Thursday, 11 April 2013

Laura Rereading: 'His fairy tale'

Before rereading: This book was first published in 1963. I have very vivid memories of first reading it as a nineteen-year-old (so virtually the same age as Miranda) during the summer of 2006, and I think I re-read it in 2007. I remember it as being a literary psychological thriller that explored the meeting of two completely incompatible minds in a mesmerising and sophisticated way (basically: it's not Room).

After rereading: I read this book very differently having returned to it six years later. It now appears that the central situation that Fowles contrives - Frederick Clegg's prolonged imprisonment of Miranda - is a plot device rather than his central concern. Although I would hesitate to say that it is simply symbolic, Fowles was clearly interested in finding a way to construct a reason for two such dissimilar people to speak to each other and observe each other for long periods of time, and this was the result. Interestingly, however, I am now far less impressed with it as a novel (perhaps Room had interesting things to say after all?)

The Collector's central motif is unforgettable. A former bank clerk who has won the pools and set himself up in luxury, Frederick Clegg, kidnaps a twenty-year-old art student, Miranda Grey, and keeps her in a specially designed prison in his basement. Frederick is obsessed with Miranda, and money is no object in getting her anything she might want, but Miranda, of course, can only focus on escaping. As Frederick's stilted narrative makes way for excerpts from Miranda's diary, a psychological war of minds begins between captor and prisoner, as Miranda tries to convince Frederick to free her or to find a way to free herself.

I was interested to find a brief snippet by Fowles himself on the novel as I searched the internet for old reviews of this book. He wrote in The Aristos (1964) that the dividing line between the 'many' and the 'few' that The Collector makes so much of should 'run through each individual, not between individuals' and that 'I tried to establish the virtual innocence of the many. Miranda, the girl he imprisoned, had very little more control than Clegg over what she was: she had well-to-do parents, a good educational opportunity, inherited aptitude and intelligence. That does not mean that she was perfect. Far from it - she was arrogant in her ideas, a prig, a liberal-humanist slob, like so many university students. Yet if she had not died she might have become something better, the kind of being humanity so desperately need.' This, perhaps, is one example of why authors' comments on their own works are best ignored, because it was this statement by Fowles, rather than anything in the text itself, that made me begin to feel it was lacking. I don't believe he achieved his stated aims in this novel; what he did achieve was something quite different, something that is not easily pinned down.

My primary concern about this novel is that Miranda seems to be an entirely idealised character, and there is never any sense that she misreads or misinterprets Frederick, except in her fateful actions near the end of the novel - but then, those seem like actions taken more out of desperation than rationality. Obviously, this was not what Fowles intended, so why does this happen? A key issue, I found, was that Fowles too often makes Miranda aware of Frederick's thoughts and motivations, even when there's no reason - or narrative necessity - to make her this hyper-alert. Although such incidences are very minor, to me, they added up. One example is when Miranda asks Frederick to write a cheque to CND; we know already from his narrative that he tells her he'll do this but doesn't, and it would have been horribly ironic to have Miranda writing in her diary that this was one concession she has managed to exhort from him. But instead, quite unrealistically, she tells us that she knows he hasn't written the cheque. In contrast, Frederick gets virtually everything wrong that he possibly can about Miranda, to the extent that I wondered whether placing a few moments in the text where he is right, even if it is just by accident, might make this encounter more telling; where Miranda thinks she is most beyond Frederick's comprehension, perhaps he could comprehend her, and hence prove the lie to some of her more snobbish assertions.

And yet, in no way could The Collector be called a failure - as long as we don't use Fowles' comments as our marking criteria. As I have already noted, it's not easy to forget Miranda's ordeal or the chillingly believable portrayal of the mental boxes in which Frederick has imprisoned himself. Miranda's musings on art and life provide another vibrant thread to the narrative that lifts it out of the category of 'thriller' and makes the reader consider the implications of this story beyond the small physical space in which it takes place. (It is in this context that Fowles's assessment of his own character seems not only cruel but inaccurate; she is neither a slob nor a liberal). Despite the fact that it is the fiftieth anniversary of this text this year, it hardly feels dated, beyond the obvious references to things like the pools; indeed, the sadness lies in the fact that, despite all Miranda's aspirations, society hasn't changed in the slightest.

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