The comfortably down-at-the-heel 18th century villa standing in a garden of lush bamboo and tropical shrubs, the yawning wooden gate and the sense of no one at home impose a feeling of déjà vu on the caller at the house of John Fowles. Perhaps it is because the title story of his best-selling collection, The Ebony Tower (and rarely does a book of short stories scale the bestseller list) tells of a young artist who comes to interview an older master at his country mansion and momentarily finds the house deserted—but two nude young women sprawled on the lawn. The visitor to Fowles is looking about for the nymphs when the author and his wife, Elizabeth, appear, calling out, “Sorry, we were delayed.” They are returning from a shopping expedition into Lyme Regis, the old town on England’s Dorset coast where they have lived 12 years.
The Ebony Tower consists of four stories and a translation of a medieval French romance. In a note Fowles suggests that the stories are linked as variations on certain themes in previous works. It is the first book Fowles has published since his hugely successful The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), a dazzlingly told love story that observed the conventions of the Victorian novel while illuminating them with the psychological insights of the 20th century. It had followed The Magus and The Collector, novels of quite different form and style that had explored dark crevasses of human behavior with an arresting power of language and situation.
As Fowles begins to talk, a literary chameleon whose life and works fuse slowly reveals his colors. Pausing to light a Mahawat—he smokes a dozen small cigars and 40 cigarettes daily and declares cheerfully, “Nicotine is a marvelous word-association drug”—the 49-year-old writer recalls his youth as the son of a suburban London cigar importer. His one sister was 15 years older; he grew up almost as an only child—”excellent for developing a secret world.” He remembers his youth as a period of repression, its sexual restrictiveness driving him further into his imagination. He did emerge as “head boy” at Bedford School, then picked up a degree in French at Oxford before embarking on a succession of teaching jobs.
One of them took him to the Greek isle of Spetsai, where in 1951 he became enmeshed in a triangle befitting the novels that were struggling—unsuccessfully at the time—to get out of him. “John didn’t make much impact on me at first,” says Elizabeth later in the visit. “He was shy and immature, and didn’t like the idea of being involved permanently with any woman, much less one already married”—as Elizabeth then was to another teacher. She goes on: “My marriage was breaking up. There was a potential of doom, and John was the catalyst.”
Six years after meeting, John and Elizabeth married. She had one daughter, Anna, from her first marriage but was unable to have another child. “I used to miss not having our own children,” Fowles says, “but I don’t regret it now. It has left me more time for other things.”
Fowles has always been an enthusiastic collector. (In his youth it was butterflies, like the manic protagonist of his first novel.) Today he concentrates on Staffordshire china, plant cuttings and seeds, and Edwardian postcards that crowd his bookshelves.
An ardent naturalist—”most of my best friends are nonhuman”—he rails at “the disgusting habit of classifying and naming everything” but adores contemplating the spiders in his garden. Fowles is also deeply committed to environmental issues, like the preservation of a Bristol Channel island or the site of a sewage plant.
Fowles writes at a Victorian mahogany store-counter-turned-desk in a second-floor study. It has a spectacular view over the curving quay on the sea-front, where his lonely heroine enters The French Lieutenant’s Woman. First drafts are pecked out “quite rapidly” with two fingers on a portable typewriter, then normally set aside for months before extensive rewriting. He explains his two stages of writing: “In the first—when you are emotional and vulnerable, right open like an oyster—a strong critical faculty is dangerous. Things are fluid, and you can still change your mind.” At present Fowles is working on “a very long novel about Englishness, how Americans see the English and the English see themselves.” The book, which won’t be ready for two years, has occupied him since The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Interrupting it to write The Ebony Tower in three months was “a relief.”
Fowles is kinder toward Americans than toward his own countrymen, possibly because his books have always been more favorably received in the U.S. “There’s more promise in America,” he says. “Here there is too much imitation of the classics.” He crosses the Atlantic to promote his books and says of the trips, “good anthropological visits.” But he does not envy his American counterparts: “The ruin of many American authors is that they lead a life so high they have to keep pumping out books to maintain it.”
A self-described leftist, Fowles shows his individuality by living in Lyme Regis, a town appealing to vacationers and retired Tories. But he rarely socializes with his stuffy neighbors. He and Elizabeth have forged a marriage that he says is “happy and satisfying.” Frequently addressing each other as “boy,” the Fowleses garden, watch Kojak on the telly and exchange traditional roles: John is “great at casseroles and omelettes,” says Elizabeth, and she does the driving. “He sits beside me and navigates. Trips to London bore him, so he sprawls in the back with his feet up and reads. Damned annoying, it is.”
John Fowles is a master of enigma, of stories streaked with ambiguities. The visitor to Fowles’s house reflects that in The Ebony Tower, the young painter was unsure of just what his host meant, of how much the old artist really intended to reveal himself. With his readers, and maybe with his visitors, John Fowles knows just where he wishes to leave them.