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Wednesday, January 11, 2012


First sentences: The Collector by John Fowles

Note: Carolynn requested The Magus, but I just couldn't stomach it, so I thought I'd do another John Fowles book instead. Hope this'll do, Carolynn.

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe.

First thing to say: I admire John Fowles's talent, but I find him very hard to like. He's good at writing nasty voices, but reading an excerpt from his journal suggests there may be a reason for that. Consider this remark (one of many) about Samantha Eggar, who starred in the film adaptation of The Collector:

I took Sam out this evening, to hear Segovia and to try to get to the bottom of the mystery of her nothingness. I felt like Seneca locked up with Poppaea... or something. A pretty corrupt Seneca, as I have done my best to get her the sack these last days; and like everyone else have indulged wholeheartedly in the favourite sport on the Columbia lot - making fun of her behind her back.

It may be worth knowing that her performance in this film won her a Golden Globe, a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award and an Oscar nomination.

So yeah. Pretty nasty piece of work. But The Collector is written from the point of view of two narrators, one of whom is supposed to be a nasty piece of work. (Though also a personification of the kind of uneducated person who attracted Fowles's snobbery, while the other narrator is a beautiful young girl in love with an older male artist-mentor, who adores his uncompromising spirit and judges herself harshly for finding him physically unattractive - all of which might explain why Fowles took such offence that Eggar wasn't his dream girl. I can sympathise with artistic ruthlessness, but I do not think it entitles you to sexual tribute.) Fred Clegg's voice is precisely and skilfully drawn in its nastiness.

So, to take the sentence on its own terms and set aside my dislike for John Fowles.

Fowles pulls off an interesting trick here, and one that's difficult for an author to accomplish: establishing an inarticulate narrator who nevertheless grabs our attention. Bad writing is usually dull, but Clegg's voice is vivid and suspenseful. How is it done?

The first sentence makes it clear that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator; some authors build up the unreliability slowly, but Fowles starts as he means to go on. Clegg speaks of 'she' rather than telling us his victim's name, or even as plain an introduction as 'the girl'. He knows who 'she' refers to, and speaks to us as if we shared his assumption. At once, we are put in the position of his confidantes: he assumes we are complicit and sympathetic, and thus reveals all the malignity he might hide from a stranger.

Also clear is that we are dealing with a stalker (a word not current in 1963 when The Collector was published, of course). Clegg sees Miranda from across the street, making note of the times when this is possible - not when she's at school, otherwise almost every day: he's looking out for her and feels her absence. Despite the obvious distance between them, he's already speaking of her as if they were intimate: the 'almost every day' is immediately qualified with 'sometimes', but to Clegg, the sightings are a mentally integrated into a routine, a relationship, so the fact that he doesn't actually see her almost every day is relegated to an afterthought added for the sake of strict accuracy rather than because it's important to his thinking. The fact that he adds it for accuracy has a further effect: it begins to imply the detail-mindedness, precision and obsessive disposition that allow the kidnap to proceed successfully. He notes details; he just doesn't let them influence him against his desires.

The sense of being confided in by someone who expects us to accept his word even when he himself acknowledges that he's rather careless about reality turns us quickly against Clegg. His voice isn't just obsessive: it's presumptuous. We judge him for assuming we're on his side, even as we take advantage of his trust to find out what he's going to do next. And these two reactions combine together: we are quickly frightened for Miranda. A man who sees every detail that might work to his advantage but notices nothing of other people's right to differ from him is the greatest of threats.

Set up as an opposite to art and culture, Clegg has an elaborately 'uneducated' voice. 'Almost every day sometimes', for instance: something anyone might say in the middle of hasty speech, but an educated speaker would edit from their writing. (We might actually expect a class-aware man like Clegg to correct his writing more carefully than his speech, which gives us the sense that in reading his words, we're somewhere between the two.) Or 'When she was home from her boarding-school': it's a phrase more full of detail-noting than attention to rhythmic elegance or pleasing concision. 'When she was home from school' would provide the same location in time, and if we're talking about seeing her daily it would be implicitly clear that she lives at school, but Clegg notes that it's a boarding school, telling us two things. The first is further information about his stalkerish obsession: he doesn't know this girl, but he does know what kind of school she goes to and where she is when she's away from him. He's researching her. The second, emphasised by that slightly resentful 'her', is that boarding schools, in England at least, are generally a marker of middle- or upper-class status. Calling it 'her boarding-school' emphasises that boarding school (and note that, contrary to standard usage, he hyphenates it as if unfamiliar with the phrase) is of Miranda's world, not Clegg's. Similarly, her house is opposite the 'Town Hall Annexe' (with that eccentrically capitalised A, treating his local parlance as if it were common knowledge): she lives centrally while he merely works there, showing a disparity in wealth. She may be intensely observed by Clegg, but she is fundamentally foreign to him. Circumstances put him in physical but not social or personal proximity to Miranda, and he is very aware of the difference. He's just not aware that this doesn't give him the right to stalk her.

