restricted access The Romances of John Fowles (review)
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Reviewed by
Simon Loveday. The Romances of John Fowles. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. 174 pp. $25.00.

When a postmodernist critic discovers the fictions of John Fowles, his mouth begins to water. Here is a contemporary British novelist hip to all the structuralist, feminist, Marxist, self-reflexive metafictive, psychoanalytic abracadabra that Jacques and the Deconstructors sent right to the top of the New Wave charts. Not only that, Fowles seems to be actually proffering an invitation to the critics to deconstruct his novels. Recently, some postmodernist Fowles critics, indulging in a prickly form of psychobiographical criticism, have amused themselves not only with deconstructing the novels but with going after Fowles himself. These are the heavy metal deconstructors. First, Bruce Woodcock wrote an anti-Fowles feminist study that is a paradigm for a map of critical misreading. Now Simon Loveday in The Romances of John Fowles sets off with a similar map but proves a better navigator. He, most of the time, gets badly detoured, yet, occasionally, he finds his way and follows some interesting signs (such as his fine discussion of the Darwinian evolution and Robin Hood themes) to new destinations in Fowles criticism.

Early on, Loveday defines Fowles as a didactic novelist who would rather [End Page 322] be "a sound philosopher" than a "good novelist." He defines Fowles's fiction as dealing with four major themes: "the Few and the Many; the domaine; the contrast between the masculine and the feminine character; and the importance of freedom." Three of these themes (excluding "the domaine" theme) have been widely discussed by earlier Fowlers. Loveday acknowledges those previous discussions. His acknowledgment, however, does not stop him from discussing all of them in derivative detail. His purpose in discussing these themes is to align them with his thesis that the fiction of John Fowles is based upon the structures and concerns of the romance genre as opposed to the conventional method of reading Fowles's novels as combinations of social and psychological realism with the self-reflexive gameplaying of metafiction.

The petard upon which Loveday seeks to hoist Fowles's fiction is two-pronged. It is composed of the critical theory of Northrop Frye and an application of reader-response theory. The Fryed comparisons of the structures of Fowles's novels to the motifs and structures of mythic romances are not, in every instance, convincing. The reader-response speculations are exciting. Loveday, however, does not push their possibilities far enough. In fact, for about fifty pages in the middle of his text he drops the reader-response discussion altogether. When he picks it up again in the final third, his perceptions are excellent.

Once Loveday's theories and themes are defined, he proceeds in strict chronological file through the Fowles canon, reading each novel with widely varying degrees of critical originality and perception. Little new is to be learned from his chapter on The Collector (Fowles's most simplistic and overanalyzed book) and its theme of "collecting" or from his brief and superficial discussions of "Poor Koko," "The Enigma," and "The Cloud" (though his in-depth reading of the title story in that collection is brilliant). Conversely, though uneven, Loveday's discussions of The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Daniel Martin are worth reading.

Because Fowles's earlier novels have been read and reread in so many critical ways, the critics coming to Fowles's fiction today have to rewrite the novels almost in the same spirit that Fowles himself rewrote The Magus. Loveday's reading of The Magus, in which "subversion of narrative goes hand in hand with subversion of narrator," ingeniously deconstructs that book. He is much less original and successful in his analysis of the collisions among The French Lieutenant's Woman's TEXT, subtexts, and intertexts; nevertheless he does shake out a number of interesting ideas concerning Fowles's reader-response machinations in that novel. The Daniel Martin chapter is excellent.

At one point in his book, Loveday states that he "set out in this section to itemise and then try to understand. . . ." He is, indeed, a sort of literary accountant, toting things up with a mathematical bloodlessness and steadfastly...