John Fowles – The Journals, Volumes I & II

Hardbound volumes of John Fowles’ journals were published by Jonathan Cape in the UK and by Alfred Knopf in the U.S. in 2003-2006 (both are also available in paperback). 

The first volume of Fowles’ journals begins in 1949, when he was a young man studying French at New College, Oxford. It takes us up to the film version of his first novel, The Collector, filmed in 1965 (see excerpt below). Along the way Fowles teaches English on the island of Spetsai and begins formulating ideas for The Magus, ultimately marries, moves back to England and struggles to achieve literary success.

The second and final volume of John Fowles’ journals covers the years 1966-1990.  From the jacket flap:

A major literary landmark, this is the second volume of one of the most extraordinary journals of our time.  The first volume of John Fowles’ “Journals” ended with him achieving international literary renown after the publication of “The Collector” and “The Magus,” and leaving London behind to live in a remote house on the Dorset coast near Lyme Regis.  This final volume charts the rewards and struggles of his continuing literary career, but at the same time reveals the often reluctant celebrity behind the outward success.

Enjoying a reputation as one of the world’s leading novelists, Fowles wins enormous wealth, kudos and attention, has the satisfaction of seeing “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” turned into a highly acclaimed Hollywood film, but none the less comes to regard his fame with deep ambivalence.  It cannot repair the growing strains between himself and his wife Elizabeth, who does not share his taste for rural isolation, nor can it cure the disenchantment he feels for an increasingly materialist society.

While the challenges of the passing years – whether illness, depression or personal bereavement – underline the vanity of worldly ambition, he finds refuge and solace in his study of the animals, plants, birds and insects of the surrounding countryside.  This concluding volume of the “Journals” contains an eloquent expression of this profound attachment to the natural world, but also marks a writer’s continuing quest for wisdom and self-understanding.  Unflinchingly honest, it provides an invaluable insight into the creative background of his novels, as well as the writer’s inner life and preoccupations.

Fowles kept a diary for most of his life, and his complete unedited diaries–totaling approximately one million words–are now housed in the university library at Exeter.

Here is an excerpt from Volume I, with Fowles in Los Angeles describing the ongoing conflicts that occurred during filming of The Collector in 1964:

Strange days – fighting the battle of the film script – 18 hours each day completely rewriting all the worst bits of dialogue (i.e. those not taken from the book), and suddenly having the characters from my novel – Paston, Miranda and Clegg – alive with me again. That odd state in which one’s creations seem so real that it becomes a bore to stay at the typewriter when one can walk round the room, and hear and see them.

I am luxuriously ensconced in a hotel on the Sunset Strip. The night view is very beautiful, a spill of endless jewels glittering in limpid air; chains and towers of light that stretch as far as one can see. This is the mad, rich woman America; with the courage of her convictions, her rich madness.

Jud Kinberg [co-producer] pours words about William Wyler, the director, and his “junta” (special advisers), the script battles, Samantha Eggar’s troubles and their troubles with her.

Going up alone to SE’s room to meet her. She’s a slim creature, pale green eyes, no make-up, nice red hair (natural); not very pretty, because she totally lacks any life. Some mysterious incident took place at Peter Sellers’s last night (I’ve just learned) – Sam was “badly treated”. Certainly she behaved like someone suffering from collision shock.

She is so remote from my conception of Miranda that I can’t imagine Wyler doing anything with her. The essential thing – life, intelligence, an eager thrust – she seems to lack completely, both in looks and mind. But various aspects of her past suit her casting: her parents are separated, daddy’s a brigadier, she had two years at art school (father wouldn’t allow the stage), she’s had an affaire with a much older man – but the vital spark isn’t there.

John Kohn [co-producer and scriptwriter] took me down to the studio through an endless area of tall palms, parking-lots and bizarrely exuberant cinemas and amusement places. The studio is rather tatty; like a factory, in feel. A lot of machinery, a lot of mechanicals; no room anywhere for art. When we finally came on the set for The Collector, built in the middle of the huge floor, it seemed a very small kernel for such a big nut.

The cellar they’ve built looks like the crypt of some 13th-century chapel – wildly implausible. And they’ve furnished it with a sort of queasy attempt at luxury that may be a parody or may, one feels, be Hollywood’s idea of what a nice furnished cellar ought to look like. I went around it picking out faults. Nobody really listens to criticisms, for two reasons – a sort of instinctive trade unionism, a deep Hollywood belief that each man does his own job and never interferes in anyone else’s; and a sort of inability to concentrate. Everyone works under pressure or likes to give that impression. The absence of leisurely amateurism, from which all great art finally springs – that is, an insistence on taking pains, not compromising and the rest – is the most frightening thing here.