What we get, in short, is the voice of a predator that considers itself the underdog. What it communicates is almost the exact opposite of what it attempts to express. The reader is drawn into a the swift, emotional anticipation of a thriller while also enjoying the intellectual pleasure of discerning an unreliable narrator, with a further option of congratulating ourselves on our moral superiority for favouring Miranda over Clegg. It may not be nice, but it's certainly bewitching.

I find it intensely difficult to read books that do a good job of taking us inside the minds of people who objectify (and fundamentally dehumanize) other human beings. Especially when those other human beings include me.

What I wonder is how much is the skill of the writer inextricably mixed up with the almost default nature of what they are doing?

In other words, is it easier to signal stalking objectification in a culture in which it is considered almost the norm for men to engage in at least some degree of the attitude. So what is going on in the book / narrative is more a matter of intensity than difference.
I don't know if you've read The Collector, but a positive reading of it could arguably be that what Clegg identifies about Miranda is only partly sexual and the rest is ... well, Clegg would define it as class; the book seems to imply that she has a kind of artistic vibrancy that he only understands the superficial signs of.

The book's kind of a philosophical argument; I find it a bit hard to swallow uncritically because all the attributed merit is entirely on one side, but both sides are pretty objectifying to women (Miranda spends most of her diary going on about how wonderful the male artist is and concludes that she'll have an affair with him even though she doesn't find him physically attractive). Of it's time, really; I kind of feel that Fowles treats Clegg as a competitor who objectifies Miranda for the wrong reasons: Clegg wants her as a sex object and status symbol, Fowles treats her as a sex object and validator of his artistic opinions. You spot the difference if you can; the main one I can see is that Clegg's ideas of status are declasse.
aha, I have the feeling that this is another book that I need to reread if I am going to have worthwhile opinions about.

That is NOT a criticism of you Kit, it is a criticism of the younger me and the skills I once had as a reader. Like many people I divided by "serious" reading from my "reading for enjoyment" reading. I didn't apply the skills that I learned in class to books that hadn't been assigned in class.

Sometimes when I go back and reread books (for example, The Handmaid's Tale that I had read for the purpose of "the story" this time as "serious" books I get so blown away by the difference in the ways I now understand the book that I am almost embarrassed at my previous opinion.s
That's interesting; I'm very different about it. I pretty much read every book the same way - which I think explains why I have a limit when it comes to trashiness. I'm perfectly happy reading trashy books with a plain and unremarkable style, but if the style's actually bad, I just can't put up with it; it's like trying to listen to music being played out of tune.

Some people say they don't see the words when they read, but I always see the words. I don't think it means I get less immersed in a story; it's just that I get immersed in the style as well as the action, and if I can't do both, I can't do either.

Which probably explains why I read across genres as well. To me there are just well-written and badly-written books, and either way I don't care what genre they are.
So out of interest, how did you first read The Collector? And what did you make of it?
I pretty much read every book the same way - which I think explains why I have a limit when it comes to trashiness. I'm perfectly happy reading trashy books with a plain and unremarkable style, but if the style's actually bad, I just can't put up with it; it's like trying to listen to music being played out of tune.

Some people say they don't see the words when they read, but I always see the words. I don't think it means I get less immersed in a story; it's just that I get immersed in the style as well as the action, and if I can't do both, I can't do either.

Yes, that describes me too! The flip side is that I very easily get frustrated with a book, particularly because many writers seem to have a tin ear for the rhythms of language. But if a writer has a good command of this, then I can put up with distinctly dodgy themes, at least until I’m done with the book. That’s actually how I finished The Magus, which I agree is a very disturbing book, despite becoming progressively more and more horrified by its plot.

I’ve not actually read The Collector; I stopped with Fowles at the first and only work of his I read, viz. The Magus. But thank you so much for this post! It’s really interesting, and I find myself nodding at your argumentation, e.g. the analysis of ‘her boarding-school’. Makes perfect sense to me, even in my position of unfamiliar-with-canon.
Can you tell me a bit about The Magus? I've tried it a couple of times but just reached my limit with it and gave up; I'd like to know your view. :-)
Trigger warnings: Abusive situations, gaslighting, misogyny, racism

Well, gaslighting is a dominant theme within the book, and when I finally put it down (having read through the whole thing, as I am wont to, in one go), my head was reeling and I was blinking in the bright sunlight wondering what had just happened and whether I was real. I would never recommend this novel to anyone prone to dissociation…

It’s been some time since I’ve read The Magus, so I can’t exactly remember the entire plot. The narrator, however, should be absolutely familiar to you, since you’ve read The Collector. He’s a terribly self-absorbed, overeducated Englishman who thinks it his prerogative to fuck (there is no other word for it) every young woman in whom he has an interest. The Magus is an essentially privileged and masculine novel. Even as its confines descend into extreme paranoia and a questioning of reality itself, the narrator retains his intrinsic arrogance and a sense that he’s going to be on top of things.

And all the strings in the novel are pulled by male characters. Women are only incidental, always sex objects, and often lacking agency. There is, I believe, a pair of twin sisters (who may or may not be the same woman, but are definitely two different personae) who are the virgin/whore complex in its entirety (and the ‘protagonist’ – I enclose the word in quotation marks because who could empathise with him, really?! – is of course sexually attracted to them, but only as ideas).

