My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Collector (1963) by John Fowles is the second book I have read by him and it is safe to say that I am without question a huge fan.
Fowles is able to do what most other authors only dream of with the two narrative voices that are as distinct and profound as the other, illuminating the story from mere words on a page to a true memory that is just as haunting in one form of action as it is in its recondite social commentary.
The book is comprised into three parts and two character points-of-view. The first, third and fourth sections are the majority and are comprised of Frederick Clegg’s voice. The second section is the voice of Miranda Grey, an art student.
Clegg (who is called Caliban by Miranda) is a lonely clerk who lucks upon the lottery. He purchases a cottage in the woods near Lewes, England and decides to kidnap Miranda and hold her in a special room he has built in the cellar of his house. Clegg has no sexual desire, being somewhat either impotent or mentally twisted, and only photographs Miranda in sexually provocative poses. He promises to never harm her and instead lavishes her with art utensils, music records, clothes and jewelry. Nevertheless, he remains an unreliable narrator who falsely appears more as a star-struck lover than a madman. Clegg reflects about Miranda:
”I could sit there all night watching her, just the shape of her head and the way the hair fell from it with a special curve, so graceful it was, like the shape of a swallowtail. It was like a veil or a cloud, it would lie like silk strands all untidy and loose but lovely over her shoulders. I wish I had words to describe it like a poet would or an artist. She had a way of throwing it back when it had fallen too much forward, it was just a simple natural movement. Sometimes I wanted to say to her, please do it again, please let your hair fall forward to toss it back” (p 61).
What is quite extraordinary with Fowles’s projections, in addition to his ability to draw shapes and images and emotions from language, is that The Collector becomes a psychoanalytic formulation of an evil mind. One might argue quickly that it is Clegg/Caliban who is the monster, but when Fowles introduces Miranda’s thoughts in section two, the reader learns of Clegg’s counterpart in the form of an artist known as G.P.
As she writes and reflects in her personal diary, G.P.’s treatment of Miranda is far more heinous than Clegg’s singular act of imprisoning the middle-class art student. Clegg, albeit a monster by his own right (this can be without question), treats Miranda far better and with far more mutual respect (on the level of lover-to-lover) than G.P. does to Miranda (despite the demand of pornographic pictures Clegg makes on Miranda). Yet, Clegg discovers it is G.P. who Miranda loves at the novel’s end. And Clegg best sums it up when he thinks, ”When Miranda became the purpose of my life I should say I was at least as good as the next man, as it turned out” (p 20).
Fowles’s in his book The Aristos (1964) discusses the themes of The Collector and asserts that English society (at the time of the sixties) was diverging into two social classes of the upper-class and the middle-class. Fowles follows in the footsteps of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who argued that the ”aristoi” or the intellectually and morally elite remained superior over the ”hoi polloi” or the conforming, ignorant masses.
Through Miranda it is clear that the elitist G.P. will never come to love her, and yet it is her affection and love she gives to such a man. Likewise, a man of new wealth, Clegg fails in his demented design to sway Miranda (also the character in The Tempest whose affections are won by Ferdinand) to a life of happiness.
She reminisces on G.P. and Clegg:
”I know what I am to him. A butterfly he has always wanted to catch. I remember (the very first time I met him) G.P. saying that collectors were the worst animals of all. He meant art collectors, of course. I didn’t really understand, I thought he was just trying to shock Caroline–and me. But of course, he is right. They’re anti-life, anti-art, anti-everything” (p 116).
Fowles is able to dazzle the imagination with his expert craft of storytelling, but far below the surface of the narrative lies a social proclamation that will leave you asking and debating: who was really the monster and on what level?
The Collector is a horror thriller but it also edges its boundaries to that of a fairy tale, to the likes of those little children who come face to face with the witch deep in the woods that hides her little cottage. Fowles is a remarkable writer and thinker and it is for this reason I strongly recommend his book.