I just finished reading John Fowles ‘Daniel Martin’. The writing is wonderful and full of great vocabulary. There is nuance to the characters and an interesting setting of postwar England and America. Fowles is obviously intelligent and educated, the presentation of ideas is well done. But there is an off note. As they accuse the main character of using his life and relationship for material in a play, so I think Fowles uses his in this book. But there is a sophomoric tallying of the women he has bedded, which stresses the bigger flaw, a lack of heart and emotion. The characters have big brains and over-sized libidos, but a lack of emotional connections. I can put some down to that British reserve and the stiff upper lip, but there is an imbalance that affects the entire work.
The novel veers dangerously close to misogynistic, with women called sluts and ‘The British Open’ while displaying a lack of self-awareness in this behaviour by men.
We read to experience with the characters, to travel a journey with them, and to grow with them. I am not sure Daniel grows, and we don’t feel with him when he enters a relationship or when they end. His mental distance to everyone else, including his daughter, is explained, but never explored. It’s odd.
I am developing a theory for the novel. The literary novel, not the potboiler, the obviously best seller targeted work, although I believe a literary novel can be a best seller, and the literary author should aim for that. Not as a pandering or sell out effort, but because good fiction and great ideas need to reach a large audience. Our society needs that. And an author should embrace the challenge of writing for a large audience. Anyone can write a novel nobody will buy or read.
So the idea I am developing is that a successful novel sits on three pillars. Those pillars are one, intellect, two, heart, emotion or passion, and three, physicality. There is some overlap in that passion can be heartfelt and sexual.
An excellent novel sits on these three supports, as a stool sits on three legs. If any one area is too prevalent, the work becomes stilted or cheap. Too much physicality becomes porn. Too much emotion becomes a genre. And too much intellect becomes didactic, preachy, or just plain boring.
A novel must entertain first. It must allow a reader to immerse into an experience, to think, feel, see (all senses; taste, hear, touch, smell), love, learn and grow with the characters.
A full adult experience must engage the mind, the body, and the heart.
I am looking back at novels I loved, liked, disliked and hated. I am not seeing many that I feel get this balance right. Anna Karenina does, but I would suggest it is weak in the physical, but that can be attributed to the Czarist sensors. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I feel he is weak on the intellectual side. Henry Mill gets the intellect right, and the passion and physicality is good, but the work is weak for a lack of heart. I wanted to tell Miller he needs to read his lover Anais Nin’s ‘Letter to the Collector’. George Eliot is well balanced, if suffering a bit on the passionate side, but again I think this is a sign of the Victorian times she lived in. Joyce lacks passion, probably because of his church background. Dickens is weak on the intellect, and tended to caricatures.
I finished reading John Gardner’s ‘On Moral Fiction’ and developing my own ideas at the same time. I think Gardner, Fowles, Miller and others write great prose, but their novels suffer from a lack of one element or more of the holy triumvirate of fiction. There must be some balance of intellect, physicality, and heart or emotion. In parallel to reading Gardner, I read John Fowles’ ‘Daniel Martin’. It is so very English, and Oxford College intellectual, with a dash of sex thrown in as a nod to be trendy and cool. But it is too detached and missing any emotional connections. The characters think about, analyze and verbalize their relationships, but don’t immerse and experience love, hate, or any sensations on the spectrum of those emotions.
I am reminded of a man who was arrested for having sex with a corpse. ‘Dead!?’ he exclaimed. ‘I thought she was British.’
There is are missing elements of physicality and heart. It may be great literature in the cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge, but it falls flat for the masses of people with blood pumping flesh.
Readers want to experience with the characters, not chat with them over a bridge game. Great literature speaks to us, moves us, with all three elements tied together. The intellect is important in that where we are driven to by great literature must be towards the light, to goodness, and decency, and equality. Fairness.
Understanding our world, thinking about it, seeing faults, issues, and areas for improvement, these are articulated in language and the mind. Intellect is where we process. But body and heart and soul is where we experience life and literature, indeed all art. Art is never a wholly intellectual exercise, as much as some try to make it so. A great work of art must address us through all our senses, and must be interpreted through all three faculties. Intellect alone is too barren. But heart and physicality alone are dangerous things. A beating drum can lead men into war, blind rage can facilitate many atrocities, self-righteous certainty can ignore decency.
