- An Interview with John Fowles
Note: This interview was conducted in two phases: by letter and in person. In the letter phase, at Mr. Fowles's request, I sent a number of questions, which he answered in writing. From these responses, I formulated additional questions, which I asked during a tape-recorded interview conducted in Fowles's home in Lyme Regis, England, on 16 March 1984. The resulting interview combines the oral and written responses.
Barnum: You describe the domain of the novel as "one person's view of life." What is your view of life?
Fowles: One can't answer such a question truthfully in an interview. My sympathies in most public matters are with the Left; my view of the world's future, not very optimistic.
Barnum: Why is your view of the world not very optimistic? Do you mean that we're all going to be destroyed by the bomb or that humanity is not improving?
Fowles: I don't think humanity is improving. I think there's a good chance that we're all going to be destroyed by the bomb. But much more immediately worrying for me is the way we're destroying nature. [End Page 187]
Barnum: You have said that the key to your fiction lies in your relationship with nature, particularly because of its being an "experience whose deepest value lies in the fact that it cannot be directly described by any art . . . including that of words." Could you elaborate?
Fowles: My own attitude to nature has changed very considerably during my life, but it has always been important, I would now say vital, to me. I began by hunting and collecting it as a boy and adolescent, and rejected all that; but then fell into another trap—becoming a stock natural historian, obsessed with identifying and the quasi-scientific side. I would' now call my relationship one of love, certainly one of need. What most people look for in human friends and contacts, I look for in nonhuman nature. Like nature itself, I regard most of humanity, both private and public, with a good deal of suspicion—as inherently dangerous, though as often through ignorance as malice. The original sin of mankind is for me its age-old contempt for, or indifference to, the other species on this planet. In that, we are as a whole an invasive vermin, or plague.
I don't think any art or science can describe the whole reality of nature, partly because it is its experience now, in any given presence and with all the body's senses and the mind's knowledge, that matters. The true experiencing reduces one to feeling. Trying simultaneously to record the feeling is somehow intrusive and diminishing, like talking through great music. I often feel this in writing fiction—that one is trying to describe what one can't and ought not even to be trying; and so is condemned to a sort of vulgar futility, or eternal second best.
Barnum: You have said that your first ambition has always been to alter the society you live in. Is that still true? If so, how do you hope to accomplish that, and what do you want society to become?
Fowles: I said that a long time ago, and would now call it a totally unfulfilled hope. I know I may have helped a little in altering people's view of life—if I can believe their letters. I now think that this is the only practical "political" ambition a novelist can have. I should certainly like our present societies to become much fairer and more equal in economic terms; not so outrageously selfish, aggressive, and stupid in their supposedly Christian principles as America and Britain today. Western society is now in my view far too dominated by the middle-class ethos—anything goes, so long as the bourgeois way of life is preserved. The rise of this subtle tyranny—Gramsci's "cultural hegemony"—over the last forty years seems to me the most striking historical development of the century—and something very similar has happened in Russia also, of course. What fills me with gloom...