Today, I have decided to suggest for my readers a review about a novel that I consider as the best novel that I have ever read. It's called "The French Lieutenant Woman" for its writer John Fowels. The following review is taken from The new york Times and written by By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT :
On the Third Try, John Fowles Connects
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
A 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.
First of all, there is Mr. Fowles's story–a story so irresistibly novelistic that he has disguised it as a Victorian romance, one thinks at first. The year is 1867. Our leading man, Mr. Charles Smithson, is looking forward to an excellent marriage to Miss Ernestina Freeman, the fair daughter of a wealthy tradesman. Charles is in the prime of life (32), well-born (with prospects of a baronetcy), a gentleman of honor, a scientist of sorts, quite modern, an adherent of Mr. Darwin's writings.
A Destined Convergence
One day, while walking by the sea with his betrothed, and exchanging hyperbolical pleasantries, Charles comes upon a strange young woman standing forlornly, "her stare aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon." Upon asking Ernestina about the woman's identity, he learns that she is Sarah Woodruff, known to the residents of Lyme Regis, Dorset, as the abandoned lover of a French naval officer, and a "hoer."
Sarah is not precisely beautiful. But to Charles there is something in her eyes and in her manner that sets her far apart, that makes her the secret possessor of possibilities that marriage to Ernestina threatens to blot out forever.
It is deliciously obvious from page 1 on that Charles's and Sarah's paths are destined to converge. But Mr. Fowles withholds the encounter deftly enough to charge it with magically erotic possibilities. What, after all, is more seductive than a possibility? (And though his prose is chaste in thought and deed, Mr. Fowles clearly knows his Victorian pornographers.) Very Victorian, in short. If you have the smallest residual weakness for Dickens, you are lost.
But why, for Heaven's sake, a Victorian novel in this day and age of RobbÈ-Grillet? What is this practitioner of flawed Gothica ("The Collector" and "The Magus") up to now? Here quickly arises another element of suspense. For it is also clear from page 1 on that Mr. Fowles is not going to be satisfied merely with witty (and often brilliantly erudite) anachronistic comments on the manners, morals, literature, art and science of a century before. Not only will something surprising happen to the story of "The French Lieutenant's Woman;" something will happen to the form of the book as well. And the prospect adds immeasurably to the suspense.
Choice of Two Endings
Let me recapitulate. One likes Charles. One admires him even. As an enlightened inhabitant of the 1960's one can share his Darwinian view of Sarah Woodruff, with her cool contempt for Victorian morals, as an evolutionary advance. One can identify with his considerable heroism in throwing in his lot with her, even at the cost of his good standing (and Fowles makes his act more poignant than your would imagine possible). One cares a great deal how the story will turn out. And one feels, secure in Mr. Fowles's hands, that it will turn out well.
But it develops that Mr. Fowles has a problem, which he graciously explains in chapter 55, while riding with Charles on a train to London. (Yes, literally.) Mr. Fowles doesn't know what to do with his story. He can't manipulate the plot (or, as he says, "fix the fight") "to show one's readers what one thinks of the world around one" because this story happened a hundred years ago and "we know what has happened since." The only solution, he decides, is to write two endings.
So he proceeds. The first is heart-warming, gratifying, a very "Great Expectations" of an ending, a thorough domestication of eroticism, wholly consistent with Fowles's charming tale. The tale we thought we had been reading, at any rate.
Then comes the second ending. It explodes all the assumptions our Victorian sensibilities had so willingly embraced. In a giant step it covers the distance between the Victorian novel and the roman nouveau. It leaves one wondering which century was more sexually liberated. It is a shock. It is comic. It signals the sudden but predictable arrival of a remarkable novelist.
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