Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fiction review: "Daniel Martin" by John Fowles

"Daniel Martin" follows the character of the title back and forth through between his youth and middle age. Though it is not without plot, the book is more of a character study, and does not have the same narrative drive, as the more widely-read "The Magus". John Fowles does not follow the "show, don't tell" school of describing people's feelings. Inner lives are laid out in clinical detail, either in the protagonist's thoughts about himself and his life, or in conversations like chess games with other characters. Notwithstanding the rather postmodern self-awareness of the characters, the book manages to touch rather directly on some topics.

One theme running through the novel is that of intergenerational concerns (particularly the middle aged Daniel's concerns about his previously estranged daughter, as well as the contrast between his life as a film producer and his own father's quiet life as a minister). It's an interesting time to read the novel, when the characters in their twenties would now be around the age of an older Daniel Martin (the book was written in 1977). Some passages have interesting parallels with contemporary complaints which are often presented as if unique to a post-Web 2.0 era-consider the following, concerning people taking cameras on holidays: 

"A lifelong avoider of other tourists, he had forgotten the extent to which every man is now his own image-maker. It was almost frightening, this obsession with capturing through one sense alone, and one that little thought or concentration: a mindless clicking....Perhaps it was the ultimate privilege...merely to duplicate seeing, to advertise in some future that one had been there."  

The book also has a particular preoccupation with "Englishness". It's not outlandish to suggest that particular nations have distinct characteristics, including the case of one with a colonial past like England. At the same time I feel that there's little Fowles says about the Englishness that could be applied to other places. In writing a novel in my early twenties I recall wanting to write a book not about being an Irish person particularly but one about being a person of the Western World (hence the characters were a mix of Irish, UK and US citizens). As a film producer, Daniel Martin divides his time between the UK and US (as well as travelling to Egypt and Syria later in the text), although Fowles seems to use this more to draw contrasts than to note commonalities of the Western experience. Perhaps this urge on my part is partly borne of globalisation having taken great hold than in the 1970's.

If you're willing to spend some time with characters that aren't going to plead for their own likeability, this novel has enough enjoyable insight to reward the reader.

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Review: "A girl is a half-formed thing"

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