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Group Readings > The French Lieutenant's Woman

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message 1: by Candy (last edited Feb 15, 2010 03:13PM) (new)

Candy | 338 comments I went through a big phase of reading everything by John Fowles. There was a time when he was a super trendy and popular writer. He wrote a very scary novel turned into a movie called "The Collector" which I saw when I was pretty young and it scared the beejesus outta me. I think of it as awesome preview and ahead of it's time about serial killer novels and genre. I used to tell all my friends they had to read his strange "trippy" novel The Magus.

Here is an excerpt of the New York Times review of the mysterious novel The French Lieutenant's Woman
warning: Before you begin John Fowles's new novel, be certain there's only one log on the fire. If, unhappily, you lack the fireplace by which this book should be read, set an alarm clock. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is 467 pages long. No matter how fast a reader you may be, it's not good for the circulation to sit in one position for the length of time required to read it. You'll need something to remind you to stretch your legs every so often. It's that kind of book. It's filled with enchanting mysteries that demand solutions, and the solutions are withheld until the last page. And even beyond the end. When I finished it, I started over, searching for missed clues, testing the beginning in light of the end. If I'd had time, I'd have read it straight through again. The language is elegant enough, the solutions elusive enough.

The original 1969 review from NYTs here:

A little bio:

John Robert Fowles was born March 31, 1926 in Leigh-on-Sea, a small town located about 40 miles from London in the county of Essex, England. He recalls the English suburban culture of the 1930s as oppressively conformist and his family life as intensely conventional. Of his childhood, Fowles says "I have tried to escape ever since."

Fowles attended Bedford School, a large boarding school designed to prepare boys for university, from ages 13 to 18. After briefly attending the University of Edinburgh, Fowles began compulsory military service in 1945 with training at Dartmoor, where he spent the next two years. World War II ended shortly after his training began so Fowles never came near combat, and by1947 he had decided that the military life was not for him.

Fowles then spent four years at Oxford, where he discovered the writings of the French existentialists. In particular he admired Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose writings corresponded with his own ideas about conformity and the will of the individual. He received a degree in French in 1950 and began to consider a career as a writer.

Several teaching jobs followed: a year lecturing in English literature at the University of Poitiers, France; two years teaching English at Anargyrios College on the Greek island of Spetsai; and finally, between 1954 and 1963, teaching English at St. Godric's College in London, where he ultimately served as the department head.

The time spent in Greece was of great importance to Fowles. During his tenure on the island he began to write poetry and to overcome a long-time repression about writing. Between 1952 and 1960 he wrote several novels but offered none to a publisher, considering them all incomplete in some way and too lengthy.

In late 1960 Fowles completed the first draft of The Collector in just four weeks. He continued to revise it until the summer of 1962, when he submitted it to a publisher; it appeared in the spring of 1963 and was an immediate best-seller. The critical acclaim and commercial success of the book allowed Fowles to devote all of his time to writing.

The Aristos, a collection of philosophical thoughts and musings on art, human nature and other subjects, appeared the following year. Then in 1965, The Magus--drafts of which Fowles had been working on for over a decade-- was published. Among the seven novels that Fowles has written, The Magus has perhaps generated the most enduring interest, becoming something of a cult novel, particularly in the U.S.

With parallels to Shakespeare's The Tempest and Homer's The Odyssey, The Magus is a traditional quest story made complex by the incorporation of dilemmas involving freedom, hazard and a variety of existential uncertainties. Fowles compared it to a detective story because of the way it teases the reader: "You mislead them ideally to lead them into a greater's a trap which I hope will hook the reader," he says.

The most commercially successful of Fowles' novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman, appeared in 1969. It resembles a Victorian novel in structure and detail, while pushing the traditional boundaries of narrative in a very modern manner. Winner of several awards and made into a well-received film starring Meryl Streep in the title role, it is the book that today's casual readers seem to most associate with Fowles.

