a man Gore Vidal called "one of the most alarmingly original writers to come out of England in this generation." He seems bigger, more imposing than the greying bearded, monk-like character adorning most of his book jackets, something on the order of a not-so-rotund Orson Welles. The same lofty sense of expression; topics that are philosophical glacier tips; strong hands that meticulously edit a typewritten manuscript; eyes that are always looking beyond to the sea through big flack armed glasses; never done up all English proper in an assot.
"The Tempest" was born half a mile from here," he says, gazing out from a study that overlooks the cobb below. The room is filled with old books ("I like to tale of a flying machine and a trip to the moon. For example, the anonymous" adventures of john Daniel," an 18th-century read books that no one else has read.") and old china. ("Yes," says Fowles, "you could say that I am a collector." "In 1609 a buckaneer called Somers wrecked his ship in the Bermudas. He was born near here, and some pamphlets about the wreck got "The Tempest" started. I am fascinated by the sea, the symbolism of islands. That will be my next book - 'Islands' - an essay with photographs by Fay Godwin.
"I needed a break from fiction," says Fowles, in 13 years author of six novels, half of them best sellers. There is an obvious tone of disappointment, in his voice disappointment that his last novel,"Daniel Martin" was not terribly well received in England although it has sold more than 100,000 hardback copies in America).
"This country has become anti-novelist," he says. "People here are very formal, as in 'You'd better write accurate sentences.' And a lot in 'Daniel Martin' was concerned with anti-English feelings. It all started in 1964. I was doing a piece for the Texas Quarterly on the difference between being English and being British. ("The Great English Dilemma is the split in the English mind between the green England and the red-white-and-blue Britain.") I had to work that out. ('Daniel Martin' is 629 pages long.) That's where the book came from, plus the question of English versus American."The American myth is of free will in its simple, primary sense. One can choose oneself and will oneself . . . Failure to suceed proves a moral, not a genetic, fault. No decent society can help those who fail to stay equal. Off the Shelf
"Things stay with me for a long time. I'll let a book sit on the shelf for a year and then go back to it."
Or even a decade. This month Little, Brown is publishing a "revised version" of "The Magus," a novel originally out in 1965.
"I actually don't know why more writers don't do it," says Fowles. "You know, James would make a lot of stylistic additions. That book irritated me in a number of ways. The bluffing wasn't quite right in some places and the writing wasn't all that good. (". . . it must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent," he writes in the new foreword.)
"I wrote "The Magus" at a time when I was very interested in Jung and Freud," Fowles says. "Now I've become fascinated with something called object relations analysts. Why do people write things? An attempt to repair the near recoverable.
"The mystery of art is its obsessive nature. Whay does one go on? Why do I write books? I believe that it was all determined in the first 18 months of my life.
"My father (a cigar importer) made philosophy his hobby. He was a great believer in the Americans: Pierce, James. But I don't think it comes from the father. Writers never get over the loss of the primary relationship with the mother. They're trying to find their young mother. It spills over into all their female characters.
"In infancy, funcions and identities are very confused and blurred for the writer. He has a dim recollection of a world that was very polymorphic. Which is why some novelists are always bending realities.
"The real message here is that you will never be able to put out a substantial body of work unless you've had the experience. It's very deterministic.
"It's high time that behaviorism had more investigation: Why a writer is. The female novel, for instance, is much different than the male novel. All male novelists are obsessed with loss. Women are much more interested in accurate reporting of detail."
Fowles's wife, Elizabeth, whom he met while teaching French in Greece in the '50s, interrupts to serve lunch. An old Swedish Aga oil-burning stove warms the kitchen.The room is filled with wooden utensils and earthenware crocks and lots of forced bulbs. A slate writing board lists groceries needed and an wind-up clock ticks slowly.
The author pours himself Heineken and recalls the day he was visited by screenwriter William Goldman, who had been assigned the task (never completed - by him or anyone else) of turning "the French Lieutenant's Woman" into a screenplay.
"We started hiking around with him through the countryside," Fowles says. "Quite a pleasant day, actually, but he wasn't dressed for the country - Hollywood clothes and all - and kept falling into the mud and into the brambles and was worried about poison ivy and couldn't quite believe that it only exists in America. We got back and he asked, 'Do you have a phone here,' and I said yes and the next thing you know this bloke had to ring up Hollywood and tell them all he's endured for the cause of art."
"I had to go there once," he says, "to put "The Collector" back into British English. It had become too American."
You have to decide one thing here - which is real, you or Los Angeles. Right?
I said, Right.
I turned that into a mantra. It was the nicest, the best thing he ever gave me. Los Angeles means anywhere.
"If you're in Los Angeles,' says Fowles, 'and there's a crisis in Britain, you have to scan the L.A. Times for five hours until you find one inch about it buried somewhere."
He wanders outside the house and heads down a hill, an author roaming back through the pages of an old work.
"From the air it is not very striking," he wrote in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." "One notes that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to the cliff edge, here thry stop a mile or so short of it. The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous undiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accentuated by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like walls of ruined castles. From the air . . . but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation - and if the weather be bad, desolation - could have seemed so great." Images
He stares at an old house. "Stone is lovely to look at," he says, "but I hate living in it." He points to another house where Henry Fielding once courte da townsgirl, whose father would let her have no contact with the author. He speaks of Jane Austen, another great chronicler of Lyme.
And then he pauses, back to a huge limestone fossil bed, a famous quarry from which historical knowledge has been dug up. Yes, he says, it will be perfectly all right for a photo to be made now.
But, of course, there is fumbling and the exposure meter won't work and the winter light is fading away.
"Try F 4," says John Fowles. "F 4 at a sixtieth." An air of confidence.
CLICK. A perfect exposure.
. . . Dan told her with a suitable irony that at least he had found a last sentence for the novel he was never going to write.