The two things that are wrong with Hollywood: the too much money, the enormous surplus that has to be wasted; and the belief that showbiz is the same as art. Stanley Mann [scriptwriter] was hurt by my rejection of this world. He keeps on talking about Mr. Wyler, as if he’s Eisenstein, Griffith and René Clair all in one.

They’re Egyptian, these film people, totally unable to question rank, power and money.

We sat around a long wooden table in a corner of the studio. Willie Wyler, Sam [Eggar], myself, Jud, Bob Swink, the editor, John Kohn, Terry [Terence Stamp]. Terry is splendid, a lovely quick-thinking and highly articulate Cockney lad, sensitive and aggressive. After the first scene I said I thought he was too aggressive and he immediately read it through again with a wonderful dead monotony. He keeps on flashing out ideas about the part, trying out lines – he has absolute command of his voice, in contrast to poor Sam, who reads like a high-school understudy. Terry feeds her so well that he ought to be the easiest man to do dialogue with. But she constantly hits false notes, gets wrong emphases, and the one quality we’re all looking for, a sort of warm eagerness, just doesn’t appear.

Instead of flashing genuine anger, she has a sort of debby petulance; instead of genuine sorrow, a B-feature pathos. This is the sad fact: she’s a B-feature starlet, as she is. Terry completely outclasses her – she keeps on looking at his exuberant explosions of ideas and mimickings with a sort of little-girl admiration.

I see that Wyler is a kind of cross between Rumpelstiltskin and Socrates – he worries sleepily at things and sometimes he makes a point. Sam and Terry get very restless; Sam looks bored and tired, Terry begins to guy the whole thing, putting on a Tommy Steele accent and staring at Wyler with an absolutely straight face as he says lines absurdly.

After the day’s session I sat with Terry in Sam’s car and we had a long talk. He talked about Sam (“She and I used to live together. She was always trying to correct my English, that’s what’s so funny.”). He wanted Sarah Miles to act with him. He also thought Julie Christie could have done it.

Terry’s current mistress: a very charming little French girl, Annie Fargé, a leading soubrette on TV here; he treats her outrageously in his style and calls her my “fucking French bit” to her face, and she wrinkles her monkey face and kisses him. Terry has created a sort of dream life-style for himself. He says whatever comes into his head, does what he likes, lives like a sort of Hamlet without neurosis, eternally white-shirted, open-throated, thrusting, on the crest of the wave.

The awful American-English language problem. Anything that wouldn’t be comprehensible to the average American moron Willie objects to. We had the line: “I did it to exorcise you from my life.” “Exorcise, exorcise,” said Willie. “Who’s ever going to be able to say that – we need another line.” “I did it to get you out of my system,” I suggested. Yes, that was fine. But Willie kept on saying it over and over again. “Out of my system, out of my system, OUT of my SYSTEM. That sounds kind of peculiar.” About 20 minutes later, we ended up with “I did it to get you out of my mind.” Everything has to be mish-mashed to a smooth banality.

Sam took me into the studio this morning. Her car wasn’t waiting for her when she came down. She flew into a sudden filthy temper: “In future I want my car out here when I say.”

“I’m sorry, lady,” said the car-fetcher, “there’s a jam at this time of day.”

“I don’t care what there is. I want my car out here when I say.” And she slammed the door in the man’s face.

I gave her a look and said, “Relax.” But she didn’t. On the way there she talked about Terry. “He won’t talk to me, he hasn’t said a word to me for a year now.” He’s badly cast, she thinks. “So many people tell me I’m ideal for the part.” I threw her a startled look at that. She looked prettier today, but as human as a mannequin in a shop window.

Wyler explained to me at length — every sentence, however short, takes him about a minute to get out – why he wants to change the ending. “That girl’s got to hold the gun over the boy in the end. People feel angry if they don’t see the man with the gun disarmed at the end.” Basically Willie’s mind works on the Western level: Shane must triumph.

Terry on the set is rather alarming, as he dances around inventing “business”. He acts very method-style, like a Cockney James Dean, and makes the boy impossibly appealing and charming at times. Most girls would give their all to get in a cellar with him.

John Kohn dominates all the script conferences – he shouts and argues and pours out his ideas. He’s like a sort of pipe of power; his voice and energy never tire, while Jud has awful moods, and they keep on snapping at each other. Both have wild ideas – wildly implausible, and I spend miserable hours shooting down their “ideas”.

Willie, looking at the work of various art students, candidates for Miranda’s drawing work: “Aw, what the hell, let’s get the one with the big tits.” The only thing that lets one know he is teasing is a mischievous monkey grin that comes two or three seconds later.