From here:

Here is a couple of links:

Beej is going to begin reading this book this I thought I would re-visit this awesome novel. Anyone else care to join us?

message 2: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Oh Candy, thank you for supplying so much info! I'm really, REALLY looking forward to reading this with you!

message 3: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments I was hoping others would join in on this venture Candy!

Whitaker? Hows about it?

message 4: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I'm in!! I love this novel. Read this ages ago so it'll be fun to revisit it again. Must go hustle down to get a copy. Yay! Fun.

message 5: by Beej (last edited Feb 17, 2010 05:41AM) (new)

Beej | 53 comments Yay! You made my day! Thank you! I have not read the book before nor have I seen the movie so I am a TFLW virgin.. (ahem!)

message 6: by Candy (last edited Feb 17, 2010 06:39AM) (new)

Candy | 338 comments Gee, this is great!

If anyone else has the time to join us...I am sure you won't be disappointed. It's got a strong story, with fascinating characters and it is also just slightly....not enough to throw a reader of...but just enough of experimental ideas to keep it extra fun.

Whitaker, I only picked up a copy from the library won't be getting to it till the weekend so we've got time for others to join us.

Andy? You in? Lee, Janet?

message 7: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments I had to order my copy and it will be here on Saturday.

message 8: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Candy and Whitaker, I received my copy yesterday and will be starting it this afternoon. Did you get your copies yet?

message 9: by Candy (new)

Candy | 338 comments Oh yes, I've got my copy. I have it right here and waiting to open it. I'm very much looking forward to this reading.

message 10: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Me too, me too! Yay! This is going to be so much fun and I always learn so much from you. xoxo

message 11: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Me too!

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I didn't know you were reading this book. I wonder if I can even find my copy!

message 13: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Oh please try to find it, Gabrielle, and join in!

Hi Whitaker, I've begun to read!!

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I'll try, but it'll be a chore, I think. Sebastien rearranged all my books. Poor guy thought he was doing me a favor, so I didn't say anything, but now I have a problem finding anything at all. LOL

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I found my book! :) I started reading last night. This is a book I couldn't get into before, but I do like it now. I suppose my mood just wasn't right for it last time.

message 16: by Candy (new)

Candy | 338 comments One of the things that I like about Fowles, but this novel in particular is that it combines a great story...with ideas.

Glad you found your copy Gabrielle.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I'm afraid of spoilers, Candy, so I'll just say that when I was reading it before, there was a part I liked a lot better than the other part. LOL That's ambiguous, I know, but I can clarify when we get to the discussion.

I like the writing style. I think it fits the subject matter perfectly.

I'm glad I found my copy, too. I love discussing this book, but sometimes I think this group is way over my head!

message 18: by Candy (new)

Candy | 338 comments Oh how funny Gabrielle...I find you so enchanting and complex that sometimes I feel I can't keep up with you!

Lets not imagine any of us are over anyone's head...I truly do not believe that about the world or readers. I believe novels and stories can lead us to exploring ideas. Ideas are way more interesting to me than "knowledge" or "experts" or "intellectualism".

Fowles was once considered an "intellectual author of novels"...but I think he just really wanted readers to enjoy a rousing good story...with paradigm shifts offered in ideas.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments Thanks so much, Candy. I believe that, too. I really like the book this time around. I couldn't really get into it before, but this time, it's much easier. That could be because the discussion is coming up. I always learn so much in those.

message 20: by Candy (new)

Candy | 338 comments Me too, discussing makes such a huge difference. I seriously can't imagine how I used to read so much before the internet and web boards!

Opening sentences in novels can be "collectable" and this first sentence here is charming. It's also very long!

And I think right away we are set by Fowles experiment. As he intices us about a piece of human made sea old the town is, how odd the people might be walking in the wind on this wall...he suddenly describes the wall as "folk art".

Fowles describes how he came to write the novel...

