By Nicholas Delbanco
Featured Art: Sunset Over Tower and River by Arnold William Brunner
Post-mortems in prose fiction are risky to pronounce; the dead do have a way of quickening again. This week’s much-celebrated text will be, in thirty years, forgotten; what’s lost may reappear. And in this particular instance I’m not rescuing arcana; Sir Laurence Olivier played the protagonist of John Fowles’s “The Ebony Tower” for a television film. Too, the short story collection of which this is the title piece lodged comfortably on the New York Times Best Seller List for six full months in 1974-75.
It’s possible, however, that Fowles’s reputation as a “serious” author has been undermined by commercial success; in England particularly, it would seem—though I have only anecdotal evidence for this—he was thought of as a popular and therefore unimportant writer. “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” gets transformed, in critical discourse, to, “If you’re so wealthy, how could you be smart?” and Fowles has been devalued in part because of fame.
In any case, The Ebony Tower seems more referred to than read. Originally titled Variations, the novella was intended to elaborate on themes elsewhere present in the writer’s work. Much of the situation in this story is reminiscent of The Magus, where a young man falls under the spell of an aging mage and his attendant young women. In that instance the landscape was Greece; in “The Ebony Tower” it’s France. Fowles’s best-known novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, has something of the same enigmatic figure at its center: a woman who repudiates Victorian standards, compelling romantic respect. As always, there’s a tension here between propriety and passion, the lure of border-crossing and expanded consciousness. What, the story seems to be asking, does self-knowledge consist of; how is temptation bodied forth, and why should one resist?
David Williams, a more-or-less happily married English painter and art critic, journeys to Coëtminais, the manor house of a great expatriate artist, in order to complete an article-in-progress on the older painter’s work. Henry Breasley has an overarching scorn for all things English and proper, a major collection of paintings (Derain, Braque, etc.), a habit of too much to drink while making gnomic pronouncements and attacking abstract art. He also maintains two naked girls (“the Mouse” and “the Freak”) as acolytes—one of whom, in particular, he seems to rely on for more than sex. The young man finds himself increasingly persuaded by the theory of Breasley’s position as well as enthralled by its practice; at first unsettled by Diana, (a.k.a. “Mouse,”) he becomes compelled by her and, though they do not consummate their love affair, it burgeons into passion. If Eliot’s Prufrock refrains from a “peach,” so too does David Williams, and there are many such cultural markers, a set of referents throughout that seem like code to crack. What the woman represents (as so often elsewhere in Fowles) is both a muse and challenge; how does one taste and not become besotted by forbidden fruit?
The next story in the collection is titled “Eliduc,” a translation and adaption of one of the lais of Marie de France. And here’s the true ancestor of “The Ebony Tower,” a tale of courtly love and doubled allegiance in medieval Brittany. Fowles’s action also has to do with a knight errant on a quest (though much modernized), and the conflicting claims of decency and desire, the ways they come to represent artistic ambition and choice. To the root of his being, David quails, and when at visit’s end he escapes to meet his wife at an airport, “. . . it felt like a sentence, not a pardon.” (p. 106)
The writer is, as always, excellent at the physical details of courtship, how confusion edges up against compulsion and can ignite a crisis of identity. His scenes are entirely seen. Too, Fowles knows the world of visual art, its practitioners and history. The sketches and oil paintings (not to mention meals and clothes and nature-walks) are described with great precision; the details here ring true. When the two artists and young women go for a sylvan picnic, the latter taking off their clothes, it’s very much a reenactment of Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Yet what’s finally at stake is not a reenactment but earned authenticity, and David finds himself—in both senses of the word—wanting:
In the end it all came down to what one was born with: one either had the temperament for excess and a ruthless egocentricity, for keeping thought and feeling in different compartments, or one didn’t; and David didn’t. The abominable and vindictive injustice was that art is fundamentally amoral. . . . Coët had remorselessly demonstrated what he was born, still was, and always would be: a decent man and eternal also-ran. (ps. 112-113)
“The Ebony Tower”—dark, phallic, in total opposition to the “ivory” version thereof—is a tale about enchantment, the challenges a pilgrim must confront or turn away from. And it does enchant.
Nicholas Delbanco is the author of thirty-one works of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent novel is It Is Enough, his most recent work of non-fiction is Why Writing Matters. He is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan and divides his time between New York, NY., and Wellfleet, MA.
Originally published in NOR 6