Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Fowles and the last sentence

John Fowles (1926-2005) wrote “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” in 1969. The novel, which begins with a Thomas Hardy veneer and a Victorian feel to it, soon mutates into an existentialist exercise with a modernist choice of alternative endings. It catches you almost unprepared as it lifts the boundaries, blending the past and the present and suddenly all is swept away and what remains is a distilled perception of the human condition. For example, in a sudden epiphany moment, Charles realises that man has in fact entrapped himself in a vicious cycle of his own making. Existentialist writing was never so thrillingly engaging and poetic:
“In a vivid insight, a flash of black lightning, he saw that all life was parallel: that evolution was not vertical, ascending to a perfection, but horizontal. Time was a great fallacy; existence was without history, was always now, was always this being caught in the same fiendish machine. All those painted screens erected by man to shut out reality - history, religion, duty, social position, all were illusions, mere opium fantasies." 

And exactly like that, like a flash of black lightning, certain passages in the book leap out by their sheer beauty and philosophical insight. John Fowles ends the novel with the following sentence. A last sentence that is supposed to bring closure. But in the hands of a great novelist this closure is all encompassing and we are left with the sense that the novel ends with a grand opening. Here it is: 

“ He walks towards an imminent, self-given death?  I think not; for he has at last found an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness, on which to build; has already begun, though he would still bitterly deny it, though there are tears in his eyes to support his denial, to realize that life, ... is not a symbol, is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one losing throw of the dice; but is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea."        

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