“It started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still in bed half asleep … I ignored this image; but it recurred … The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay … An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her … This— not literally—pregnant female image came at a time … when I was already halfway through another novel … It was an interference, but of such power that it soon came to make the previously planned work seem the intrusive element of my life … Once the seed germinates, reason and knowledge, culture and the rest have to start to grow it …”

The novel begins with this reference to "folk art" right away and is a foreshadowing of one of the concerns this novel has to history and a self-consciousness. I believe this time around I am going to find these art references, possibly selfishly, quite fun. I seem to remember he not only seems to describe Turner pantings, but Henry Moore sculpture.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I'm always amazed at the way authors come to write their works, whether poems, short stories, screenplays, or novels. It can begin with a sentence fragment, an image, or just a desire. But those ideas do take a long time to germinate if they're going to become something worthwhile.

From what I remember of Fowles' other works, he loves to set up reader expectations and then turn them on their head. I like that when it's done well, and Fowles' usually does it very well.

The writing in this book is beautiful. I think it fits the subject matter perfectly.

message 22: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Thanks for the photos Candy. That was a great line wasn't it? It's a great way to start the chapter with its forward and backward approach. I'm well into the book and I'm loving it.

message 23: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments What did y'all think of chapter 13?

message 24: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Oh my god, Candy. I just went back to your post with the photo link. Wow, that adds so much. Thank you.

message 25: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Feb 25, 2010 07:06AM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments Wonderful photos, Candy. I was in Lyme Regis for the short time I lived in England, but I wasn't there long enough to do all the exploring I wanted to do. Mostly I stayed around my house in Surrey, near Leatherhead. (Terrible name, I know, but a gorgeous place.)

Thanks so much for the photo links, Candy! :)

message 26: by Whitaker (last edited Feb 25, 2010 08:23AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Beej wrote: "What did y'all think of chapter 13?"

That really was a mess-with-your-head chapter no? First he goes well, these are all just characters I made up. And then he goes, but they have a life of their own.

He keeps doing that. He keeps puncturing the illusion, but somehow he's made the characters and story so compelling it doesn't make you stop believing in the characters. It's quite amazing. It's kind of like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting where it's art because of the picture, and it's art because he's showing you the innards of the picture.

message 27: by Beej (last edited Feb 25, 2010 09:50AM) (new)

Beej | 53 comments In a way, it was like a shy apology for the characters' actions...or nonactions, sort of a 'don't shoot the messenger' type of thing.

I think I understand where he is coming from; he says,

" A planned world is a dead world."
He asks,"A character is either 'real' or 'unreal?' If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile."

He says you may be a latterday Mrs. Poulteney, or so may your children, colleagues, friends. And that these characters must have their freedom.

In essence, I believe he is saying that there really is no such thing as fiction, there is no such thing as a novel or a novelist, that characters and their actions have existed somewhere and possibly, have existed in pieces of all of us. He, as the author, causes the characters to lose their authenticity if he, as author, takes away their choices.

But I wonder, is he also 'shyly' apologizing because Sarah did not jump from the window?

I love Fowles' idea of instead of chapter headings, referring to them as '..the Horizontality of Existence.' or 'The Illusions of Progress.' Gustave Flaubert made a similar statement concerning Madame Bovary, saying that Emma was not limited to existence in only his book, in her own little part of the world, but existed everywhere, at any time, in any little village and every place else.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments Very interesting, Whitaker and Beej. I do know Fowles likes to fool around with the readers' perceptions. I don't mind. Not in this book. I think it's too good.

message 29: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments " First he goes well, these are all just characters I made up. And then he goes, but they have a life of their own."

Whitaker, yeah, Fowler won't allow his characters to become predestined, will he? No pre-destination, here!

Gabrielle, this book is great and Fowles has truly captured the Victorian writing style, hasn't he?.

message 30: by Candy (last edited Feb 25, 2010 11:12AM) (new)

Candy | 338 comments Hey glad you all could get something from the pics. I really had a sen=se of the berm as having it's own life force. Gabrielle, I've never been to U.K. can't wait to go one of these days and explore these sites.

