Monday, November 07, 2005

The J.R. Fowles Club, Closed Until Further Notice

John Fowles wrote a brilliant essay ten years ago, treating his personality as a private club, "to which I belong, for my sins." The members were always at odds, including "one fathead who fancies himself a novelist. Another pretends to be a feminist. I'd like to see him just once with a duster or an iron in his hand ... We are truly an unspeakably futile shambles. I honestly shall resign if they don't watch out. I've always hated men's clubs anyway."

Fowles was my primary connection to the world of letters, to the uses of imagination and the use of words. I learned to write by reading him and struggled to follow him as best I could. Sometimes I heard his voice in mine strongly, but it didn't make me feel feel puny and deriviative ... though of course I was. It just felt good. It made the monkey happy: I see, I do. Something about the way he would anchor an anecdote so precisely in time and place, giving memory an almost hallucinatory vividness: "We went straight to the front ... This is early in 1915. It sleeted and rained incessantly."
Or: "I still loved, or at any rate still practised, music. I had the big Pleyel harpsichord I use here in our Paris flat. One warm day in Spring, it would have been in 1920, I was playing by chance with the windows open, when the bell rang."

So when I write lines like "I first saw your mother on the Malibu Colony beach, just before lunch on the morning of June 17, 1956. She was playing volleyball, wearing a blue, one-piece Jantzen bathing suit with a little skirt. I fell in love absolutely and permanently at that moment." I feel that heavy, subby-fingered hand on my shoulder. As if I've become him for one sparkling moment, slipping into the foyer of the club before the doorman chases me out. Maybe it's the way Bernstein felt channelling Beethoven in the first bars of "There's a Place For us." Which may be why I feel like part of the writer in me died this weekend, also. It might have been the best part; it was certainly my favorite.

I met Fowles in the summer of 1972. I was in England and determined to have some kind of physical contact with the man who loomed so large in the life of my mind. I found his house in Lyme Regis (everyone knew where he lived, he was the town celebrity) and was lucky enough to discover that he had known my father during his days in Hollywood. There is a stong family resemblance and his delighted "Not George's son?" was my ticket to a long aftenoon drinking St Pauli Girl beer and touring the Undercliff. I wrote to him occasionally after that and always got a response. Some were chiding, as when he told me not to attempt a novel until I was thirty, adding, "I know that's a red rag to the American go-getting bull," and at other times startlingly complimentary as when he called my analysis of the godgame aspects of The French Lieutenant's Woman "shrewd." I was giddy for days. "Fowles thinks I'm shrewd," I would tell anyone I came across, including a cop who stopped me for speeding and a group of Chinese tourists who spoke no English. They nodded and smiled, though. That was enough for me.

Of course I could never really be a member of the club, though I imagined myself on the waiting list from time to time. But it was like the great museums in New York. You might not step inside The Metropolitan or the Modern for years, but it's good to know they're there.The city would be a different place without them; and a far shabbier one. And that last sentence, with its syncopated emphasis and deftly placed semi-colon, is pure John Fowles, making the derivative divine for a moment, as his spirit moves in the blood and the synapses of his most devoted student.

The JR Fowles club was a landmark, an institution and an inspiration.
I hate to see it close its doors.


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