My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Daniel Martin (1977) by John Fowles—as he says in an interview found at the back of his fifth book, what some might call a romance void of romance—relates to being mostly about his exploits in childhood and in America, and what Christopher Lehmann-Haupt describes in his New York Times review called “Un-Inventing the Novel” (dated September 13, 1977) as Mr. Fowles’s attempt to pointedly “uninvent the nihilistic novel of the absurd.”
The 629-page cynical bildungsroman explores the story of a Hollywood screenwriter undergoing an existential crises. Dan Martin—who contemplates writing a memoir with his name changed to ‘Simon Wolfe’, the book which we are supposedly now reading that switches between the primary third person to an occasional first person point-of-view—is carried from the harvest fields of England as a teen in 1942—holding one of the best opening lines and chapters I’ve ever read and reminiscent of Faulkner in his prime: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation” (p 3)—from Dan’s time as a lovelorn-Oxford pupil, to a Californian dramatist, to a Thorncombe recluse and finally to an Egyptian-Syrian tourist researching Lord Kitchener for a new script.
Dan Martin throughout his humanistic narrative, however, struggles with an internal choice between his twenty-something-year-old lover named Jenny McNeil (an actress in Hollywood) and Jane (the former lover at Oxford who married Dan’s ex-friend Anthony who lies on his deathbed which opens Dan’s call to adventure with a request for them to meet once more in London, where Anthony will ask Dan to care for Jane). Outlining the dualism and parallelisms found throughout Daniel Martin, Dan contemplates existentialism at one point:
“Our surrender to existentialism and each other was also, of course, fraught with evil. It defiled the printed text of life; broke codes with a vengeance; and it gave Dan a fatal taste for adultery, for seducing, for playing Jane’s part that day. It might seem good, as great yet immoral art can be good; good in sacrificing all to self; but we didn’t realize the nonexchangeability of life and art. In reality that day Dan did not understand what was happening; that as he had been led in, so must he be led out” (p 91).
And it will be these ‘codes’ and ‘revelations of immortality and immorality’ and ‘odes to self’ and the ‘nonexchangeability of life and art’ which lays the foundation for this journey our eponymous hero finds himself on in the novel.
To begin, we should consider John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction and how Daniel Martin is considered along with the considerations of what makes Art:
“Daniel Martin’s conclusion, and evidently John Fowles’, is the one inevitable for any true artist. He will tell in the novel he means to write—the novel we are reading—the truth, in effect Spinoza’s truth, that outside civilization (privilege) we are nothing, mere battered brutes without choices, whereas inside, however unfair it may be, we have hope, including the hope that our good fortune may spread to others. Martin exclaims, ‘To hell with cultural fashion; to hell with elitist guilt; to hell with existentialist nausea; and above all, to hell with the imagined that does not say, not only in, but behind the images, the real.’
“The would-be artist who cannot tell moral truth from statistics, who cannot find ‘the real’—both in his images and behind them, as Fowles says—must inevitably wander lost in false questions of relativity” (p 51).
Fowles, channeled through Dan Martin, has his own contemporary ruminations on the Artist and his Art, which are still relatable today and to John Gardner:
“No creator can like critics. There is too much difference between the two activities. One is begetting, the other surgery. However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator; by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal… (p 99)
“The commercial cinema is like a hallucinogenic drug: it distorts the vision of all who work in it. What is at stake behind the public scenes is always personal power and prestige, which reduce the industry to a poker-table where every player must, if he is to survive, become some kind of professional cheat, or hustler. Success is always with the two-faced; and one can no more enter the game innocently (though Dan did his best) than a house with BORDELLO in neon lights across its front… It cannot be an art, in this form. No art could so invariably prefer the crook to the honest man, the Tartuffe to the plain-speaker, the mediocrity to the genius, accountancy to all aesthetic and moral principle; could instal a debased argument from populism, pandering to the lowest common denominator, at is heart” (p 136)
“But I was what the Victorians banned from their arts: a dramatist. I think they condemned and castrated the theater for so long because they knew the stage is a long step nearer an indecent reality than the novel. It tells secrets publicly, it gabs to strangers, its lines are spoken not by anonymous print, in a solitude like that of defecation or masturbation, merely in the single mind, but by men and women in front of an audience. The novel, in print, is very English; the theater (despite Shakespeare) is not… (p 158)
“No doubt all art has to be based on life; and no doubt much of it has to be based on life in the form of the artist’s own experience. I can also see that some such experience might justify public revenge. What I cannot see is how any responsible artist can use his art to transfer his own clear guilt, and in closely circumstantial manner, to the innocent… (p 165)
“All artistic making, however imperfect, however tainted by commerce, was contenting compared to the work most of the rest of the world was condemned to” (p 402).