Whitaker...perfect comparison between Pollack and Fowles. I just happened to be reading an incredible essay about Pollack and the other Abstract Expressionists this morning!

What was of interest was that Mancuse called "the power of art to break the monopoly of established reality".

Which is weird on so many levels, one art is fake. (and is it relevant today that art's power is to break the monopolly of established reality?) Novels are fake. They attract us by combinations of realism and poetics...we want to believe the characters and lives of the characters...yet it's all pretend. A painting is setting up a reality or is contesting reality. Maybe we think Michaealangelo or Da Vinci was "realistic" but they were ticking our eyes with illusions of reality. Pollack was reminding us we are lookig at some kind of reality and also...the drips remind us, it's only paint. And it's as if Fowles wants us to care and be emotionally involved and also remember "it's only letters and words" put together.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I've been all over the south and west of the UK, but not the NE. Wish I had been.

Can't understand why I couldn't get into this book before. I love it this time around.

message 32: by Beej (last edited Feb 25, 2010 11:33AM) (new)

Beej | 53 comments But Candy, I'm not convinced novels and/or art are 'pretend.' I think they are both a 'true mirror' reflection, not illusion, of everyday reality.

message 33: by Candy (last edited Feb 25, 2010 02:18PM) (new)

Candy | 338 comments Well...let me sit on that question Beej. Maybe I'm a little too loose and fast with my feeling of "pretend".

How about "play". Art, novels, film are "play".

The illusion aspect though I feel is an imperative device of storytelling. All of novel work is based suspension of disbelief. Aw...but I mean this is a lovely way. It lies on both the writer and reader.

But I must just throw this out here for a moment and gather any future thoughts...

Because when you say that a novel or piece of writing is a "true mirror" I need to think about what you mean. I do not want to misunderstand you. Also there has been a trend in contemporary fiction to have a idea of creating reflection of everyday reality. I think fowles is messing with this and foreshadowing the fetish of realism in art. I don't think Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Ovid were concerned with realism. I think the concern with realism (for the sake of realism) is a trend of last century.

(or perhaps a pretension, at "realism"...I don't think there is any such thing as "realism"...but oh dear...)

message 34: by Beej (last edited Feb 25, 2010 02:28PM) (new)

Beej | 53 comments Its just something I have always believed, Candy, that the only true fiction is science fiction, that all else, no matter what has ever been written, has occured, somewhere, and many times over and often simultaneously. I think this is what Fowles means by 'the Horizontality of Existence.'

I think Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Ovid may not have been concerned with realism as much as they were geniuses at inately and intuitively writing it. In fact, to me, they had it down pat.

I have a feeling that if I could find a better way of explaining what I mean, if I could find the just-right words, you would agree. But you know me; if there's a way to use twenty words where two would do, I'll find it. :)

message 35: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Oh, can of worms! Real can of worms (metaphorically speaking of course).

can of worms

Fiction can seek to describe reality objectively as it is seen and lived. Here, I think of the realist novels like Middlemarch, which seems to be the tradition that Fowles is addressing.

Fiction can seek to describe reality subjectively as it seen from the mind of the person living it. Here, we have works like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses.

Fiction can strive for a greater truth about reality by using unreal/fantasy elements. Here, we can refer to works like A Hundred Years of Solitude. The best science fiction (like 1984 for example) also falls into this category.

Whether there is anything "real" about characters in a book is debatable, and a bit too metaphysical for me. In many ways, all fiction is unreal in the sense that real life is never ever as neat. The constraints imposed by fiction (even something as basic to the narrative process as the need to read and write sequentially imposes a flow) demand some structure whereas real life is never structured.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments The best fiction (even science fiction) expounds on something universal, I think. (Hence the wild popularity of AVATAR.) The string of events, the characters in a book, film, etc. are fictional, but their feelings, what they are searching for are universal.

