After spending his middle years fiercely shielding his private life, British author John Fowles has opened the floodgates with an unexpurgated...

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“The Journals — Volume I: 1949-1965”
by John Fowles, edited by Charles Drazin
Knopf, 668 pp., $35

After spending his middle years fiercely shielding his private life, British author John Fowles has opened the floodgates with an unexpurgated account of nearly every phase of his adult life. Volume I of “The Journals” arrives on the heels of the revealing 2004 biography of Fowles by Eileen Warburton, who had complete access to his papers, including these diaries.

Fowles’ best-selling and critically praised novels, especially “The Collector,” “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” combined literary flair and experimentation with hypnotic storytelling. All three books were made into Hollywood movies. The resulting celebrity for the writer only reinforced his native reticence.

“The Journals” begin in 1949 during Fowles’ final year at Oxford University. He spent the three subsequent years teaching abroad, including two years on the beautiful Greek island of Spetsai. During this period he dedicated himself to becoming a writer. Volume I ends in 1965, just before publication of “The Magus.”

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It would be easy to take potshots at the youthful Fowles, who proves to be eminently unlikable. He is alternately vain, tetchy, despondent and arrogant. There seems to be little joy in his life, other than a succession of infatuations with women. He detests his parents and tolerates few others. The self-absorption of the sensitive artist and the fraught conventions of journal writing (“Spasms of hate,” begins one early entry about his family) are nearly insufferable.

But his harsh opinions of others feed his proclivities as a writer and are essential parts of the whole.

“Reading back though old diaries. Fantastic outbursts of priggishness, of vanity, of expectations,” he writes toward the end of this volume. “The temptation is to suppress such blemishes. But that defeats the diary. This is, and always will be, what one was.”

As a writer, Fowles displays a sublime knowledge of plants and the natural world, and a catholic taste in the arts, especially cinema and, above all, literature, both classic and modern. He gravitates to French novelists (fluent in that language as he is), venerates Jane Austen, and is partial to Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He reserves particular venom for his British contemporaries, Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene.

The reward for the reader willing to weather the initial excesses of “The Journals” is a rich lode of insights, descriptions and damn good writing. He has this to say about a German colleague at the girls school where they both teach: “Oppenheim was a wonderful proof of the difficulty of being English: it’s not enough to speak the language perfectly, to have spent most of one’s life here. Being English is a way of behaving, an attitude to others (of which the essentials are humorous tolerance and an enormous public respect for others). Of course foreigners soon twig that the respect is only public — and so denounce our hypocrisy. But it’s a hypocrisy they can’t copy.”

Densely packed with intense impressions and feelings, “The Journals” have an unrestrained quality, which is both weakness and strength. They also contain the genesis of the style and content of his novels. The character sketches and lush, gorgeous descriptions of Spetsai presage the setting for “The Magus.” His tempestuous love affair with a married woman (later to become his own wife of many years, Elizabeth) also has a future fictional purpose.

Publishing one’s journals while still alive — John Fowles is now 79 — may seem contemptible, especially considering his scathing judgments of peers, friends and family. Whatever the motivation, however, his honesty in these pages epitomizes Fowles’ unslakable quest for artistic truth.