Most mornings John Fowles wakes in his 18th-century stone house in Lyme Regis on the southwest coast of England and resumes writing his curiously old-fashioned novels. He is free of city sounds. The sea is a quarter mile down the road. A bizarre garden runs around the house. "It's the enormous privilege of not living in the city that I enjoy," he says. "I need the isolation."
So when Fowles, in his reluctant stab at playing the artist-as-salesman, comes to New York to push his new novel "A Maggot," his role as isolato is not easily yielded. There is not one, but a passel of "Do Not Disturb" signs on his hotel doorknob. One must knock about 14 times before Fowles comes to the door. He has the look of an exhausted vacationer, what in England is called a "holiday maker," as in "Forty holiday makers from Sheepsbreath were stranded today in Ramsgate as . . ." He is 59, has a full beard, lousy teeth and a voice full of plaintive singsong:
"At the moment I'm not working on anything. After you finish, you are intensely depressed. It doesn't much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow awhile.
"You love a book when it's being written. You are so close to it. You're the only person who knows it and it's still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then suddenly there's the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of 'That's it. This is the final thing and I shan't have a chance to change it.' It's a feeling of death, really."
To ease Fowles' emptiness after publication, critics and a wide audience have long praised his work, especially "The Collector," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Magus" and "Daniel Martin." There is a wildness about Fowles' work that is rare in most of the recent novelists admired in Oxbridge. Fowles teases, dares his readers. Though his books are middlebrow (perhaps even three-quarter brow), they are challenging, a curious blend of 18th-century play -- the tradition of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne are behind him -- existentialist philosophy and modern voice.
In "The French Lieutenant's Woman," for example, Fowles told a story set in old Lyme Regis, interrupted the tale in the voice of the contemporary, omniscient author and let the reader choose between two fully drawn endings.
"Yes, the endings in that book really brought the mail to my doorstep," says Fowles. "But I like to experiment with that great mystery, the part the reader plays in the experience and form of the novel. That's something we don't think a lot about ordinarily."
"A Maggot" (his 14th book) is, upon first hearing, the least ingratiating title since "The Female Eunuch." But in this case a maggot is meant as an odd notion or whim, and in a prologue, Fowles describes his whim, the inspiration for the novel. He writes of imagining a group of travelers on horseback riding along a barren landscape: "The riders never progressed to any destination, but simply rode along a skyline, like a sequence of looped film in a movie projector."
The opening section of "A Maggot" is fascinating not only for the ways in which Fowles has transformed a bit of his daily imagination into narrative, but also for the rich, shadowy texture of his prose:
There lies about them, in the bleak landscape, too high to have felt the obvious effects of spring, in the uniform grey of the overcast sky, an aura of dismal monotony, an accepted journey of both journey and season. The peaty track they follow traverses a waste of dead heather and ling; below, in a steep-sided valley, stand unbroken dark woodlands, still more in bud than in leaf. All the farthest distances fade into a mist, and the travellers' clothes are by chance similarly without accent. The day is quite windless, held in dull suspension. Only in the extreme west does a thin wash of yellow light offer some hope of better weather to come.
On Page 52, the moody narrative yields to a news report from "The Western Gazette." We learn that one of the five riders, a manservant, has been found hanging from a tree. The other riders have dispersed. Suddenly "A Maggot" becomes a series of depositions, question-and-answer chapters conducted by a queer detective named Henry Ayscough.
The story is reminiscent of the old Japanese tale by Ryunosuke Akutagawa called "In a Grove," or more familiarly, "Rashomon." Like Fowles, Akutagawa finds intrigue in the way people lie or see things askew. Reality here is the sum total of perceptions and misperceptions. The ending of "A Maggot," as with "The French Lieutenant's Woman," is left to the reader. Once more with Fowles, strangeness stands together with verisimilitude.
"There was one source I used extensively for 'A Maggot' -- a book by a Lord Littlejohn called 'Persian Letters.' He simply described a Persian touring London. As usual, it was a device to satirize London. It was published the same year I set my book, 1736. It helped me get the feel of how people spoke, of what writing was like. I also used 'The Gentleman's Magazine,' which is a great scholarly source book. The French novelist Alain Fournier, who is my most important modern influence, once said something that moved me very deeply: 'I only like the marvelous when it is strictly enveloped in reality.'
"I knew from the beginning that the structure I wanted was the old trial form. That's fascinating for a novelist inasmuch as you're throwing out at least half your normal aids. You can't say, 'He looked out the window' or 'She opened the window.' You lose all the stage directions. You're dying at times to put in a line of straight prose. But a lot of novels are based on deprivations, what you don't provide.
"Old forms interest me, especially the oldest form of all, the 12th-century Celtic forms. I don't think old forms are exhausted the way some modern theorists do. You have the French, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, saying, 'Why on earth should anyone write like Balzac again?' I'd argue that it's well worth writing his way. His powers of observation, his narrative sense really are eternals in the novel. There is a rather vulgar 20th-century tendency that anything old must be thrown out."
A photographer arrives and Fowles' tall, tall wife Elizabeth lopes across the room and removes her husband's spectacles. Fowles does not move. He seems quite accustomed to such gestures.
Hard rain clicks against the gritty windows. Fowles has already endured the "Today" show and now another nosy questioner. If given the choice, he might grab a cab and beat it for the nearest jet. With no projects currently at hand, it's the perfect season for tending house.
"I have times when I am not writing at all. If I'm not answering letters I'm in my garden. Lyme is roughly like San Francisco in climate, so we get away with all sorts of subtropical plants. If we have a bad winter I lose them. It's a wilderness, the garden. I've seen real gardeners turn white as they go 'round it."
Fowles is the son of a suburban cigar importer. He read French at Oxford, taught school in Greece and began writing in his early 20s. He sent a "perfectly wretched" book of travel pieces on Greece to Paul Scott, who worked as an agent before writing "The Jewel in the Crown." Scott did not encourage the young man's travel writing but did admire a passage of "semifictional" prose. "That probably started me as a novelist," says Fowles.
The insistent simplicity of his life -- gardening, writing, long evenings reading Matthew Arnold by the fire -- began when he left London 19 years ago and began to publish his first works. In "A Maggot," he writes admiringly about the rise of the Shakers, the communalist religious group founded by Ann Lee, a blacksmith's daughter.
"As you grow older you realize you cannot live up to all your sacred ideas of how one should live. Keeping that virgin state of authenticity is impossible. The Shakers were authentic, in that way. They believed in a certain life and they lived it. It had a magnificence.
"New York at this moment makes me think of the Shakers, the severity and simplicity of their lives. New York is an impossibly rich city. There is so much to do here that one does nothing, so much to buy here that one buys nothing. I read my way through the fat Sunday New York Times and it calls out 'Consume more . . . consume more . . . consume more.'
"I somehow feel places like New York are enormously rarefied, isolated forms of human society. They're not real. It's not just flying to New York, it's flying to a different planet. If you fly to Los Angeles it's another planet still.
"I just read an article how the great social activity in California now is shopping. That is a very sick and peculiar thing to a staid European like myself. Cities are neurotic. I think people who live in the country, the provinces, are lucky. If people were economically free to move I somehow think there would be an enormous exodus from places like Chicago or New York or London."
On his first day in New York, John Fowles walked immediately to Central Park, the available version of Lyme Regis by the sea. And on the second, he talked.