I agree with Whitaker that real life is never so neat and structured, though, especially where film is concerned. Lives don't follow the three act structure, with specific turning points. But we're all searching for something bigger than "just ourselves," even if we define it differently, for love, success, we're all trying to overcome loss of some kind, achieve the unattainable, etc. The best books, films, etc. expound on this.

message 37: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I finally finished it today. How's everyone else coming along? It's as good as I remembered, although I think I'm taking different things from it than I did oh-so-many-years ago.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I like it more than I did the first time I tried to read it. I love the 19th century story, but I'm not at all fond of the metafiction of the author writing the 19th century story.

message 39: by Candy (new)

Candy | 338 comments Oops...I'm playing catch up here. I haven't finished the novel...but all of the ideas brought up about realism, imagination, fiction, science fiction have kept me thinking. Plus...I feel quite a enw set of responses to this novel from when I first read it (zoiks, 20 yrs ago? it can't be....!)

I'm formulating still...

I also like this novel more than the previous time I read it, which has been a pleasant surprise! I truly expected it to appeal to my romantic youth and experimental interests. It's a keeper as a potential classic!

message 40: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Oh gosh, I feel like such a slouch because I'm only on page 320. In my defense, I'm busy busy busy and usually only get to read right before I go to sleep at night. I'm hoping to finish it, however, by this weekend.

This is the first time I've read it so I'm not going into this with any expectations. I am amazed at how well Fowles writes as tho this were a Victorian novel. In fact, sometimes I lose sight of the fact that this is (a relatively) recently written.

message 41: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments I finished chapter 47 last night and had to reread it this morning. This is the chapter where Sarah's 'lie' is revealed. I won't say any more than that so as not to give any spoiler in case anyone else is reading this in the wings. But it came out of nowhere at me and left me confused. I'm hoping, as I move on in the book, Sarah will tell me more about her motive for this. As it stands right now, I am baffled.

message 42: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Mar 05, 2010 09:55PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments You're ahead of me, Beej, but I do know the story. I love the 19th century story of Charles and Earnestina and Sarah, but I'm put off by the metafiction. I'll certainly finish, though.

I like the fact that most of the chapters are short. It makes the reading go faster for me.

Yes, Beej, he really does capture the Victorian writing style. That's something else I love about the book.

message 43: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments Do you feel the characters are written in depth? I read someone's opinion over at Constant Reader that Victorian characters are usually not developed in depth. I really disagee with that, or so I thought I did. Now I'm wondering.

message 44: by Whitaker (last edited Mar 06, 2010 08:13AM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Beej wrote: "Do you feel the characters are written in depth?"

I think it depends on who, no? Charles is developed in great depth. It's interesting that you've brought this up. I need to go back and flip through the book again but I've been toying with the idea that descriptions of Sarah and her thoughts are almost always kept external (if it's authorial) or it's Charles's observation and he may not be accurate in his views of her. Which means that we never really know Sarah that well at all.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I agree with Whitaker, Beej. I think Charles has great depth. Ernestina less so, but I don't think she was meant to be a deep person. I think Fowles is purposely keeping us distanced from Sarah.

message 46: by Beej (last edited Mar 06, 2010 03:42PM) (new)

Beej | 53 comments I was thinking about this today and wondered if both Ernestina and Sarah represented one, the standards and morals of the Victorian nature, and the other, human nature. Just an idea but I thought it was applicable.

I agree with Whitaker, too..we do get to know Charles but we only know other characters by how Charles percieves them.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments That's an interesting thought, Beej. I'll admit, I just don't know, but it sounds right to me. :)

message 48: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments I forgot to mention that I bought 'The Magus' today, in case anybody wants to read it with me.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 48 comments I have it, and I'll be glad to read it, Beej, as I've been meaning to for some time, but I have to finish The Sheltering Sky first. I can only read two books at a time. ;) I'm slow.

message 50: by Beej (new)

Beej | 53 comments I've become a slow reader too, Gabrielle. I've heard The Magus is even better than TFLW which is hard for me to believe! I LOVE this book. I'm reading it extra slow because I don't want to miss anything.

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