A novelist who consumed his own and others' lives

Lost in John Fowles's house of mirrors

Biographies of living writers are rare. The honor, or peril, is typically reserved for presidents, celebrities, and species on the verge of extinction. But in her new book, "John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds," Eileen Warburton takes on the task of describing this mythopoetic - and at times misanthropic - man.

A sensation of the 1960s, Fowles has enjoyed a certain cult status ever since. His early novels, which drew heavily on his life, were a huge success in both England and the US. "The Magus" (1965) was translated into more than 10 languages; "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) was made into a blockbuster film.

Yet Warburton's book, six years in the making and coming long after Fowles's most popular work, is the first biography of the author. The result is disturbing and illuminating.

Warburton dove into her project as a graduate student, and Fowles, now 78 and living in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England, told friends and relatives to speak candidly - giving her exceptional access to his world. Consequently, her biography never shies from its subject's failings, self-absorption, egocentrism, or his startling misogynistic streak.

Warburton offers a meticulous account of Fowles's life, from his despised suburban upbringing in Leigh-on-Sea to his various teaching jobs in France, Greece, and England. And she quotes from thousands of diary entries, letters, and conversations. But her wealth of material and the thoroughness of her documentation are often overwhelming - one danger, perhaps, of writing without the distance of history or the filter of time. Warburton is at her best when on her own. Her own rare and incisive analysis is a relief, more cogent and satisfying than the plethora of quotations, and a far better measure of her skill.

This biography is a testament to the novelist's obsession with personal mythmaking. Fowles "was fascinated by ... the transmutation into art of his own life," she writes. That penchant - freely confessed by Fowles - can be dizzying. Fowles wrote in 1980 that he didn't see "how the 'lies' we write and the 'lies' we live can or should be divided." The trouble with such seamlessness, with such unapologetic mythmaking, is that where we want Warburton to spin her own web, we have Fowles's silk instead, a spider always a strand ahead, weaving a shifting truth.

Warburton notes that her book is "also the biography of a marriage": Fowles's 36-year union with Elizabeth Christy, from its tumultuous inception, when Fowles urged Elizabeth to choose him over her infant daughter, to the late years when Fowles finally found joy in relatives and friends. This marriage is the realm in which he comes across as most humane, yet also most cruel.

He wrote early on, "I did not think I was capable of completely loving any woman.... I loved myself, above all my future, uncreated self, too much ever to be able to give myself completely." Though the marriage was happy; though Elizabeth proved an eager partner in editing Fowles's work - no Fowles novels were published before her years of editing or after she died - and though Fowles was devastated by her death in 1990, he remained convinced that "writer destroys wife."

A favorite fantasy of his adolescence and early adulthood - articulated in his famed first novel, "The Collector" (1963), which allowed him to give up teaching and write for the rest of his life - focused on "imprisoning women underground.... The girl kidnapped gradually fell in love with me, sometimes because she admired me, sometimes because she was so bored."

Elizabeth acknowledged and deplored that self-absorption, and one sings along with her rare rant, scrawled in the margins of his diary one November afternoon: "You were and always will be dead about the living reality of children.... You are theory and non-life. Pretend 'Nature' is all." Realizing that he had rewritten her own mother's death to cast himself in a better light, she raged: "You see nothing You feel nothing All you see is how you see" [sic].

Warburton responds with gentle insight: "Through the diary, Fowles, by his words and his perceptions, controlled the record of their life together." And to a large degree, he controls this biography, too. When Elizabeth asked, "What poetry do you express in anything? It has long since died," we feel that loss, too, and wonder how Elizabeth's memoirs might have read.

Fowles is not merely a subject here; he is, at times, the book itself. That he accepts the fictions which sustain us and the need to make one's life loom large is redeeming and refreshing. But biography may be better served when history has had its own chance to exhume.

Christina McCarroll is on the Monitor's staff.

John Fowles

Born: Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, 1926

Education: New College, Oxford (1950)

Military Service: Royal Marines (1945-6)

Occupations: Teacher at The University of Poitiers in France in 1950-51; Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai in 1951-53; Ashridge College (1953-54) and St. Godric's College (1954-63) in England. Writer since 1963.

Family: Married Elizabeth Christy 1957-1990

Married Sarah Smith 1998- No children

Religion: Atheist

Selected Writings:

The Collector (1963)

The Aristos (1965)

The Magus (1966, revised 1977)

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

The Ebony Tower (1974)

Daniel Martin (1977)

Mantissa (1982)

A Maggot (1985)

Wormholes (1998)

The Tree (2000)

The Journals of John Fowles (2003)

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