On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

Monday Miscellany

Harlan Coben: By the Book

This week’s New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review includes an interview with one of my favorite thriller authors, Harlan Coben.

Related Posts:

From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond

Kid readingThe Pew Research Center continues its study of how the public perceives and uses libraries:

This report describes nine groups of Americans that reflect different patterns of public library engagement. Respondents were sorted into groups based on a cluster analysis of factors such as: the importance of public libraries in their lives; how they use libraries; and how they view the role of libraries in communities. . . .

The typology examines four broad levels of library engagement. These levels are further broken into a total of nine individual groups:

High engagement

  • Library Lovers
  • Information Omnivores

Medium engagement

  • Solid Center
  • Print Traditionalists

Low engagement

  • Not for Me
  • Young and Restless
  • Rooted and Roadblocked

Non-engagement (have never personally used a public library):

  • Distant Admirers
  • Off the Grid

The descriptions of the various groups and their attitudes toward libraries are informative.

9 Terribly Dysfunctional Marriages in Literature

Lists like this always amuse me. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t, and other times I haven’t read many of the books included.

But I’ve read most of these books and so pretty much agree with this list:

  1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  2. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
  3. Frenzy by David Grossman
  4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  5. Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
  6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  9. “Temporary Matters,” the opening story in The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Dark Quotient: On Victoria Redel and Destructive Characters

the Manhattan-based author Victoria Redel actually seems to enjoy answering questions about her work, which often takes the form of fiction addressing an intense — even boundary-violating — bond between a parent and child. But don’t ask her about her personal life.

Following the 2001 release of her novel Loverboy, about a mother so enmeshed with her young son that she decides to asphyxiate him in a car rather than let him go to school, Redel has found herself explaining to readers that her creation of unlikable, even destructive characters is neither a window — nor an invitation — into her psyche.

A good article for readers who always wonder how much a writer’s works reflect the author’s own mind and soul.

JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters

This week, HarperCollins announced that a long-awaited JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf is to be published in May, along with his commentaries on the Old English epic and a story it inspired him to write, “Sellic Spell”. It is just the latest of a string of posthumous publications from the Oxford professor and The Hobbit author, who died in 1973. Edited by his son Christopher, now 89, it will doubtless be seen by some as an act of barrel-scraping. But Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and his own literary powers give us every reason to take it seriously.

 

Monday Miscellany

Some of what I’ve been reading over the last week:

Why J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ Isn’t Just For Kids

Cover: The Hobbit
The Hobbit

On the 75th anniversary (September 21) of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit, Corey Olsen explains why the book isn’t just for kids:

“The Hobbit” is a brilliantly constructed story unfolding themes that adult readers will still find compellingly relevant to the modern world: themes such as the nature of evil and the significance of human choice, or the corruptive power of greed and the ease with which good people can be drawn into destructive conflict. So this year, I would recommend celebrating “The Hobbit’s” 75th anniversary by dusting the book off and giving it a fresh read. I’m quite sure that if you do, you will discover much more than you remember finding there as a child.

The Top 10 Horror Stories

I don’t read much horror, but if you do: Stephen Jones, editor of a new anthology titled A Book of Horrors, gives us his top 10 list.

Elmore Leonard, master of the crime novel, honored with prestigious book award

For a man who built his career on word economy, the title is pretty darned long — The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Still, Elmore Leonard says he’s thrilled to receive one of the literary world’s highest honors.

The 86-year-old crime novelist will be presented with the medal in New York on Nov. 14, the same evening this year’s National Book Awards are announced.

Songs of the Free and the Brave

Meghan Clyne discusses the new Library of America edition of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which presents her nine works of fiction in two volumes with supplementary materials.

Beyond paying tribute to Wilder’s work with critical annotation, the Library of America edition showcases the maturity of her writing through the new experience it offers to readers. The “Little House” series was written for a picture-book format, designed to reach 8- to 12-year-old readers and include frequent illustration. The Library of America has stripped the pictures away, leaving only Wilder’s words to re-create a world long gone. The result highlights her magnificent gift for description, which grows more evident as her heroine matures. . . . Ultimately, this is the greatest contribution of the new edition—to present Wilder’s work as serious literature for adults.

Our favourite books: writers explain

The following five writers discuss their favorite books from childhood:

  • Claudia Casper
  • Marjorie Celona
  • Anne Giardini
  • Erica Johnson
  • John Vigna

Books I Love: Libba Bray

The author of the new book The Diviners discusses 10 “favorite books that have also had a seismic influence on me.”

Lives Remembered in the Statues and Monuments of Central Park

A short video and slideshow about the statues of literary figures in New York City’s Central Park.