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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) by John Fowles

Meryl Streep memorably portrayed the title character in film version The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Book Review:
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
 by John Fowles

   English post-modernist/existentialist author John Fowles has three books on the first version of the 1001 Books list.  Two of them, The Collector and The Magus, I read in high school.  I may have actually pulled them off of my parent's book shelf, because I'm not sure how else my 15 year old self could have tracked down John Fowles.  That is proof enough that Fowles was still a popular author widely in circulation circa the mid 1990's in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  The French Lieutenant's Woman was a hit on it's own merit and also popular in the 1981 movie version, which actually featured a script written by playwright Harold Pinter.   I guess the association with my high school taste (which also included Ayn Rand, in addition to the usual Beat/Existentialist/Russian suspects) and my parent's bookshelf has prejudiced my present self against him, but it's hard to dislike The French Lieutenant's Woman, which, I think, is probably the first full-blown post-modernist work of historical fiction.  The combination of post-modern technique and the conventions of the 19th century novel has proved to be an enduring formula for both popular and critical success.  The Wikipedia page is called "Historiographic metafiction" and it's worth listing some of the well known examples:

E.L Doctorow's Ragtime (1975)
Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children (1981)
A.S Byatt Possession (1990)
Michael Ondaatje The English Patient (1992)
Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixon (1997)

  That makes The French Lieutenant's Woman first by half a decade. Fowles achievement is to write a mid 19th century novel from the perspective of a contemporary narrator.  Thus, the book both addresses the concerns of a 19th century novel as well as the concerns of the contemporary reader of upscale popular fiction.  The plot of The French Lieutenant's Woman blends heavy elements of  Thomas Hardy- acknowledged repeatedly by the narrator by having character's reference Hardy during the action- with the Dickensian all-knowing narrator, who also happens to be a time traveler, in that he is narrating a tale set in the 19th century.  Fowles goes so far as to introduce himself as a character in the third act.

 In 2016 all the post-modern chicanery is  a little much, but I can imagine it was quite the revelation in 1969, and it certainly stands up as a worthwhile read today.


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