As you feel Pascale’s presence, as you realize how young she is, you feel yourself a child, even as you rush headlong into becoming a woman. You swing your torso around and run your fingers along the spines of the books (novels in German and English), and as you do so, you find it curious that Pascale, a hard-nosed lawyer, should so like reading love stories. Albert Cohen being from Corfu, she decided this was the time to finally read Belle de Seigneur; before that, she’d read G. by a guy called John Berger (a writer you’d grow to love) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by one called Fowles (who’d also become one of your favourites). Will I ever fall in love? you wonder. Here you’re surrounded by lovers who never tire of showing each other their affection. I’d like to, you think, just to know what it’s like. In the meantime I’ve got Jürgen. He’s my school of sex.
The next day, after lunch, Iskra gave me a tour of the Botanic Garden. She showed me John Fowles’ favourite orchid, Ophrys tenthredinifera. Yes, she’s a Fowles fan, with a particular affection for Rebecca Lee in A Maggot. (She was pleased to lean the English title: She’d read the book in French, where it’s called La Créature.)
̶ Ingrid reads a lot when she’s pregnant. For Lia it was Tolstoy, and for Joost, Dostoevsky.
̶ Maybe I could send her a book?
̶ Of course.
̶ But what?
̶ Whatever you think she’d enjoy.
The Book of Laugher and Forgetting? Nights at the Circus? Letty Fox: Her Luck?
̶ I know: Ada, or Ardor.
̶ Nabokov? She’s read all his novels.
The Hearing Trumpet? The Transit of Venus? Hunt the Slipper?
̶ How about Two Serious Ladies?
̶ What’s that?
̶ Jane Bowles. ‘I dreamed I climbed upon a cliff, my sister’s hand in mine’.
̶ Don’t know it.
̶ Perhaps A Maggot?
̶ Rebecca Lee the Puritan? I think Ingrid would find her strategy of dissent tedious.
̶ Mantissa, then. It’s Fowles at his most Nabokovian.
̶ Yes! She’d love it!
Perhaps I have dealt at too great length with Charles Smithson at the expense of Sarah Woodruff. If so, it is because she eludes me … Certainly Sarah is a long time emerging from misty myth into life. She is given to built-in concealments, hiding places, and false legends … Sarah and Charles approach rebirth from opposite directions. Her transformation is from total servitude and dependence to ultimate self-knowledge and mastery. He, for all the suggestions of enlightenment through scientific studies, is seen to stumble downward towards the twentieth century, liberated at last from the straitjacket of privilege but a cripple nonetheless.
Sarah has a bit of white goddess, earth mother, suffragette siren about her, but her one consistency is her elusiveness. In her final reincarnation—she has taken on the name ‘Mrs. Roughwood’—she is the fulfilled New Woman, a seeker in the household of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But she still bears her trademark of myth: too ineffable for words. Even the surprise issue of the Charles-Sarah union, the child Lalage, is mysterious: Lalage, from the Greek lalageo, to babble like a brook, but in this book, silent babbler. The New Sarah remains what Charles called her in a long undelivered letter, ‘my little enigma.’ She is given to utterances like, ‘I am not to be understood even by myself,’ and, ‘I can’t tell you why, but I believe my happiness depends on my not understanding’. Charles’ last words to her seal her vow to be inscrutable, if nothing else: ‘Shall I ever understand your parables?’ … We are relied on to accept Fowles’ didactic epiphany: that Sarah and Charles, whatever ending we accept, have emerged into love out of the crucible of an odyssey in common—their reproach of the Victorian Age. Had not Fowles told us earlier, to cap the copulation scene between out-of-sequence lovers, that ‘the moment overcame the age’?
The narrative line of Mantissa, divided into four parts, is that of a mischievous metafiction. Cast in the dreamlike form of a surrealist film, it attempts to explore and dramatize the conflicting impulses that both precede and in some sense survive every act of creation. In the opening segment Miles Green, the novelist-hero, awakens in a mental hospital called the Central, apparently suffering from a nervous collapse. Exhausted and confused, he has no recollection at first of his identity either as a husband and father or as a commercially successful author. To make matters worse, he soon discovers that he is a virtual prisoner of the Central and at the evident mercy of its chief ‘neurologist’, the proleptically named Dr. Delphie, and of her black assistant, Nurse Cory. Together the two women perform intensive sexual therapy on the outraged Miles, replete with scrotal massages and oral stimulation, in an apparent effort to restore the ‘broken circuit’ of his memory. The alert reader meanwhile has already begun to suspect the metafictive truth behind this preposterous premise—that the novel’s fantastic plot and characters are themselves the products of Miles’s feverish and deluded brain. Or are they?
A Maggot is set in the eighteenth century, and follows a detective format in which a lawyer, Henry Ayscough, is employed to investigate the disappearance of the assumed victim, Mr. Bartholomew, and the prime suspect, Rebecca Lee. The novel begins with an account of a party of five travelers who have been brought together in their various roles or guises by their employer, Mr. Bartholomew. The true nature of the relationships within this group and the purpose of their journey is unknown to the reader and to all the characters with the exception of the most enigmatic, Mr. Bartholomew. It is the second and more substantial part of the novel that tells of the disruption of the party of travelers and the disturbing discovery of one hanging by the neck with a tuft of violets which had been ‘torn up by its roots, stuffed in the poor man’s mouth before he took his last leap, and still bloomed as green as on a bank.’ From here on, the narrative traces the attempts of the investigating lawyer, Henry Ayscough, to discover the real purpose of the journey, the whereabouts of Bartholomew, and to find the murderer. To this end, Ayscough extensively cross-examines, analyses and interprets the testimonies of various witnesses, finally concentrating on the stories of the traveler who proves most difficult to trace, the female prime suspect, Rebecca Lee. In the quest to detect—and indeed ‘map’—this female subject, her actions are both sexualized and demonized and so she is reduced to one or both of two ‘female types’—those of ‘whore’ and ‘mystic.’
In its account of the investigative lawyer’s efforts to re-construct the character and actions of an absent female suspect, A Maggot reveals how this procedure serves to produce a reassuringly conclusive representation of a formerly enigmatic, and therefore threatening, subject. Whilst A Maggot concentrates on a legal case involving an eighteenth-century ‘mystic,’ its critique of the processes through which she is detected, defined, and detained is also applicable to the methods of classification and containment brought to bear on the narratives of ‘hysteria’ in twentieth-century psychoanalysis. Whilst within the world of A Maggot, the female protagonist’s physical and psychological manifestations of frustration and alienation declare her to be a ‘mystic,’ in more recent times her actions would not have been seen as the distortions of mysticism and possession so much as forms of psychosis. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such ‘behaviorally disordered’ women, like those female mystics before them, were often constructed as sexually aberrant (be that as precociously or overly sexed) and hysterical. This association between the construction of mystics and hysterics has been noted by many, including Freud himself, who, according to Charles Bernheimer, consulted the Malleus Maleficarum in reference to hysteria.