Saturday, 31 July 2004

John Fowles: A Maggot (1985)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 1256

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles wrote a knowing twentieth century version of a nineteenth century novel. A Maggot is more conventionally a historical novel, set in 1736 but despite fitting better into the genre, it shares much of the ironic self awareness of Fowles' best known work.

The novel starts with something very small - a group of travellers riding across Exmoor, who stop overnight at a small village before heading on again. But a few days later, one of the party, a mute servant, is found dead, having apparently hanged himself. The rest of the novel deals with an investigation, not so much an attempt to find out what actually happened, but to do so as a stage towards finding the rest of the party, who have completely disappeared and who included at least one important person. Thus, the form of most of the novel is records of the interrogations of witnesses, separated (to indicated the passing of time) by excepts from the Gentleman's Magazine, a journal of the time, apparently reproduced in facsimile. While outwardly more like The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Maggot actually has more in common with The Magus. The witness interviews reveal that the ostensible purpose of the trip to Exeter hides another more sinister motive; that the people involved are not who they seem to be; that what is really going on involves some kind of occult ritual.

Anthony Burgess described this novel as "subversive", and there are several ways in which this might be considered to be true. There are both overt and covert attacks on the ideas behind the class structure of Georgian society, some of which are fairly clearly meant to make the reader think about those in positions of authority today. The idea that someone from a higher class would necessarily be a better person is not one readily believed today, but some relic of it is surely part of our hunger for scandal about the morals of politicians and celebrities - do we now believe that people in the public eye should be better than we are? There are also attacks on religious hypocrisy, particularly when the political nature of the Anglican church of the time is compared with the unsettling intensity of the Dissenters. This doesn't have quite the same resonance with the modern world, however, and attacking hypocrisy is not exactly subversive. Dissent is a sufficiently important theme that it as a focus may be said to be another aspect of subversion in the novel.

The way that A Maggot is structured is another element which is more truly subversive. Historical novels are generally quite descriptive, because part of the aim of the genre is usually to convey their background to today's readers. Here, there is very little description, apart from that in the opening pages which are entirely of this form but which could be set in any time period in which groups of travellers rode horses across Exmoor when it was a remote dangerous wilderness and not somewhere frequented by tourists as it is today - in other words, any time before the arrival of the railways. After this beginning, atmospheric as good historical novels are supposed to be, yet not positioning the narrative in time or even (initially) in place, the historical context is mainly provided by the Gentleman's Magazine excerpts, which most readers probably find difficult to read as they're in extremely small type and a hard to decipher font, apart from their lack of relation to the story.

There is also literary subversion of the same type as in The Magus. In both novels, layers of deception are gradually exposed; but here the use of interrogation reports makes the revelations less effective, even though the reader will still spend most of the novel wondering what is really going on behind all the lies.

The way that the title refers to several aspects of A Maggot is not so much subversive as clever (and Fowles obviously thought it important enough to spell out why he chose it in the introduction). In one sense, it refers to the maggot as symbol of corruption, but a maggot is also a rather old fashioned term for an obsession. Several of the characters have obsessions, including the questioning attorney who is more interested in allegations of homosexuality than in the murder itself. But the novel itself arose out of an obsessive picture in Fowles' mind, of a group of horse riders in a wilderness. This became A Maggot's opening scene, and it is an arresting image. The literal meaning of the word also makes a surprising appearance.

While those who do not know Fowles' work will probably pick up A French Lieutenant's Woman or The Magus, A Maggot is definitely worthwhile reading for anyone who enjoyed either of the other two novels.

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