Monday, November 07, 2005

John Fowles

has died. (Link via Maud Newton.)

That really feels like the end of an era to me. In many ways I am very much like my fifteen-year-old self, but one way in which the two selves are largely discontinuous is that at that age I spent large amounts of time reading the more demanding kind of twentieth-century literary fiction. (Whereas now I'm pretty lazy--well, I read a lot of more demanding stuff for work--but for fun I mostly read things that will immediately gratify me. Also I don't play any musical instruments. Or do math. Or live with my parents. These are the main differences.)

It is an equal mix ridiculous and endearing in retrospect, I suppose, but I had (for instance) Anthony Burgess's rather peculiar 1984 book titled 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (if I had it here in front of me, I'd give you a better sense of its crankiness, but I don't, so will just say from memory that it includes Kingsley Amis's The Alteration--a good but odd choice--and Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings--a ludicrous choice--plus a disproportionate quantity of rather dreary postwar British fiction like David Lodge's How Far Can You Go? in addition to some more obvious picks). And I very seriously and solemnly used it as a checklist and read through almost all of them, including (stoically, with some enjoyment especially at the more perverse parts but also with a dictionary in hand since for once I didn't know what all the words meant already) Gravity's Rainbow. Actually a rather fun moment a few years ago was when I had my Literature Humanities students over for dinner at the end of the year--I'm breaking my usual rule of not commenting on anything to do with my students or my work life, but it was such a nice thing I don't think it's a problem--and one of the best students I've had at Columbia spotted the Burgess book on my shelf and was mesmerizedly flipping through it, I pressed it on him & felt like I was passing on the torch to the younger generation. Pretty funny.

Of course at that age I also read a ton of crime and science fiction and fantasy novels, and classic nineteenth-century novels, and all that sort of thing, but I think it was from ages 13 to 16 or so that I had a really unlimited appetite for the most cerebral twentieth-century fiction. I guess once I got to college, I figured out how to find and read exactly the things I wanted to, and my desire for challenging material got channeled into literary theory and eighteenth-century political writing and all sorts of other things. But John Fowles was a particular favorite of mine in those teenage years, and I read his books again and again (it will seem almost unbelievable to someone who knows me now, but The Magus in particular was possibly my favorite novel--I think teenagers have a much higher tolerance for over-intellectual wordplay, creepy sexuality and vaguely occult mysticism than grownups). (Also there is a very good scene with rabbits in Daniel Martin. Actually, all his books are kind of great, though not so much the kind of thing I read now.) Anyway, RIP. Strange. Sad.

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