Somehow wading through the thickness of many more ruminations on the politics of the novel, differences between the Americans and the British (often humorous), myth, Vietnam, English modesty, imperialism (often redundant), Fowles manages to capture the nature of the Artist lost in his Art in a scene where Dan and Nell (whom he would later marry and divorce) along with Jane and Anthony vacationing in Italy during their final summer together. After drinking wine over dinner, the four strip naked and wade into a listless sea:
“Perhaps those beautiful tomb-walls somewhere inland behind the beach; perhaps the fact the holiday was near its end; no, something deeper than that, a mysterious unison, and strangely uncarnal, in spite of our naked bodies. I have had very few religious moments in my life. The profound difference between Anthony and myself—and our types of mankind—is that I did for a few moments there feel unaccountably happy; yet I could see that for him, the supposedly religious man, this was no more than a faintly embarrassing midnight jape. Or I can put it like this: he saw me as the brother-in-law he liked, I saw him as the brother I loved. It was a moment that had both an infinity and an evanescence—an intense closeness, yet no more durable than the tiny shimmering organisms in the water around us.
“I tried repeatedly in later years to put those few moments into my work—and always had to cut them out. It took me time to discover that even atheists need a sense of blasphemy. And loss. Like the vanished Etruscans, we should never be together like that again. Perhaps I knew that then, also” (p 110).
When Dan faces Anthony, a don who ended up with Jane, lying in the hospital near death, Anthony requests Dan to watch over Jane, although the two have not spoken in years. And in typical Fowles fashion diving headfirst into profundity, Dan thinks to himself:
“A code of intercourse was being broken, another proposed; and Dan, if he could not grasp its full significance consciously, knew that, whatever the state of Anthony’s specific faith, he retained a far deeper one in a universal absolute. His seeming obliviousness to time, interval, to all the outward rest, was in fact a mere function of that: what I ask is timeless…a preposterous, but true, demand of personal moral being. You may wonder at me, laugh at me, despise me for professing both a faith and a discipline the world increasingly despises: but that is neither who I am at this moment nor why we are here. Perhaps it was the proximity of death; yet it seemed to Dan as if he had always been mistaken in one assumption: that this man was a philosopher merely by intellect and a cast of mind. Underneath, and movingly, lay something very primitive and simple, of the innocence of childhood; and also of true adulthood, of that other philosopher who had once preferred hemlock to a lie” (p 178).
Preparing the reader for Dan’s finale much later with Jane in Syria, the Artist and the Creation, the Fowles-Martin-Wolfe presence, emerges a little later to infer back to the opening sentence and conduct a metamorphosis of thought and existence:
“I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed. Perhaps what Dan always wanted of his looking-glasses was not his own face, but the way through them. This kind of mind is self-satisfied only in the sense that one must suppose God is self-satisfied—in an eternity of presents; in his potentiality, not his fulfillment” (p 208).
By journey’s end while in Syria, at the edge of civilization, Dan and Jane are confronted at last with the love they had briefly shared with one another in their Oxford days, if but for a single afternoon. Our hero, after a night of making love to his soul-mate, awakes:
“Dan was deeply asleep when the knocks came on the door. He called, or groaned, from where he lay. There was an obscure mutter, footsteps went away. A cold first light came through the shutters. For a few moments, still half asleep, he had completely forgotten where he was; he lay trying to conform the room to his bedroom at Thorncombe, in a familiar maze between sequence-despising dream and coherent reality. Then he was aware that he was not wearing pajamas. He remembered. Yet for a few moments more he continued lying as he was, knowing he had only to turn, to reach back a hand. Something in whatever he had dreamed seemed to have washed his mind free of anxiety; in that shared stillness, silence, dawn, he would always regain her. He reached back a hand. But it met bedclothes, not the smooth, warm, female skin it expected. He turned sharply on an elbow, fully awake now.
“There was no one there: an indentation in a pillow, the blankets carefully pulled up. Her coat had also gone from the chair” (p 602).
Such the story goes until the end is revealed between Dan and Jane. Did the two finally end up together after decades of being separated from one another by personal games and politics? I’m not telling. You’ll just have to read the book.
But I will add to Dan’s final reflections, a culmination of thoughts and beliefs from his self-aggrandized journey, as he stares at the self-portrait of Rembrandt:
“Dan felt dwarfed, in his century, his personal being, his own art…He could see only one consolation in those remorseless and aloof Dutch eyes. It is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel. Dan began at last to detect it behind the surface of the painting; behind the sternness lay the declaration of the one true marriage in the mind mankind is allowed, the ultimate citadel of humanism. No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion” (p 629).
May we all share in a lot more of both as we choose to learn to feel more. And as you search for the true expression of yourself, much like Daniel Martin and John Fowles did,
Keep reading and smiling.