Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

"Images are inherently fascistic because they overstamp the truth, however dim and blurred, of the real past experience; as if, faced with ruins, we must turn architects, not archaeologist.  The word is the most imprecise of signs.  Only a science-obsessed age could fail to comprehend that this is its great virtue, not its defect.  What I was trying to tell Jenny in Hollywood was that I would murder my past if I tried to evoke it on camera; and it is precisely because I can't really evoke it in words, can only hope to awaken some analogous experience in other memories and sensitivities, that it must be written."
Page 87  
All things considered I'm not sure this novel should work.  The ending result is far greater than the sum of the parts I can breakdown.  It's the lack of sense of direction that gives the novel both a leisurely feel and difficulty in expressing exactly what the book is about.  Daniel Martin is about identity, one man's place in the world, how he has come to be the person he is and, primarily, about the people and relationships he has shared that shaped his life.  
The title character is a very successful screenwriter who always feels he sold out when he stopped writing theatre and bought into the Hollywood way of life.  The impending death of a friend from cancer shatters the reality that Daniel has built for himself when he is called home to Oxford.  
It is upon Daniel's arrival in his native England that he begins to questions many things in his life.  Fowles never seeks to judge his characters; merely examines the multiple facets that govern how their lives have turned out the way they have.  Daniel reunites and reconciles with his terminal best friend Anthony and his wife Jane, whom he hasn't visited, nor had communication with for years.  The ugly past is recalled; the dirty laundry is cleaned and dried.  Anthony's death and a few recollections of the past show a unique intimacy shared by many of the main characters.  Jane, her sister Nell, Anthony, Nell's husband, and Daniel show how a group of friends, who all develop strong relationships with each other during their years at Oxford can come and go; in and out of each other's lives with varying degrees of significance: sometimes offering comfort and support, sometimes encouragement and laughter, other times marriage.  Fowles--in a very liberal definition of the word that I haven't seen used before--often times describes the intimacy of this group of friends as a type of incest: whatever happens between any of them is okay, excused and forgiven due to the fact that they all genuinely love each other, and yet it is because of the genuine feeling that they all share that certain things should be forbidden without having to say so.  
In coming home Daniel is quickly placed into a situation of forced intimacy with Caroline, his daughter who he has played a very small part in her life, and also with Nell, Caroline's mother, Daniel's ex-wife.  It is in getting to know Caroline better that Daniel gains some distance and objectivity in what he has left behind in Hollywood: Jenny McNeil, a young up-and-coming Scottish film star Caroline's age.  Daniel knows this relationship will never work and tries his best to break it off but he see how stubborn a young woman can be as he learns of Caroline's relationship with a B-list TV personality who is twice her age and her reluctance to give up on what she feels is right.
There is a simplicity to the story as much of what is told is nothing more than seeing Daniel go about day-to-day life, or as he says more than once, perhaps the life he should have been living.  While never disjunct the story does bounce around a lot between Daniel's past: near, recent and distant.  There are those who would say any deviation from chronological order is a bad, but the flashbacks are usually employed to highlight or further expound on some personality quark that one of the stubbornly intelligent characters clings to and refuses to relinquish; thus impeding all progress in their life. The vignettes that make up Daniel's past, some up to a hundred pages, often make up some of the most memorable reading of the book: such as Daniel growing up in the vicarage parish in the Church of England, or his relationship with 'two other sisters,' and in particular his first love.  Those are but a few of the lengthy passages that I could single out for re-reading on a lonely afternoon for a lovely way to pass time.  Another point of interest and source of constant reader involvement is figuring out who the narrater is.  Daniel's voice is a bit obvious, but I know Jenny wrote a few passages, Jane some others, the all-knowing third person narrater more still.  If someone definitively told me Anthony wrote any part of the book considering his heavy Christian convictions and highly academic, philosophical mind I'd have to re-access everything I thought I knew about Daniel Martin and read it again.  (And considering I've lived with this book for more than two months, I'm in no hurry to do that right now, though I can think of much worse fates in life than reading Fowles with regularity.)  
The book is a study on life, living, the world around us, the people who are important in our lives, and what we can do with the time given to us on Earth.  There is a lot of philosophy though it is dealt with enough of a light hand as to not need a reference guide to read the novel.  Daniel Martin perhaps builds to a vacation in Egypt with Daniel and Jane, it is proposed most innocently, and ends with the most dramatic of results--and not what you're thinking either.  The holiday shows a contrast and acceptance of the book's two most impossible characters and perhaps, if not acceptance the coming to terms with Daniel's most vicious philosophy: "To hell with cultural fashion; to hell with elitist guilt; to hell with existentialist nausea; and above all, to hell with the imagined that does not say, not only in, but behind the images, the real."  Which begs the questions when you've gone to hell with all the preceding, what exactly are you left with?
It's an extremely "English" novel, and Daniel has a bit of a funny crisis of conscious upon learning that he is in fact the most English of all Englishmen.  (More on the horrors of being English in a few days.)  In a nutshell, it could be said the book is about the differences in being American and English during the time of Daniel Martin's life.  I also feel that such a terse distillation of the book would undermine some of the more powerful, subtle and intimate aspects of the novel.  There is nothing difficult about reading Daniel Martin, but it is extremely complex.  At best guess this novel encompasses thirty years and the cast of characters involved is massive.  It's longer than War and Peace... and much like the latter wholly engrossing and worth your reading time.  As I said before, this is a book you live with for a while.  You won't always know where you're going, or for that matter where you currently are, but by the time you reach the final destination you'll be extremely happy you signed up for the ride.    


Marion said...

You make the book sound very compelling.

Chad Hull said...

Thanks Marion. It is compelling, but in a very hard to talk about why. I'm not sure books like this could get published today in a world where seemingly everything has to be as visceral and intense as The Hunger Games.

David said...

It was one of my favourite books many years ago. The hell of being English is a marvellous summary. I must reread. Burgess' Earthly Powers, while very different in tone, grazes in the same thematic stable.