Stretching the Surface of Reality : In ‘A Maggot,’ Novelist John Fowles Plants Questions

<i> Warburton, a free-lance writer and Fowles scholar, lives in Newport, R</i> .<i> I</i>

“It’s a dream really, a kind of trip back in time,” John Fowles offered, talking about his newest novel, “A Maggot.”

Dreams that travel back in time have been the stock in trade of this celebrated 59-year-old English novelist through most of his 14 books of fiction and nonfiction. Time has always been Fowles’ preoccupying theme and his single question has been, “How shall one live within one’s own present moment?”

His Natural Element

At home on the green Dorset coast of England, history is Fowles’ natural element. He writes his fictions from a second-floor study in his eclectic 18th-Century house high on the hillside of the town of Lyme Regis. The windows open south onto his exotic garden, a sweeping harbor view of the town, and, further still, the gray-blue of the English Channel and the sky. As curator of the local museum, he also spends much time amid the documents, dinosaur bones and photographs housed in its turreted turn-of-the-century building directly on the seafront. Handling an artifact has the power to call up a past life in his imagination; the haunting eyes of a portrait can recreate the sitter in his mind.


But here in his New York hotel suite there was no view and no sea sound. The noise of the traffic seven stories below washed against the tower of the hotel. Both Fowles and his wife, Elizabeth, looked weary. New York clearly does not suit them. No, sighed Fowles, arching the eyebrows of his bearded face in classic British understatement, “I’m not really fond of New York.”

But he is fond of discussing history and storytelling, even here, and how they are mixed together in his new book. Listening to him is remarkably like entering the text of one of his novels or following him through the displays of what Elizabeth calls, with droll emphasis, “his museum.”

What begins in an English public school monotone as a straightforward answer to a question is soon crammed with parenthetical information. He adds, he corrects, he qualifies. Modern aesthetics, 18th-Century theologies, an encounter with a rat in Central Park that morning--his answer soon encompasses such seeming disparities. Irritated with himself, he will worry at a stubborn thought--a forgotten date or the title of some long-out-of-print book. There are spaces: He will pause in mid-sentence and drift in a cloud of cigarette smoke, only to turn pale brown eyes on his interviewer and deliver a startlingly precise finish. As in his books, humor and irony are subtly folded into his conversation. A remark that begins in high seriousness may end in a twinkling aside of self-mockery. One that begins on a smile may end in gentle earnestness.

“A Maggot” is somewhat similar. It weaves together arcane theology, vivid characters, some first-rate detective work, a touch of science fiction, feminism, and both historic and fictional documents. Set in 1736 and written in a variety of 18th-Century idioms, “A Maggot” is an investigation into the fate of a curious party of travelers who journey into the deserted Southwest of England toward an essentially inexplicable event.

Bizarre Fashion

Months later, the driven, gifted leader has utterly vanished and his mute manservant is found hanged in bizarre fashion. Two of the travelers, who turn out to be actors hired to play a part, are shaken with suspicions of witchcraft and political heresy. And the last of the group, a young prostitute with untapped emotional depths, is reborn as a religious visionary and the mother of Ann Lee, the founder of that historically apocalyptic faith, the Shakers.

“A Maggot” is written as an inquiry into these peculiar circumstances. Except for the opening chapters that portray with a rich, almost cinematic immediacy the characters just before they reach their destination, the novel is a collection of depositions and letters provided by the lawyer investigating the disappearance of the party’s leader. That young man, so it turns out, is the philosophical, heretical younger son of a great duke. Ayscough, the lawyer, is intellectually acute and intuitively limited.

Through him Fowles provides many facts--clouds of conflicting witnesses, a sense of class hostilities in 18th-Century England--and very few answers. “I mean him,” his creator said, “to be a stereotype of the richer kind of Englishman--what we call middle class today--of that period. He’s backward and conservative, and I needed that to offset the others. There are countless questions that I would have liked to have asked that he doesn’t. But he’s the connecting link--inasmuch as the story hangs together.


