Culture Watch: A Review of a John Fowles Classic, Daniel Martin
By John Fowles
Published by Little, Brown © 1997
Hardcover, 629 pp.
Image is of John Fowles' former home, Belmont, at Lyme Regis, Dorset. Belmont is now a property of the Landmark Trust
A friend asked me what I was reading. When I told him it was Daniel Martin by John Fowles, he said, "That's a terrible title." For me, titles have always been a problem, so I didn't argue. I did, however, spend some time trying to think of a better one. This is first and foremost about Daniel Martin. The reader is left to superimpose whatever is required on the interior and exterior image of Daniel Martin, but what is offered is about as close as anyone can get to disclosing who he is.
The story line covers about forty years in the life of an Englishman who has become first a playwright, then a film scriptwriter. Over a long time, he makes comparisons between being English and being anything else, but most often, with being American. He declares his chagrin at the formalities and frozen traditions of English formal education and the class system, but never can hide his own debts to both.
Told at times in the words of Daniel Martin speaking as himself, at other times in the third person, this intensely detailed psychological, political, philosophical biography becomes so thickly layered, it would be easy to be overcome by it. As it is, it takes over 600 printed pages to tell it.
After the first reminiscence of his youth, Daniel reveals himself as an idealistic student at Oxford among four others whose backgrounds are entirely different from his own. He grew up without a mother under the cool, if not cold tutelage of a repressive father who is a vicar in a backwater farming community. One of his student friends is titled, privileged in every sense, and iconoclastic. Another young man is Catholic in a time before WWII when they were outsiders among typical English students, who devotes his life to philosophy. There are two young women, daughters of an American diplomat, who complete the group. There are acknowledged sexual tensions among the members of the group that lead to the romantic thread that ties the narrative together.
Settings are various and beautifully rendered. The reader sees the most idyllic of English landscapes at harvest time through the eyes of a strapping young man who is helping scythe the grain or bind the sheaves. That's a beginning that seems thoroughly misleading as the narrative continues, but in true literary tradition, foreshadows later events.
On the way to that, the reader is treated to intricate demolitions of the English vs. American psyches; English caste system; English, but also world politics; Hollywood vs. "serious" theatrical stage drama; Freudian attitudes; post-war social evolution...and more.
This is not a simple book. What amazed me is that it was almost impossible to put down.
There's an almost elided irony in the fact that his latest romantic conquest in California, one he takes quite seriously (one is not allowed to view him as a mere Don Juan) is an English girl, not an American. Plenty of space to compare English and American cinematic practices, stage versus film conventions. Daniel Martin does his best to take an objective view of his won prejudices.
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