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Saturday, February 10th, 2007
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The Ebony Tower

by John Fowles

John Fowles's Variations

A review by Jill Owens

There are probably fifteen or twenty books that I own that I've read at least ten times over the years. They vary greatly, in style and substance, but they all share two characteristics: they reorient and ground my sense of aesthetic and narrative; and, through nuance or interpretation, they produce something new with each reading that deepens my understanding of both the individual work and of fiction in general. John Fowles's The Ebony Tower is one of the best examples of the latter; the stories are hauntingly ambiguous, with archetypal and resonant images that can suddenly shift in meaning, and no conclusions come easily.

Fowles is best known for The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and The Magus -- The Ebony Tower seems curiously, and shamefully, under-read, even by his fans. Perhaps that's because it seems, at first, an odd collection: a long story that could certainly be called a novella, a prose translation of a twelfth-century medieval French narrative (and, originally, oral) poem, and three more short stories of a more traditional length. Fowles notes that the working title of this collection was "Variations," and certainly there are echoes of themes explored in his other works here (most notably The Magus), but all of the pieces in The Ebony Tower, though very different, are themselves intertwined: variations on art and nature, reality and illusion, the authentic versus the counterfeit. They are also all mysteries, after a fashion.

The title novella, "The Ebony Tower," most directly echoes (and redirects) some of the themes present in The Magus: a young abstract artist (described as "above all, tolerant, fair-minded, and inquisitive," which in a Fowles story does not bode well) visits France to interview Henry Breasley , a great English painter living in self-imposed exile in the forest with two much younger women in what could be called a kind of Eden. Ideas, both through dialogue and description, abound: what makes art, and living, genuine and worthwhile; what ethics mean, sexual and otherwise, or lack in meaning; and most prominently, whether beauty and aesthetic experience is truly rare and worth all that must be suffered to seek it. Fowles is, of course, an extremely intelligent writer, and the discussions about the history and aims of visual art are top-notch. But his psychological insights and his gorgeous prose are showcased to extraordinary effect here; it is some of Fowles's very best work, perhaps because it is so much more compressed than his novels.

"Eliduc" is a beautiful translation and an enlightening work; it is the story of a knight with two great loves, a thoroughly Celtic work of courtly love, betrayal, and reconciliation, and its resonance through Fowles's other work becomes clear. "Poor Koko" and "The Enigma" seem, outwardly, to work in a different vein, but their undercurrents are further variations of ideas brought up earlier in the work. The former is the story of a confrontation between a scholarly writer and the robber who has broken into his friends' guesthouse in the country, where he is staying; it's a fascinating (and, ultimately, semi-mystifying) exploration of class and privilege in modern English society. "The Enigma" is a detective story: an older, conservative member of Parliament, a family man with grown children who enjoyed hunting in the countryside, and possibly the least likely man in England to disappear does so, almost without a trace. Fowles's trademark twists and turns of plot and psychology are laid bare, as the detective tries to imagine a plausible storyline for this implausible mystery.

"The Cloud," the last story in the collection, is my favorite work of Fowles's career, and the knowledge that it's there at the end is in part what keeps bringing me back to the book. It deserves an entire review of its own, really, but in brief, over the course of a picnic and one-day holiday in France, it explores the relationships between language and story, love and despair, and the ways in which we construct our identities. It is one of the saddest, loveliest, and sharpest stories I have ever read. And it is a fitting end to The Ebony Tower, leaving the reader with the question of where story and myth break off, and life begins.


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