On the whole, Fowles, as befit his name, was a birder rather than a "snaker," so I don't know how he stumbled upon Clifford Pope's The Great Snakes. I am not surprised that the one fact that Fowles gleaned from Pope's herpetological knowledge the that "snakes copulate for hours, sometimes a day at a time." A very Fowlesian piece of information. But I am surprised that he also reported in his journal the same snake anecdote that I noted right here on this blog. Back in 2006, I made mention of the instructions provided to early African missionaries on the proper response to meeting one of those 25-foot-long, 300-pound reticulated pythons. I found it in a book called Man the Hunted. Here's the story:
Remember not to run away; the python can run faster. The thing to do is to lie flat on the ground on your back with your feet together, arms to the sides and head well down. The python will then try to push its head under you, experimenting at every possible point. Keep calm, one wiggle and he will get under you, wrap his coils round you and crush you to death. After a time the python will get tired of this and will probably decide to swallow you without the usual preliminaries. He will very likely begin with one of your feet. Keep calm. You must let him swallow your foot. It is quite painless and will take a long time. If you lose your head and struggle he will quickly whip his coils around you. If you keep calm, he will go on swallowing. Wait patiently until he has swallowed about up to your knee. Then carefully take out your knife and insert it into the distended side of his mouth and with a quick rip slit him up.
I wrote: "Well-meant advice, I'm sure, but perhaps difficult to follow. Suppose you're just not in the mood to allow the python such liberties with your person. Suppose you've forgotten to bring your knife; suppose the python decides to start with your head rather than a foot. Suppose you involuntarily wiggle just a teensy bit. Suppose you just don't feel that it's a good day to be engulfed." Fowles' comment is shorter but equally pertinent. He writes: "And spend the rest of your life in an asylum."
When I realized that Fowles and I had a common interest in giant man-eating snakes, I decided that the the least I could to honor his memory was re-read The Magus. Which I did, at first with enthusiasm and then with increasing dismay as the the novel's flaws began to overwhelm its beauties. The novel is too contrived, too obvious. Nicholas Urfe, the naif, is so unsuspicious that he is fooled by Conchis, the magician, over and over again -- many more times than is remotely credible. The reader (the 2013 reader, that is, not the 1965 reader) catches to the repeated gimmickry. But then after Urfe realize that he's been sadistically manipulated, he stockholm-syndromes his tormentors far too rapidly and cursoriely. It should take as much time to heal as to be harmed. As a result the back is out of balance -- too long in the middle, too short in the resolution. And then on top of that there's the heavy-handed Jungstuff and the grade-school pop Freudianism!! O my gosh. I was embarrassed. And on top of that the deeply, unliberated Victorian attitudes toward sexuality in a book that claims to be advanced. Anyway, it just did not work this time through. What a disappoingment.
And I'm disappointed in Fowles as well. I began to tread his journals in the hope that he would be complex and philosophical and aware, but, no, he was just like me -- simple, defensive, insecure.
And what a snob: so much and so often worried about his bourgeois background and so ashamed of his well-meaning parents.
But what I found most unforgiveable is not that he ran off with his best friend's wife, but that he wouldn't let Elizabeth keep her daughter. He made her choose between him and her own child. In my view, a man should never come between a parent, a mother, and her offspring. It's just wrong.
Nevertheless, I'm clinging to my most positive memory of Fowles The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I still believe to be a lasting novel. But frankly, I'm just a tad frightened to re-read it.