Friday, December 05, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Ebony Tower,” by John Fowles

(Editor’s note: This is the 34th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Making today’s selection is Michael G. Jacob, the English half of the husband-and-wife writing team who publish as “Michael Gregorio.” With Daniela De Gregorio, Jacob has so far produced three historical mysteries featuring early 18th-century Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis: Critique of Criminal Reason [2006], Days of Atonement [2007], and--due out next year on both sides of the Atlantic--A Visible Darkness.)

Would John Fowles (1926-2005) be happy if I labeled him “a crime writer”?

Probably not. This English novelist is most often remembered as the talented literary stylist who wrote the immensely readable The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) and the immensely unreadable The Magus (published in 1965, and necessarily revised in 1977). His first book, The Collector, was bought by UK publisher Jonathan Cape in 1963 at the then highest price ever paid for a debut novel. Noir of the purest sort, that tale recounts a sex-inspired kidnapping from the dual points of view of the repressed predator and his quaking, imprisoned victim. The darker side of Fowles was probably subverted into more respectable writing by way of his huge literary ambitions--he was cited as a potential Nobel Prize winner on more than one occasion--but the loss to genre crime was immense.

And so on to today’s forgotten book--The Ebony Tower (1974)--or, rather, one of the stories in that collection, “Poor Koko.”

Would it be fair to call it one of the nastiest short stories ever written? No writer has ever managed to step so easily inside the delinquent mind and find it such an alien place. “What haunts me most can be put as two questions,” Fowles writes. “Why did it happen? Why did it happen to me? In essence: What was it in me that drove that young demon to behave as he did?”

The narrator of “Poor Koko” retires to an isolated country cottage, which has been loaned to him by friends, intending to complete a definitive literary biography of that most forgotten of gentle English satirists, Thomas Love Peacock. No task could be more important to him, nor less relevant to the modern world. And in that cottage, as Fowles describes it, the unthinkable happens. A decade later, Stephen King picked up and used the same motif in what is probably his finest novel, 1987’s Misery.

What is the worst thing that you can do to a writer?

There are no prizes for guessing!

It is the irony and detachment of the storytelling here which is so remarkable. It drips like crystallizing amber from the opening lines, as Fowles faces up to the essential weak­ness at the heart of all crime-fiction writing:
Certain melodramatic situations derived from the detective story and the thriller have been so done to death by the cinema and the television,” he notes, “that I suspect a new and nonsensical law of inverse probability has been established--the more frequently one of these situations is shown on the screen, the less chance there is of its taking place in the viewer’s real life.
But that does not stop Fowles from writing about a crime, and in the course of it reclaiming violence from the large and small screen, and restoring it to the printed page.

As the banal begins to unfold in all its horror, the first-person narrative is so real, so intensely felt, that the reader wonders whether this misadventure, or something very like it, may have happen­ed to John Fowles himself. While nasty things are being done, the real drama plays out in the fictional author’s analytical mind. What is happen­ing is one thing; the actor’s role in making it happen is as inevitable as the fact that he exists. Nothing less could possibly occur, and he deserves it all. As the story works towards its inevitable conclusion, the narrator suddenly realizes that there is never anything remotely melo­dramatic in the situation when one is the victim of a crime.

The door closes, the perpetrator leaves, the author settles back into his familiar middle-class shell. And, just as suddenly, the horror slides away and a precise sociological and linguistic analysis of changing times and the clash of different generations takes its place. The tale itself is insufficient to explain what has happened, or so it seems. It is as if Fowles feels that he has to examine the nature of the mechanisms of evil which he has created to beguile his reader for half an hour. He might have been attempting to win the Nobel Prize with this one short story!

I was very impressed when I first read “Poor Koko” in the ’70s, slightly more puzzled when I re-read it yet again this morning after a gap of many years. It had always been at the back of my mind, and I have always felt strongly influenced by what I remembered of it.

On a lighter note, read what it says on the back cover of my 1976 paperback edition, and ask yourself how wrong the critics can be. “The sure mellow complexity of Mozart ... lovely,” whimpered Time. “Elegantly, old-fashionedly erotic,” said Newsweek.

Did the reviewers read as far as page 147?

Take my advice, skip the first 146 pages, but read “Poor Koko.” It’s a 20th-century classic.

A BRIEF POSTSCRIPT: I’d like to dedicate this write-up to my friend Richard K. Ramsey, who recently died in Denmark. We were young Eng Lit teachers when we read and discussed “Poor Koko” together, and thought it was the finest thing that the great John Fowles had ever written.


Martin Edwards said...

Intriguing. You've made me determined to read 'Poor Koko'!

Annette Blum said...

Although I must disagree with you about The Magus (which I truly love and have reread several times), I'm totally in agreement with you about "Poor Koko." It includes a line I've sought for so long: "...the only reason the crime rate was so low in rural areas such as this was the close-knit social structure. When everyone knew everyone else, crime was either difficult or desperate." I'm delighted to have found it again!