“We’ve written a new scene, Willie,” said John Kohn very earnestly the other day. “Yeah,” said Willie. “Got a new director too?” Terry on the set, muttering to me. “If they change the fucking end I’m off. That’ll be the end all right.” He told me in strict confidence that he nearly didn’t come here. He only signed his final contract last Friday, and had already booked an air ticket to Greece. “I was going to fucking well disappear. This film’s such a fucking bore.”

Terry blames it all on Mike Frankovich, head of Columbia. He got Sam. He got the film made out here. He got it done in colour. “It’s all his fucking fault.”

Sam’s clothes. The wardrobe mistress has no taste. They’re all trite Technicolor get-ups to accentuate her bust and her femininity. Her bust doesn’t need accentuating; and when they use “femininity” out here, read “figure”. Sam is very fed up about this; and for once I don’t blame her. I at least got them to agree to use the old faded pants and cardigan she was wearing on the set today for one sequence. But not the actual clothes: “We’ll get some like that made.” One gives up.

John, Jud and I sit in an executive office and go through the script. But the interruption of phone calls is absolutely non-stop; and every tiny point has to be gone over and over again. Where the idea that Americans got things done fast sprang from, I just don’t know. They sound fast and look fast, but they talk and they talk and they talk.

Dinner at the Wylers, in Beverly Hills. A palatial house. There are four or five Utrillos on the walls, a fine Renoir, a Rivera. Willie is much nicer on his home ground, more French and more human altogether. Mrs. Sam Zimbalist was there, and the George Axelrods (the poetry of Hollywood names). I sat alone with Willie and we argued about the beginning of the film. He has just this one very primitive idea about what people need for entertainment, but he knows this domain very well, and he’s difficult to budge on it.

I tried to sell Willie the idea of getting Sarah Miles, who’s in New York, and sacking Sam. But he thinks Sarah’s “kinda dirty, kinda not pretty. No boy’s going to follow her around.”

Sam is doing the illness scene. The make-up man came up and asked me if she looked sick. I said, “She always looks sick.” “You English,” he said. “You’re just so unkind.” He’s a nice sour-salt New York Jew.

Sam did a “test” take with Maxwell Reed, a 45-year-old “rugged” masculine lead, who looked to me like six feet of tired intestine. He’s supposed to be English (on the strength of having once been married to Joan Collins). He spoke throughout in a strong American drawl, adlibbing some lines. “I’m never gonna see you again, baby”, was one English-Midlands gem. Willie thought he was great; but I exploded, and I think I cooked Mr. Reed.

Terry came up to the office and blew his top this afternoon. I think he must have rehearsed it as he put up a magnificent 15 minutes’ solo performance of mingled rage, frustration and brilliant mimicry of Sam on the set. Jud, who normally never laughs, was bellowing with laughter, tears running down his face.

Terry: “We’re all in the fucking soup. It’s the film I’ve turned down a dozen fat Hollywood parts to do. It’s the film that’s going to make you boys (John and Jud). It’s his fucking first novel. I mean all this arsing about. It’s fucking ridiculous.” Outside he said to me: “It’s incredible. I’m a serious actor, I know I’m going to be bloody marvellous one day, and here I am – stuck in the one fucking situation I’ve fought against all my life.

“There I am doing the big scene, shouting at her, doing my fucking nut, telling her she’s never going to get out, and she’s sitting there like a sow who’s just had a full breakfast.”

I took Sam out this evening, to hear Segovia and to try to get to the bottom of the mystery of her nothingness. I felt like Seneca locked up with Poppaea… or something. A pretty corrupt Seneca, as I have done my best to get her the sack these last days; and like everyone else have indulged wholeheartedly in the favourite sport on the Columbia lot – making fun of her behind her back.

She is an astoundingly gauche young woman. From certain angles very pretty indeed but only as a still, not as a motion. She sat bored through the concert, and then we drove fast home to the hotel. I took her to the restaurant downstairs, and finally forced her to listen to words of wisdom about her coldness (“I know people think I’m cold, it’s because I can’t be bothered to make friends”) and her ghastly harsh upper register (“I have voice problems”). I shook her hand in the lift and said: “If I can help you with the part, for God’s sake ask me.”

Jud is frantically phoning New York and London to try to get Susannah York or Sarah Miles. Susannah Y wants $350,000 for the role; they think Sarah has just been signed for another film. “Sue York’s wonderful. But 350 G’s is a lot of wonder.”