Finding a balance in the art I create is my goal. I am a moral man, and I believe my writing will reflect that morality. I believe in fairness, democracy, equality, freedom. I believe in education without indoctrination. Teaching people how to learn and evaluate, rather than teaching what to think. I think that is the standard ‘liberal’ education.
So to John Fowles’ ‘Daniel Martin’. I am back and forth on it, some sections I think are great, and others are self indulgent. I have another theory that famous writers are allowed this kind of self indulgence by editors who lose the ability to tell writers to cut. I should be so lucky to ever join this group. But I don’t think they do their clients a great favour, as they end up publishing books that few people want to read.
Some scenes are wonderful, like the opening where young Daniel is helping bring in the wheat during the war. Exquisite. And the young Daniel’s first relationship with the farm girl, Nancy. It disappointed me he made middle-aged Nancy a frump. There is a misogynist streak to Fowles that is not becoming. And the scene with Miriam and Marjory: ‘You mean—Christ, Dan, what you been doin’ all your life? Your age… and you never been to the bloody dogs? She grimaces across me at Marjory, mouths like a gossiping old backyard mum. It’s ‘is books. ‘E loves ‘is books.’ He hits a vein of pure gold, then runs and hides from it, embarrassed by his history and heritage. Sad. Lawrence loved this sort of thing.
Reading ‘Daniel Martin’ I got depressed, that I could not write like him. Although I don’t especially like the book. Too many of the chapters are lectures or essays, poorly disguised as conversations.
Half way through Daniel Martin, my interest flagged. This is dry, cerebral stuff. I expect some passion in my literature. Lust, love, anger, hate. Angst. Flesh and blood. This book is too cerebral. But I quit ‘Gone With the Wind’ halfway through, I need to finish this one. Plus, both Fowles and Gardner were such giants. I feel I should be able to speak of them. But, I had planned to read some modern novels, and Daniel Martin is not modern, having been published in 1977. I will finish it, write a review, and then find something more current.
Around page 1028 of 1474 pages, the character Dan is considering cheating on his younger girlfriend Jenny, and has just been let off the hook from being a total shit, by Jenny having sex with an actor in the movie she is shooting and his girlfriend. Contrived. Cheap. And amoral.
I am not sure that I see Daniel growing, that there is a character arc beyond a philandering middle-aged fool manipulating both characters and women to present himself in a light he thinks is flattering, but is really decrepit. I am at the point where he is about to seduce his former sister-in-law, two weeks a widow, and had just conveniently broken up with her adulterer boyfriend.
At one point the character Daniel jokes about calling down to a policeman speaking to a hobo and committing a Deus ex machina intrusion, but it feels like the author is constantly doing that with this plot. Not to make the story work, but to absolve the main character of any moral responsibility.
His work is stilted, lacking in emotion, passion or love, and espouses values I find repugnant. More than anything I think writers, and novelists especially, are supposed to see the world as it is, and have empathy for all around them. Fowles sees the world as he wants it to be, and it is not a pleasant vision, peopled with womanizers and dried up old bores who lack any moral compass.
I read Fowles was ashamed of his family and their values. I lean the other way, enjoying family, community and friends, and seeing their value to our society.
I was incredulous that Jane and Dan fell in love. I could not see what either saw in the other.
Jane was boring, and in response to her boring life embraced communism, a decrepit hateful system that has murdered tens of millions of people, enslaved even more, and has been rejected by people and history. Only China is still communist, and only in name, as they are really just totalitarian.
Dan is a snob, a sellout, a womanizer, and heading towards recluse. He has no friends, because he is a shit. He also has no emotions, which made following him through seven hundred pages painful. What Jane sees in him is beyond me.
I read ‘Daniel Martin’ because John Gardner recommended it in ‘On Moral Fiction’, and now I am doubting the advice Gardner gives.
Three stars, barely.
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July 11, 2022
Review of John Fowles’ ‘Daniel Martin’