“I’m not just trying to give a portrait of the 1730s, in England, you know,” Fowles continued. “A historical novel, in the normal sense, is something which gives you as good a picture of the real age as you can get, which means you have to stay fairly close to historical truth.” And, “although I have tried to be fairly accurate over language” and supplied details of “known manners of the period,” in some characters and events, “I’m cheating history. I think that it’s quite legitimate in fiction, really, to make of history what you like. . . . It’s, as I say, one man’s peculiar whim or quirkish view of that period . . . it’s a maggot.”

Maggot is one of those obscure words that Fowles loves to resurrect. (His last book of fiction was “Mantissa,” an archaic scholarly word meaning “afterthought.”) A maggot is an obsession with a theme, a queer, repetitive idea that won’t be dismissed, “a maggot,” as the saying goes, “in one’s brain.” The inescapable theme which induced Fowles to begin this novel some eight years ago was of a dream-like image: “a small group of travelers, faceless, without apparent motive” riding horseback through “a deserted landcape . . . in my mind towards an event.”

But the strange and off-putting title also conjures up images of decay and decomposition. Indeed, that is part of it. English society in the 1730s was in “a reactionary period, it really turned backwards, became very flat and conservative.” It has always attracted Fowles in that this stagnation and rot created a fertile soil for Romanticism. “Very soon,” he said, “you get the first signs of Romanticism in literature and this sudden mysterious feeling about nature.”

Religious Challenges

One of the great challenges to this hidebound, hierarchical society came from the religious dissenters--first the Puritans, then the Quakers, and other groups whose theology and organization departed from the ecclesiastical orthodoxy of the established Church of England. Their elevation of personal intuition and emotion in religious matters defied established authority on social and political levels as well. As Fowles depicts it in “A Maggot,” religious dissent was one of the most potent forces in the embryonic development of what would become the modern sense of self.

The Shakers (derived from the term Shaking Quakers for their emotional practice of religion), with whom Fowles is deeply fascinated, were some of the most joyfully severe rejectors of the prevailing cultural norm. And in this book they serve symbolically as a kind of radical harbinger of a new age.

As the author mused, “I think in a way that I’m putting a little maggot into modern people’s clean minds--especially as regards the Shakers, who I think have been dismissed from history much too soon. Everyone associates them, of course, with Shaker furniture, but I think a lot of their communal life and their theology is very modern. All Shaker thought, not just their aesthetics, their furniture, is based on simplicity. And I think--especially in this city--that we’re losing that kind of divine natural simplicity . . . absolutely totally.”


‘Waste, Waste, Waste’

New York, Los Angeles, even London. “This to me is humanity grown too complicated for its own good,” he said. Not only is it “waste, waste, waste,” but in his view, “it’s conforming, too. I don’t normally think of conformity in connection with America. But you feel that--all the men are wearing the same kind of suit, they all wear ties . . . It’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”

Fowles, who wore a brown-and-white checked cotton shirt and no tie, seemed a deliberate exception to this conformist vision. If he is “not fond” of New York, he is very attracted to the rest of the United States. He remembered with affection his last visit to New England in the fall of 1977. And he fantasized with boyish wistfulness about his desire to cross America by car.

He said he suspects, however, that Americans may be unsatisifed by his book. For, ironically, while the deposition form of “A Maggot” gives it an almost theatrical question-answer quality, there are ultimately few answers for the reader and many, many questions. Each of the characters comes to a truth about the events of the spring 1736 and the disappearance of Lord B--but the truth, if there is one, is never spoken. Much of the book’s interest lies in how each character’s destiny is shaped by his or her own attempts to explain the inexplicable.

The title of this new novel recalls Fowles’ first novel (though not the first published), “The Magus.” “Of all my novels, these two go together,” he said. His publishers, Little Brown in the United States and Jonathan Cape in England, objected that the similar titles could cause confusion “at the shop-ordering level. But for me, ‘A Maggot’ and ‘The Magus’ are linked, a little bit twins in my oeuvre. I had the same kind of creation problems with this book that I had in ‘The Magus.’ How much do you explain? How much do you leave mysterious or ambiguous? In a way they are both dreams.”