“I’ve thought of how to sack Samantha,” says John Kohn. “I go up to the broad and I say, ‘Sam, dear, owing to circumstances inside my control…'” I feel this film is like a car running out of control.

We sat all today in Kohn’s house, a UCLA professor’s house he’s rented, and beat at the script, shouting and pleading and bellowing and walking away and let’s-try-this-ing. So mad. Outside there was a pleasant garden with camelias and hibiscus in flower, and a blue swimming-pool. But we stayed at the same table from ten till seven. The script is their life, the characters 10 times more real to them than the people around.

The language in these script conferences becomes peculiarly tense and obscene: “OK, he wants to lay the fucking broad, but she’s a fucking little cockteaser, she won’t let him”; “Look, you got this goddam virgin fucking around…” And so on.

The horrible monotony of a city where you turn and look when you see someone walking down a pavement. One doesn’t have to say goddam a city without walkers; God has damned it.

Today (Monday 23) has been “getting the star” day. I wrote a long report for Wyler over the weekend slamming Sam. Terry and I have both been selling Sarah Miles like mad. Sam played into our hands by forgetting her lines and having a row with Willie on the set; and then the rushes from Friday came through. I sat next to Terry in the projection room and watched her play a scene alone, being ill. It was hilariously funny, and the session suddenly dissolved from all seriousness. “Frankenstein,” howled Terry. Jud and John Kohn just walked out in despair.

At half past five Willie called the three of us in, and admitted defeat.

“The girl makes me feel I never directed a film before. I don’t know anything any more.” We all in turn attacked Sam. I got Willie to promise he would consider Sarah again.

I began to feel sorry for Sam about then; she’s really, in a merciless world like this one, a victim of the machine. She ought never to have been cast, and she plainly (to me) begins to know it. She walked around the set this afternoon and no one would talk to her; but everywhere there were little angrily discussing groups. Sam walked like a Renaissance princess among all the courtiers who know she’s going to be poisoned for state reasons at dinner that night. Terry was outrageous on the set, upstaging her and clowning, suddenly starting to laugh when she forgot her lines for the 10th time.

Mike Frankovich flies in from New York tonight. “Who’s going to tell him?” asked Jud.

“I’m going to tell him,” says Willie, “and I mean tell. Not ask.” But John Kohn says, “Willie talks big tonight. Let’s see how he sings tomorrow.”

Today my loathing for this place reached a climax, and five or six times I have been on the point of catching the next plane out. At 10.00 it was said that Willie had not chickened during the night. At 12.30 a conference was called for Willie, John Kohn and Jud with Frankovich.

While I was waiting out front to go for lunch with Terry, Sam came up. I knew Terry wanted to hear the latest on Sarah Miles (who’s starting her film in May, so is “out”), but I couldn’t dodge it. Sam was, or was trying to be, pleasanter than usual, and even managed to look like a freckle-faced kid of 24 once or twice – innocent in a sort of way. She said, “Terry’s making it impossible. I’m going to Mike this afternoon to tell him so.” Then a bit later: “Terry spoke all his lines this morning to the script-girl.” And “I know why Mike wants to see me, Wyler’s told him I’m not into the part yet.” Then she asked me a couple of things about her lines. It was horrible, trying to find something to say.

At 2.15 Sam was called up to Frankovich’s office and given the sack. Frankovich apparently said, “Sam, I’ve got some terrible news for you.” “Only time I ever saw her face go soft,” says John Kohn.

At 4.00 Terry was called to Wyler’s office and we heard him shouting through the door. At 5.00 Frankovich rang John Kohn to say he had Sam with him and that she had something important to say.

Frankovich won’t look at Susannah York, who once refused to go to bed with him or something. He wants Audrey Hepburn, the best 35-year-old 20-year-old in the business; or failing her, Natalie Wood.

Palatial as this bedroom is, it begins to bore me; even the view begins to bore me.

7.15. John Kohn rang to say that after Sam had gone on her knees to Wyler he promised to give her one more chance tomorrow.

“Oh God,” I said.

“It’s nothing. Willie’s not chickening,” said John Kohn.

7.20. I rang Sam’s room. Could I help? Yes, please would I come up? “Willie told me you think I’m no good,” she said. “I was amazed. You said on Friday that I could do the part.” “Well look,” I said, “I thought you could do the part if… you know, it’s this business of… I’m a writer, you know, I have a sort of ideal…. ” It can’t have been very convincing, but the poor kid (and to give her her due she looked a poor shocked kid this evening) was too overwhelmed to notice a few prevarications. Apparently Willie wasn’t present when the axe fell. “He told Mike he didn’t want to see me again. I couldn’t believe it. He sacks me and he hasn’t even the courage to look me in the face.” She did get to Willie in the end. Then she flew round to Terry “to have it out with him” – “he’s hurt, it’s because we were once so close, I was the first girl he ever took out (Sam’s a great one for the euphemism) and I taught him a lot and he’s never forgiven me”. I said, well, I’ll try to help, so we played a couple of scenes together.

