John Fowles’ 1974 five-story collection. I read a first edition hardcover.
3 out of 5 stars (average for collection).
Times Read: 2
Seen the Movie: No. (The title story was made into a 1984 TV film.)
Fowles’ working title for this collection, Variations, sets the stage. He’s going to play with themes from past and future novels in a variety of styles (see Post 3, note ), which makes The Ebony Tower a sort of Fowles sampler; read this and you’ll know all his tricks: the good, the bad, the clichéd. Not his best work, but the best representation of his work.
“The Ebony Tower”
2.5 out of 5 stars.
Artist David Williams visits a secluded French cottage to interview eccentric painter Henry Bresley and is intrigued by Bresley’s living arrangement with two young women.
This is very much The Magus 2.0 and I’m guessing Fowles was already thinking about revising his novel, if not actively working on it. “The Ebony Tower” must have influenced changes to The Magus, especially the unearned “maturity” of Nicholas (see The Magus note ). It’s like Fowles wanted to turn Nicholas Urfe into David Williams and give Lily and Rose the liberated ‘70s sensibilities of Bresley’s Diana and Anne.
But “The Ebony Tower” is hollow compared to The Magus. The characters are pawns; Henry Bresley has none of Conchis’ charisma or intricacies. And while The Magus can be followed without a strong knowledge of art, “The Ebony Tower” is so loaded with references that it’s almost impenetrable if you’re not willing to do some research (or hold an art history degree). You might notice that we’ll cover only the first 15 pages by the end of this post, most of that space spent looking up references.
Let’s be honest: Fowles enjoys showing off. He never expects his reader to be more intelligent than himself and does his share of peacocking. My problem is that I’m often drawn to that kind of intellectual arrogance. Even with that in mind, “The Ebony Tower” falls flat.
Et par forez longues et lees
Par leus estranges et sauvages
Et passa mainz felons passages
Et maint peril et maint destroit
Tant qu’il vintau santier tot droit
-CHRETIEN DE TROYES, Yvain
(p.1, title page)
Chretien de Troyes was a late-12th century French poet and trouvere (similar to troubadour) known for his work on Arthurian subjects, and for originating the character Lancelot. His use of structure, particularly in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, has been seen as a step towards the modern novel. Between 1160 and 1172 he served at the court of his patroness Marie of France, Countess of Champagne.
Yvain is an Arthurian romance probably written in the 1170s. It is a story of a knight-errantry, in which the title protagonist is first rejected by his lady for breaking a promise, and subsequently performs a number of heroic deeds in order to regain her favor.
A full translation can be found at The Online Medieval & Classical Library.
Fowles quotes lines 764 – 768:
Through the forests long and wide,
Through strange and wild country,
Passing through many gruesome spots,
Many a danger and many a strait,
Until he came directly to the path
Later, David will refer to his location as:
Paimpont now, but the Broceliande of the lais of Chretien de Troyes.
A distant view of the spectacular spired dream of Mont-Saint-Michel, strolls around Saint-Malo and Dinan.
Le Mont-Saint-Michel is an island commune in Normandy, France. (In France, a commune is a level of administrative division, not a group of people communally living together as defined in the United States.) As of 2009, the island has a population of 44. The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. It was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King and also the artistic inspiration for Disney’s Tangled.
Saint-Malo is a walled port city in Brittany in northwestern France on the English Channel. The population can increase up to 200,000 in the summer tourist season.
Dinan is a walled Breton town and a commune in northwestern France. As of 2008, the population was around 11,000.
The final few miles through the forest of Paimpont.
Paimpont forest, sometimes said to be the Arthurian Broceliande, is in the French commune of Paimont, near the city of Renne. As Broceliande it had a reputation in the medieval imagination as a place of magic and mystery. It is the setting of a number of adventures in Arthurian legend, notably Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain (note ). Locals claim the tree in which the Lady of the Lake supposedly imprisoned Merlin can still be seen today.
It wasn’t English; and in some obscure way this reminded David that he was.
Famous names were already announced. Ensor, Marquet, that landscape at the end must be a “cool” Derain.
James Ensor (1860 – 1949) was a Belgian painter and printmaker, an important influence on expressionism and surrealism who lived in Ostend for almost his entire life. His early works depicted realistic scenes in a somber style, but his palette subsequently brightened and he favored increasingly bizarre subject matter.
Albert Marquet (1875 – 1947) was a French painter, associated with the Fauvist movement. He initially became one of the Fauvist movement and a lifelong friend of Henri Matisse. Marquet subsequently painted in a more naturalistic style, primarily landscapes, but also portraits and nudes.
(Fauvism is the style of les Fauves (“the wild beasts”), a loose group of early twentieth-century modern artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. The movement as such lasted only a few years, 1904 – 1908, and had three exhibitions. The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse and Andre Derain.)
Andre Derain (1880 – 1954) was a French artist, painter, sculptor and co-founder of Fauvism. After Fauvism, his style shifted to more muted tones. The role of color was reduced and forms became austere; the years 1911 – 1914 are sometimes referred to as his gothic period (what I assume Fowles means by “cool”).
