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Daniel Martin Paperback – August 4, 1997
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But still, that opening line. "Whole sight, or all the rest is desolation." The phrasing of it grabbed my attention, still does. It sets the tone for the entire novel, even if you don't realize it at the time, suggesting that unless everything is seen with a clear eye, all at once, it will all fall into ruin. If we can't be critical or objective about our own lives, then our lives will at best be unfulfilled. Worse, we may not even realize it.
Fowles' novel follows the life of the title character, a Mr Daniel Martin. Scriptwriter, playwright, he's been spending his time writing screenplays and making a pretty good living at it when he gets news that one of his old Oxford friends is dying. He goes to visit and it opens him up to a life of reflection, connecting him to all the elements of his life that he had abandoned previously. He talks to his old friend Anthony, his daughter, his ex-wife and her sister, who married his friend. This becomes crucial, because even though the novel is too literary to say so, she's "the one that got away".
This isn't a novel where a lot happens. Episodic is probably being kind and it's the type of book where all the exterior action is generally window dressing to everything that is going inside the heads of the characters. Or in this case, Mr Martin. The book is limited to his point of view, more or less, which means that to find out how anyone else is thinking we need to hear them talk. Which they do. Often. The book winds up switching constantly between some very detailed meditations on Martin's values and all he holds dear and his place in them, and people discussing variations on those matters with them. His dialogue, strangely enough, soars. There's a piercing and probing quality to it that works far better than the prose itself at times, which can bog itself down in its own strains of thoughts, enamored in the pure essence in itself (in other words: in love with the sound of its own typing). But the dialogue remains readable and revealing throughout and in some ways it could have been a better novel if he had focused more on this aspect of it. One downside to everyone being literate and well-read and chatty is that, as others have pointed out, everyone tends to sound the same in parts. There were sections with Daniel and Jenny where it becomes hard to tell who is speaking because the dialogue works for them both, which shouldn't be the case (unless one wants to argue that she's attempting to mimic his dialogue patterns in an attempt to get closer to him, which I'll leave to scholars).
The prose itself, however, is quite literary. His gift for descriptions is astounding and he's not afraid to show off his rather large vocabulary. There's a description late in the novel of a mist rising and revealing the land underneath it that is quite breathtaking in its quiet and desolate beauty. As I said earlier, the stuff where Martin ponders his life and values and philosophies and so on doesn't always work as well because it can come across as egotistical. Daniel Martin clearly believes these matters are very dear to him and worth pondering over at great length, the rest of us may not be so convinced. Especially since a lot of this is basically a rich Hollywood screenwriter having a bit of a mid-life crisis and wondering why he's not making Art and getting in contact with his "roots" (which are more Oxford than farmland, although both figure in).
Which probably leads to the biggest problem most people are going to have with this book: why should we care? The characters circle around each other and debate their lives but their crises are mostly internal . . . nobody is all that poorly off and it's hard to be sympathetic for upper class people moaning about how their lives aren't meaningful enough. Especially since parts of this seem to be Fowles working in things he's interested in, including quite a few debates on the merits of socialism and the Catholic church. It all swirls around, with none of it really being the focus. Which I give him some credit for, he could have turned this into a literate version of "worldly man reconnects with the yokels of his youth" but that's not such a British concern, I think. It's more the countryside versus the city life, the allure of money versus spiritual fulfillment and whether one can truly find it through other people. The past is kept at arm's length . . . an early flashback to the days of Oxford tricks us into thinking that the whole book is going to be like that, but from then on we rarely see those days again. They are referenced quite a bit and at times it seems like the whole point of the novel is to prove that you can't live the rest of your life like you're in college, which I think most of us figured out a while ago.
And yet . . . as vain as these people can be, as well cultured and mannered and self-absorbed as they can be, there's a yearning in them that I can just about identity with. They're all searching for connections and half the time unable to get out of their own ways. The naturalism (such as it is) of the surroundings almost drowns out the points the novel is trying to make (for most of the Egypt sequence I was wondering why we were spending so much time here) and it sure takes its time getting to a rather simple point. But it's the little moments of devastation that work for me here, the calls between Jenny and Daniel, the gradually more affectionate discussions between him and his daughter, the flirtatious banter between him and Jane's other kids, the guarded and buried way Jane talks to him, and her slow wearing away of barriers. Bogged down in their petty searches for meaning, I found myself fascinated. I can't explain why. Maybe battered by waves of pretension, I found myself submitting but there's an unforced manner to this novel that comes through even as all the attempts to Mean Something cause the book to threaten to groan under its own philosophical weight. It's like a kinder and gentler Updike at times, less concerned with lacerating its own characters so much as setting them loose in the framework to see what happens. If that at all appeals to you, this may be your book. Daniel Martin remains a singular character, perhaps too narrowly personal to resound with a wider group of people, but he remains evocative of a time and a state of mind that only rarely exists these days. And chances are, he wouldn't even notice who was watching, caught in the gradually sharpening miasma of his own coils of thought.
Fowles proves himself here a true genius, for both delving into the obscure depths of human existence as well as for his unique ability to describe what he finds there.
He rightfully deserves the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature that he has been nominated for.
The first thing that struck me in the early goings here was the contrast drawn between, as it has often been drolly put, two races separated by a common language. Daniel Martin as narrator puts it thus:
"Other races look at themselves in the mirror, and either live with the reflection or do something practical to improve it. We paint an ideal, or a dream self on the glass and then wallow in the discrepancy. Nothing distinguishes us more clearly from the Americans, nothing characterises us better than the very different ways we use our shared language - the way they use it as a tool, even when they are being poetic, and the way we treat it as a poem, even when we are using it as a tool;"
This is obviously very broad-brush differentiation, yet it is, more often than not, quite true, though I noticed on my last trip back to England that the English seem to have become more Americanised in this respect, a subjective impression. In any event, the American reader will have plenty of pages of very English dialogue to pore over here to see if this judgement, which Martin retracts and then restates as he does with almost all his pronunciamentos, holds true or nay.
One way to look at this book is as a fleshing out of the Socratic dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. Martin and all the characters herein have deep, submerged, inner lives which they are in the constant state of examining from the book's start to its finish. There's a dreamy, contemplative tone to the entire work, a frequent sense of the past, the passing, the to come all being merged, time and again, in retrospective reflection.
What Martin says of his own sort of psyche obtains for all the major characters herein:
"They live not life, but others lives; drive not down the freeways of determined fact, but drift and scholar-gypsy through the landscapes of the hypothetical, through all the pasts and futures of each present. Only one of each can be what happened and what will happen, but to such men they are the least important."
If you are a scholar-gypsy by reading and temperament, there's a chance this foray into inner worlds may indeed be your cup of tea, glass of Scotch, drag of literary tobacco.
Drink and inhale deeply.