Sunday, March 14, 2010

Daniel Martin

Readers of this blog will remember my esteem for Fowles, the details of which can be read here. I finally finished his last major novel Daniel Martin, and I'm ready to take a look at it.

Daniel Martin, the eponymous "hero" of the novel, is an English screenwriter, dividing his time between California, his girlfriend Jenny, and Thorncombe, the town of his youth, and finally London, where his adult daughter Caroline lives. Martin is suddenly summoned to Oxford, where his friend from his university days, Anthony, is dying and wishes to reconcile with Martin. He leaves Jenny behind, and re-enters the world of his ex-wife, Nell, and her sister Jane, who is married to Anthony. It seems that before the two couples were married, Martin and Jane enjoyed a sexual encounter, and Martin is haunted by the "what if" of which sister he should have married.

Daniel Martin, the novel, is a metaphorical journey into the past. The reader is treated to numerous flashbacks, one of which, when Daniel remembers his first love, to a farmgirl of a lower class than he, is a pure and simple masterpiece in of itself, a Hardyesque paean to the old English ways of doing things.

Likewise, Fowles himself admitted that Daniel Martin is a long novel about Englishness, what it means to be an Englishman living in the present (the Seventies).This is especially of interest to me, considering my current tastes and inclinations.

Fowles is a Janus of writers. Firstly, there is the consummate storyteller, eager to unravel the mysteries of existence with believable characters, engaging situations, and excellent machinations of plot. Secondly, there is the playful man of metafiction, constantly examining the parameters of a novel, examining the paradigm shift of narrative. Both of these authors figure into this novel of the inner journey.

The journey into the past is replete with constant imagery of greenery, botany, and lush fields of agriculture, while the modern world consists of imagery relating to masks, mirrors, and machinery. It is a credit to Fowles' skill as a novelist that the structure of metaphor is articulate and never oblique.

However, it is a discredit to the author's skills that this long novel is, in fact, quite boring, the most egregious crimes of all literature. Fowles has asked the reader to experience 700 pages of never-ending conversations and introspection.

Dan's skills as a screenwriter are commented on by other characters and by himself, consistently remarking that he is only able to create unrealistic women, that he has zero insight into the mind of a woman. But, Fowles treats us to paragraphs upon paragraphs of stilted 70's era psychobabble that attempts to divulge the motives and feelings of every character Dan meets. (Unfortunately, it's a matter of Fowles telling, rather than showing, a didactic trait very characteristic of all of his novels.) It is an inconsistent trait.

Among other inconsistencies is the metafictional aspects of the novel. Many reviews comment on the supposedly unaccountable switch between first and third person narration. It seems to switch paragraph to paragraph, with no logic. As the novel develops, we realize that Jenny, in California, is writing scenes of her life and of Dan's life; hence the third person voice, while Dan is the first.

Jenny tells Dan on the phone that he can't believe a word of what she writes, thus putting the entire novel into a different light, making the audience question the veracity of all that has transpired. I suppose it is left to the audience to determine which parts are true and false.

On top of this metafictional shakiness is Dan's aspirations to write a novel. He has always been a dramatist, rather than novelist, and he worries that he won't be able to exercise the proper muscles for such a task. He contemplates a semi-autobiographical approach, but then, in a wondrous blunder, comments that Dan himself is unsuitable as a protagonist in a novel. For me, this is an almost fatal mistake for the novel. To admit the faults of this novel does not, in no way shape or form, excuse them. In fact, it exposes them to a greater degree.

Perhaps I've outgrown metafiction, and Fowles to an extent. Dan the protagonist is a loathsome, selfish and detached person, and to point it out to the reader just makes the metafictional exercise quite sophomoric, which is unforgivable considering this is Fowles' fifth major novel.

Daniel Martin, the novel, is in dire need of editing, tightening, and improvement. At 700 pages, it is far too long, and the plot not complex enough to sustain my interest. Indeed this novel tried my patience to the point of exasperation by the last 150 pages. Fowles is a skilled fabricator (a compliment that would surely please him), but this novel asks too much with little reward.

I had been thinking of attempting The Magus again, but this novel magnifies all that I dislike about Fowles' novels, and what I didn't like about The Magus as well. Daniel Martin is easily the worst of all of Fowles' projects, and should only be read by serious fans of the author. Otherwise, stay away.

As always, thanks for reading. Next on my list of books to read is poor Byatt's Babel Tower. It's been sitting there, from the library, waiting to be read, and I'm going to jump right on it. After that, I think I'm either going to tackle some D. H. Lawrence or On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I also managed to get my hands on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the most recent winner of the Booker Prize, but there's no rush to start that yet.

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