- The Collector
- Back Bay Books, 320 pp.
The Butterfly Effect
The English novelist John Fowles died recently, aged 79. Widely known for his self-reflexive take on Victorian fiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Magus, a lengthy tale of psychological game playing on the Greek island of Spetsai, Fowles was a writer who always seemed content to remain in the shadows, on the edge of things. He would emerge now and again to play the part of the cantankerous recluse, but he was, in essence a private, even hermetic man.
Fowles lived for more than forty years on the South Coast of England in the small town of Lyme Regis, far from the cosseted, closeted, Metropolitan literary elite in London. It was there, in Lyme, that Fowles, in his own particular manner, produced a series of novels and essays notable for their philosophical introspection, their psychological richness, and their stretching of the boundaries of what is possible in storytelling.
Although I consider both The French Lieutenant’s Women and The Magus to be remarkable novels, to my mind, Fowles’ single greatest achievement is his debut, The Collector, published in 1963. (In fact The Collector was not the first book he wrote, that honor goes to The Magus, which was eventually published in 1965.) The Collector established Fowles’ reputation as a writer of what The Sunday Times called, “great imaginative power.” Given that it was a commercial as well as a critical success, he was able to give up his job as a teacher and concentrate on writing full-time. Short, at least in comparison with some of his other books, and immediately engaging, The Collector works by stealth, its creepiness slowly crowding you, until the experience of reading the novel becomes almost as claustrophobic as the captivity in which one of the protagonists is held.
The Collector is the story of Frederick and Miranda. Frederick is a solitary, withdrawn clerk at the local council who has won a large sum of money on the Football Pools. Uneducated and lonely, his great passion in life is for collecting butterflies. He also likes photography. “I always wanted to do photography, I got a camera at once of course, a Leica, the best, telephoto lens, the lot; the main idea was to take butterflies living like the famous Mr. S. Beaufoy; but also often before I used to come on things out collecting, you’d be surprised the things couples get up to in places you think they would know better than to do it in, so I had that too.” Frederick has been watching Miranda, a young art student, for a long time, ever since he caught sight of her at her boarding school opposite the Town Hall where he worked. “I can’t say what it was, the very first time I saw her, I knew she was the only one. Of course, I am not mad, I knew it was just a dream and it always would have been if it hadn’t been for the money.” Frederick’s winnings allow him to give up his job and buy a secluded cottage in the Sussex countryside. One day he kidnaps Miranda and takes her there. He imprisons her in the cellar which he has transformed into a small living space. Miranda is to be the pride of his collection. From this moment on, the novel is a battle between the two characters, prisoner and guard, naïve suitor and disgusted belle, a fascinating interplay between two people with conflicting attitudes and expectations of life, a war between hope and derision, a clash between two people who have no meeting point, no area of mutual interest. Frederick believes that Miranda can, given time, come to love him. Once she has come to see him as he is, rather than through the distorting lens of class, then their love will grow. Miranda eventually becomes aware that Frederick is unable to see beyond his delusions, and that it is only by engaging in a game with her captor that she may be able to escape him. She, therefore, employs a variety of tricks, all the while believing that her superiority in every quarter (Miranda comes from a wealthy upper-middle-class family) will help her get away from him.
As is often the case with John Fowles, it is the way in which the story is told that provides much of the pleasure. The first part of The Collector is narrated from Frederick’s point of view, the second, from Miranda’s, in diary fragments. Frederick’s detached rationality contrasts with Miranda’s more lyrical, questioning voice. Unlike the neutral, artless tone of Frederick’s narration, Miranda’s account swings through several emotional states, marking moments of resolution and despair, of terror, contempt and stultifying solitude. She laments “endless panic in slow motion,” indulges in existential rage, “I hate God, I hate whatever made this world…if there’s a God he’s a great loathsome spider in the dark,” and throws herself into flights of melancholic fancy:
The essences. Not the things themselves.
Swimmings of life on the smallest things.
Or am I being sentimental?
I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.
Miranda decides to call Frederick Caliban, the name of a character in The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s play Miranda is the daughter of Prospero, a magician exiled to an island in the Adriatic Sea. Caliban, the son of a witch, is a deformed monster who is desperate to have sex with Miranda so as to populate the island. It is a cultural reference that would be lost on Frederick; Miranda delights in knowing this. She cannot see how her captor can be anything other than beneath her. The irony is of course that in their story together, he is the man with the key, the puller of the strings; however much the caged bird thinks it might sing, only one person will decide if anyone shall ever hear its tune.
Fowles’ ability to create two such distinct voices is one of the great achievements of the novel. In setting up his characters in opposition to one other we are of course invited to choose between them. You would think that this is what the Americans call a “no-brainer” (and what the British are beginning to call a “no-brainer” because they can’t think of a better phrase.) But Fowles could never be such an easy writer; that Miranda is not purely sympathetic, or Frederick a one-dimensional, see-through villain, means The Collector moves beyond the confines of the traditional thriller. As an example of what the novel can do if is utilized by a writer who has nothing but respect for the form, The Collector is an essential starting point; and for anyone coming fresh to one of the most original novelists of recent decades, there is no better place to begin.
(By the way, the film version with Terrence Stamp is worth watching for its marvelous mid-60s feel when Britain was at it hippest, but is in no way equal to the book; unless of course you are particularly attached to the youthful charms of Mr. Stamp.)