Category Archives: John Fowles

What was I after all?

What was I after all? Near enough what Conchis had had me told: nothing but the net sum of countless wrong turnings. I dismissed most of the Freudian jargon of the trial; but all my life I had tried to turn life into fiction, to hold reality away; always I had acted as if a third person was watching and listening and giving me marks for good or bad behaviour — a god like a novelist, to whom I turned, like a character with the power to please, the sensitivity to feel slighted, the ability to adapt himself to whatever he believed the novelist-god wanted. This leech-like variation of the super-ego I had created myself, fostered myself, and because of it I had always been incapable of acting freely. It was not my defence; but my despot. And now I saw it, I saw it a death too late.

— John Fowles, The Magus

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The pillar of fire

‘Beyond them there ran out a beach. Some thirty or forty yards of shingle. The river narrowed a little and the point took the force of what current there was. Even on a night as calm as that there was a murmur over the shallow stones. Henrik was standing at the very tip of the shingle spit, in about a foot of water. He was facing out to the north-east, where the river widened. The moonlight covered it in a grey satin sheen. Out in midstream there were long low banks of mist. As we watched, he called. “Hører du mig?” With great force. As if to someone several miles away, on the invisible far bank. A long pause. Then, “Jeg er her.” I trained my glasses on him. He was standing, legs astride, his staff in his hand, biblically. There was silence. A black silhouette in the glittering current.
   ‘Then we heard Henrik say one word. Much more quietly. It was “Takk.” The Norwegian for “thanks”. I watched him. He stepped back a pace or two out of the water, and knelt on the shingle. We heard the sound of the stones as he moved. He still faced the same way. His hands by his side. It was not an attitude of prayer, but a watching on his knees. Something was very close to him. As visible to him as Gustav’s dark head, the trees, the moonlight on the leaves around us, was to me. I would have given ten years of my life to have been able to look out there to the north, from inside his mind. I did not know what he was seeing, but I knew it was something of such power, such mystery, that it explained all. And of course Henrik’s secret dawned on me, almost like some reflection of the illumination that shone over him. He was not waiting to meet God. He was meeting God; and had been meeting him probably for many years. He was not waiting for some certainty. He lived in it.
   ‘Up to this point in my life you will have realized that my whole approach was scientific, medical, classifying. I was conditioned by a kind of ornithological approach to man. I thought in terms of species, behaviours, observations. Here for the first time in my life, I was unsure of my standards, my beliefs, my prejudices. I knew the man out there on the point was having an experience beyond the scope of all my science and all my reason, and I knew that my science and reason would always be defective until they could comprehend what was happening in Henrik’s mind. I knew that Henrik was seeing a pillar of fire out there over the water, I knew that there was no pillar of fire there, that it could be demonstrated that the only pillar of fire was in Henrik’s mind.
   ‘But in a flash, as of lighting, all our explanations, all our classifications and derivations, our aetiologies, suddenly appeared to me like a thin net. That great passive monster, reality, was no longer dead, easy to handle. It was full of a mysterious vigour, new forms, new possibilities. The net was nothing, reality burst through it. Perhaps something telepathic passed between Henrik and myself. I do not know.
   ‘That simple phrase, I do not know, was my own pillar of fire. For me, too, it brought a new humility akin to fierceness. For me too a profound mystery. For me too a sense of the vanity of so many things our age considers important. I do not say I should not have arrived at such an insight one day. But in that night I bridged a dozen years. Whatever else, I know that.
   ‘In a short time we saw Henrik walk back into the trees. I could not see his face. But I think the fierceness it wore in daylight was the fierceness that came from his contact with the pillar of fire. Perhaps for him the pillar of fire was no longer enough, and in that sense he was still waiting to meet God. Living is an eternal wanting more, in the coarsest grocer and in the sublimest mystic. But of one thing I am certain. If he still lacked God, he had the Holy Spirit.
   ‘The next day I left. I said goodbye to Ragna. There was no lessening of her hostility. I think that unlike Gustav she had divined her husband’s secret, that any attempt to cure him would kill him. Gustav and his nephew rowed me the twenty miles north to the next farm. We shook hands, we promised to write. I could offer no consolation and I do not think he wanted any. There are situations in which consolation only threatens the equilibrium that time has instituted. And so I returned to France.’

— John Fowles, The Magus

Probably permanent

At half-term I went with Demetriades to Athens. He wanted to take me to his favourite brothel, in a suburb. He assured me the girls were clean. I hesitated, then — isn’t it a poet’s, to say nothing of a cynic’s, moral duty to be immoral? — I went. When we came out, it was raining, and the shadowing wet leaves on the lower branches of a eucalyptus, caught under a light in the in the entrance, made me remember our bedroom in Russell Square. But Alison and London were gone, dead, exorcized; I had cut them away from my life. I decided I would write a letter to Alison that night, to say that I didn’t want to hear from her again. I was too drunk by the time we got back to the hotel, and I didn’t know what I would have said. Perhaps that I had proved beyond doubt that I was not worth waiting for; perhaps that she bored me; perhaps that I was lonelier than ever — and wanted to stay that way. As it was, I sent her a postcard telling her nothing; and on the last day I went back to the brothel alone. But the Lebanese nymphet I coveted was taken, and I didn’t fancy the others.

December came, and we were still writing letters. I knew she was hiding things from me. Her life, as she described it, was too simple and manless to be true. When the final letter came, I was not surprised. What I hadn’t expected was how bitter I should feel, and how betrayed. It was less a sexual jealousy of the man than an envy of Alison; moments of tenderness and togetherness, moments when the otherness of the other disappeared, flooded back through my mind for days afterwards, like sequences from some cheap romantic film that I certainly didn’t want to remember, but did; and there was the read and re-read letter; and that such things could be ended so, by two hundred stale, worn words.

Dear Nicholas,

I can’t go on any more. I’m so sorry if this hurts you. Please believe that I’m sorry, please don’t be angry with me for knowing you will be hurt. I can hear you saying, I’m not hurt.

I get so terribly lonely and depressed. I haven’t told you how much, I can’t tell you how much. Those first days I kept up such a brave front at work. And then at home I collapsed.

I’m sleeping with Pete again when he’s in London. It started two weeks ago. Please please believe me that I wouldn’t be if I thought… you know. I know you know. I don’t feel about him as I used to do, and I don’t begin to feel about him as I felt about you, you can’t be jealous.

It’s just he’s so uncomplicated, he stops me thinking, He stops me being lonely, I’ve sunk back into all the old Australians-in-London thing again. We may marry. I don’t know.

It’s terrible. I still want to write to you, and you to me. I keep on remembering.
Goodbye.

ALISON

You will be different for me. Always. That very first letter I wrote the day you left. If you could only understand.

I wrote a letter in reply to say that I had been expecting her letter, that she was perfectly free. But I tore it up. If anything might hurt her, silence would; and I wanted to hurt her.

— John Fowles, The Magus