As we went through her lines, I kept on saying, “Your voice is so harsh, so debby, so hard…” Then I said, “I wish you could have heard yourself bawl out the car-fetcher the other day. You sounded such an utter young bitch from Belgravia.” “Oh God,” she said, wide-eyed and with a great thought bubble (“Thinks back”) emerging from her tawny hair, “Did I?” Sometimes she looks almost Pygmalionable.

The irony is that Wyler forced Terry to coach her for an hour late yesterday afternoon, and then I “coached” her for an hour this evening. If by some nightmarish miracle she suddenly started acting in this great final test, the two people who most want her out would have got her back in.

The climax day. Terry came tearing into the office from the set at 12.15: “He’s going to fucking well take her!” Consternation and alarm. He and Sam had been alone on the set with Willie. “She was so bloody frightened she was almost good, weeping all over the fucking place and all the rest. I could see old Willie swallowing it all.” He urged Jud and John to walk out; he said he would walk out.

2.15. Violent discussion, a feeling that the whole thing must be decided in the next hour.

“I don’t know what she’s got going for her except a lot of red hair.”

“She was 60 per cent better this morning,” said Bob Swink.

“Yeah,” said John Kohn. “Sixty per cent of nothing.”

2.30. Willie came in and marched up to me. “You ought to be directing this film. That girl’s much, much better.” I said she hadn’t any voice, any technical skill, any heart, any conception of the part. Frankovich kept on ringing through.

“Tell him I’m not here,” said Wyler. He paced around the room. What did I think of York? He wanted York… So I sold York, beautiful, passionate, virginal, brilliant York.

2.45. We hear Terry shouting at Willie through the wall. It goes on for about an hour. I rang Terry later back at home and he said he’d done the same as us, sold York, attacked Eggar.

3.30. John and Jud are called to Frankovich. Eggar is to go. Apparently Frankovich was very angry against everyone – he even managed to include me – that writer’s a hypocrite, coaching the girl like that and then trying to get her the sack.

4.00. They went down to tell Sam she must go. Willie funked it, and refused to see her. She went out slamming the door, it seems: “I wish you luck with your next leading lady.”

Actresses’ names have been flying round the lot all today (Thursday): Natalie Wood heads the stakes, but then there’s Yvette Mimieux, backed by John Kohn and me. Inge Stephens, Hope Lange, Susan Pleshette, wild talk of getting Sarah to break her contract with MGM, and many others whose names I’ve never heard of. All depends on Wood now. She is said to have loved the book, but no one knows whether she will love the script. If she’s as good as they say she is, she won’t.

Sam rang up at eight and asked me to go to her room. Her boyfriend from London, the actor Tom Stern, was there. She wanted to pump me, in fact. I kissed her hand, and said she was a brave girl, which I think she has been. She is furious against Wyler: “He’s been such a hypocrite.” She’s a very innocent creature: “Terry hates Sarah, I know, he told me so the other day.” When I explained the real situation, she looked at me with hurt eyes. Tom Stern said, “I read the script. That girl in the cellar is Sam. She doesn’t have to act. It’s her natural self.” I looked appropriately of the same opinion.

A last morning. I said goodbye to Willie and spent a last 10 minutes trying to get him to drop Reed and take Kenneth More, but he was as slippery as ever. Jud told me the latest on the film. Frankovich has turned down Natalie Wood, who has decided she wants to do the film. She has asked for $400,000 and 10%, not an exorbitant price by Hollywood standards. But Jud says F is still furious that they have turned down “his” girl, and is determined to put Jud and John out of business. “We’re never going to do another film with Columbia. That’s sure on both sides.”

A last drink, then home in an almost empty plane over a vast sea of cloud under the moon, with Cassiopeia on the black wall to the north; breakfast in brilliant sunshine – and then a vile plunge down through thousands of feet of cloud. We came out finally only just above ground level, and landed at once. Cold, dank rain and wind, added injury to the eternal insult of England’s small scale and miserable inadequacy as a 20th-century society – the traffic crawl, the mean housing, the cramped appearance of everything. It’s like a punch in the face, that descent down back into England.

Samantha Eggar was re-hired and for her performance in The Collector went on to win the Best Actress awards in the Golden Globes and at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as being nominated for an Oscar.