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The French Lieutenant’s Woman: a novel that comes from both the head and the heart

12 November 2019

From The Guardian:

At first glance, The French Lieutenant’s Woman appears to be a modish, postmodern product of the 1960s, a dry intellectual exercise carefully designed to draw the reader’s attention to its own artificiality. In the very first paragraph, John Fowles tells us his book is set in 1867, 100 years before he wrote it. From then on, he drops in invitations to step outside the text and think about the person writing it, alongside the variously fraught characters he’s pushing around Victorian Lyme Regis.

He even interrupts himself in chapter 13, just to say:

I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and ‘voice’ of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.

Fowles may be denying omniscience, but he makes no attempt to pretend he isn’t a smarty-pants, adding: “But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes: if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the word.”

That begs the question of what the novel “in the modern sense of the word” may be? The implication, confusingly enough, is that a modern novel is a postmodern one, since Fowles names both a leading postmodernist (Barthes) and a thinker credited with pointing the way towards it (Robbe-Grillet). The latter’s big contention, when he wrote Towards a New Novel in 1963, was that the novel is a form that must constantly evolve. Meanwhile, Barthes argued that the author is dead; authorial intentions should be disregarded.

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Fowles expanded on this idea in an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 1968, called Notes on an Unfinished Novel. There, he wrote that The French Lieutenant’s Woman started not with an intellectual idea, but an image: “A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all.”

The quay became “specific” to him, as he could see the famous Lyme Regis Cobb from the bottom of his garden. The woman “seemed” Victorian, but since she was standing “with her back turned”, she struck him as a “reproach” to the age. And so the novel began to build. “Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan – that is the rule,” says Fowles. “Writing is like eating or making love: a natural process, not an artificial one.”

Fowles relied on his imagination; he even claimed to have been writing “science fiction” at certain points because no “respectable” (the scare quotes are his) Victorian novelist had ever described a couple in bed, leaving him with no guide when he came to write such a scene himself.

Link to the rest at The Guardian
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As the OP mentions, this book was written in 1967 and, PG will add, was published in 1969.

PG will note that those who graduated from high school or college in 1969 may have received invitations for their 50th class reunions at some time during the current year.

He asks the question – “Is a fifty-year-old novel still ‘post-modern’ or has it become an historical novel?”

Perhaps, it is post-post-post-modern now. Or prehistorical? Or post-historical?

Non-US

2 Comments to “The French Lieutenant’s Woman: a novel that comes from both the head and the heart”

  1. Not the sort of trailer one sees much these days, if at all.

  2. About whether it’s a modern novel, I don’t know.

    But, I read it back then, and still remember it as a powerful piece of work. The twisted back and forth, multiple endings, and other features of it in no way diminished the story. And, unlike most films of novels, the Hollywood version was very well done, and the use of the modern couple to provide the distance from the story worked.

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