Towards the end, the plot becomes ridiculously outrageous and unbelievable. The emotional climax of the novel is when the narrator is emasculated by watching his sex interest (again, for want of a better word), who is a dispassionate scientist and therefore a Bad Woman, having intercourse with a Black man (compared to an animal, because, yes, that is clearly the height of literary good taste, mr Fowles) on video. Clearly this is the most degrading and terrible act that a white woman could do, and viewed only via its effect on the white male character.

…so, no, I don’t think it was a good book at all, and I don’t blame you for losing patience with it!
Oh dear.

I've never read anything of Fowles, and now I guess I've been fortunate.

(Although it doesn't help that I always confuse Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman with Flanagan's The Year of the French -- which I have read. Many years ago; I wonder if I would still like it if I read it again?)

Yes, there's a point at which the pain of Bad Writing Style outweighs any pleasure of the story, and there's a point at which the story has so many problems that no Style in the world can compensate. Fortunately, the pile of books in the Acceptable overlap is so large that I don't expect to be running out of reading material any time soon.

Probably, my last words are going to be,"Just one more chapter!"

Which is why I find genre to be mostly useful in steering me away from books I'm unlikely to enjoy, even if they're competently written as far as style. Horror, for instance; I don't care how well Steven King writes, I still feel bad (and not in a good way) when I finish one of his books.
@Carolynn - interesting, thanks. Do you think we're supposed to condemn the narrator entirely, or do you think some of the nastiness is supposed to be justified? I haven't read far enough to know.

(Clegg isn't 'over-educated', though. He's under-educated; I think Fowles is in favour of cultivation rather than education, if that makes sense. Clegg's also asexually puritanical: when Miranda tries to seduce him in the hopes this'll encourage him to let her go, he freaks out.
@Kit Whitfield: So out of interest, how did you first read The Collector? And what did you make of it?

It took me a while to answer this because answering the question (even to myself) opened up a whole can of worms about reading in general and reading books that have been adapted to movies in specific.

Short answer: I have absolutely nothing of value to say about my initial reading of The Collector because I saw the movie first and the only reason I read the book was to "fill in the blanks" and see if the book answered the questions that the movie didn't and....

In other words, I read the book not as if the book was the initial art form from which a movie adaptation had been made -- I read the book as if it was "the book of the movie," a "movie tie-in." I did not apprehend it as a piece of work on it own and therefore I am sitting here with all sorts of fundamental questions about how best one reads a book when one has first seen the movie based on the book.

hmmmmm........more on that later but this is really, really making me think a lot about the fact that I have multiple "reading modes." Which makes sense for the type of academic work/research I do but has other implications that I need to think about.
I would definitely think that we’re expected to dislike the narrator – but the process of the writing makes it distinctly uncomfortable, because the reader gets into the narrator’s head, and it is a profoundly unpleasant experience. (Not to mention the fact that I’m not so interested in listening to an abuser justify abuse in the interior monologue – probably why I’ll never attempt to read Lolita.) However, I find it difficult to separate the distasteful elements in the prose into Fowles’s invention and Fowles’s own beliefs, and how much each shades into the other.

What you say about cultivation makes sense! In fact, it’s one of the themes of The Magus. Urfe teaches at an expensive boys’ school, and hates it; he finds the Greek countryside a sort of arcadia in comparison; and he seeks out an Aleister-Crowley-style self-taught millionaire mentor. It’s a very limited slice of the human condition, but one certainly does get the feeling that Fowles is trying (but badly) to break down the idea of ‘civilisation’.
Hm. I like Lolita, and I don't have a general problem with dislikeable narrators, but The Magus just stopped me. I think it was because it was so confined and narrow - the narrator doesn't really describe very much of his surroundings, though that may change when he gets to Greece, so it was more like being trapped in a lift with a jerk than like seeing through unreliable eyes.

Also there was, as you say, an element of difficulty separating what we're supposed to condemn and what we're supposed to sympathise with in principle even if the narrator is intemperate in his hatred of it. Especially having read The Collector, in which Miranda's freshness and vitality are very much expressed in terms of how much she hates things that aren't fresh and vital. Rejecting the stale is something Fowles approves of, so how much of Urfe's contempt is supposed to be bad - like Clegg's pettiness and resentment - and how much is supposed to be good - like Miranda's passion and idealism - is hard to tell.

It just felt blurred to me. Is Urfe's discontent the fault of his personality, or is his discontent legitimate and the fault of his personality is how he deals with it? It felt unclear, and that made me feel I was in the hands of an unreliable novelist rather than an unreliable narrator.
that made me feel I was in the hands of an unreliable novelist rather than an unreliable narrator.

An reliable novelist that is exactly the phrase I have been grasping for in my brain for months now trying to parse out the question of whether a novelist deliberately meant to undermine the pretensions of his characters or if he was just reaching for tone, or reflecting a certain writing style (I think you have referred to it elsewhere as Whedonesque Kit) or if the author was intentionally laying down a layer of ambiguity and questioning that might not clearly emerge to a reader until a second reading.
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