In midlawn there was catalpa pruned into a huge green mushroom.
Catalpa, commonly called catalpa or catawba, is a genus of flowering plants. Mostly deciduous trees, they typically grow to 39 – 59 feet tall and 20 – 39 feet wide. They can be recognized by their large, heart-shaped to three-lobed leaves, showy white or yellow flowers in broad panicles.
She now wore a white cotton galabiya.
The jellabiya (also spelled jilabiya, galabeyya, galabia, etc) is a traditional Sudanese and Egyptian garment native to the Nile Valley. It differs from the Arabian thawb in that it has a wider cut, no collar (in some case no buttons) and longer, wider sleeves.
“Sorry to steal in like this. Your gate out there’s locked.”
She shook her head. “Just pull on it. The padlock. I’m sorry.” She did not seem it; and at a loss. She said, “Henry’s asleep.”
He stopped to look at two paintings (…) of course, Maximilien Luce.
(p.8 – 9)
Maximilien Luce (1858 – 1941) was a prolific French Neo-impressionist artist, known for his paintings, illustrations, engravings, and graphic art, and also for his anarchist activism.
The one incongruity was the signed Laurencin over the bed.
Marie Laurencin (1883 – 1956) was a French painter and printmaker. She became an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde as a member of the Cubists associated with the Section d’Or (a collective of painters, sculptors, poets and critics).
Myra Levey’s little monograph in the Modern Masters series, and the correspondence with Matthew Smith.
Myra Levey is an invention of Fowles.
The Fontana Modern Masters was a series of pocket guides on writers, philosophers, and other thinkers and theorists who shaped the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. The first five titles were published in January 1970 (Camus, Chomsky, Fanon, Guevara, Levi-Strauss).
I don’t think this is what Fowles is referring to; his Modern Masters sounds like a “Who’s Who” of artists; the Fontana series dealt with individual philosophers and thinkers.
Matthew Smith (1879 – 1959) was a British painter of nudes, still-life and landscape. He studied design at the Manchester School of Art and art at the Slade School of Art. Smith studied under Henri Matisse in Paris and acquired an interest in Fauvism (see note , Andre Derain).
One had to put him with the Bacons and the Sutherlands.
Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) was an English artist who is notable for his work in glass, fabrics, prints and portraits. He developed his art by working in watercolors before switching to using oil paints in the 1940s. It is these oil paintings, often of surreal, organic landscapes of the Pembrokeshire coast, that secured his reputation as a leading British modern artist.
Born in 1896, a student at the Slade in the great days of the Steers-Tonks regime.
The UCL Slade School of Fine Art (informally The Slade) is the art school of University College London (UCL). It is world-renowned and is consistently ranked as the UK’s top art and design educational institution. It was established in 1871 by the funds of lawyer and philanthropist Felix Slade (1788 – 1868). Notable alumni include: Raymond Briggs, G.K. Chesterton, Derek Jarman (Ghostwritten, note ) and Paul Nash.
Philip Wilson Steer (1860 – 1942) was a British painter of landscapes, seascapes, portraits and figure studies. As a painting tutor at the Slade School of Art for many years he influenced generations of young artists. He was appointed as Professor of Painting at the Slade in 1893. He would continue to teach there until 1930.
Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937) was a British surgeon and later draughtsman and painter of figure subjects, chiefly interiors, and a caricaturist. He became Slade Professor of Fine Art in 1892 and retired in 1930.
He called [his paintings] tapestries, and indeed the Aubusson atelier had done related work to his designs.
Tapestry manufactures at Aubusson, in the upper valley of the Creuse in central France, may have developed from looms in isolated family workshops established by Flemings that are noted in documents from the 16th century. As with Flemish and Parisian tapestries of the same time, figures were set against a conventional background of verdure, stylized foliage and vignettes of plants on which birds perch and from which issue glimpses of towers and towns.
An atelier (“workshop” or “studio”) is, in English, the private workshop or studio of a professional artist in the fine or decorative arts.
“An improbable marriage of Samuel Palmer and Chagall.”
Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881) was a British landscape painter, etcher and printmaker. He was also a prolific writer. Palmer was a key figure in Romanticism in Britain and produced visionary pastoral paintings.
Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985) was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic format. He experienced modernism’s “golden age” in Paris. “When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”
A hint of Nolan, though the subject matter was far less explicit.
Sidney Nolan (1917 – 1992) was one of Australia’s leading artists of the 20th century. His oeuvre is among the most diverse and prolific in all of modern art. He is best known for his series of paintings on legends from Australian history, most famously Ned Kelly.
The reference to Diaz [de la Pena] and the Barbizon School was a self-sarcasm, needless to say. But pressed on Pisanello, Breasley had cited a painting in the National Gallery in London, The Vision of St. Eustace; and confessed it had haunted him all his life.
Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Pena (1807 – 1876) was a French painter of the Barbizon school.
The Barbizon school of painters were part of an art movement towards Realism in art, which arose in the context of the dominant Romantic Movement of the time. The Barbizon school was active roughly from 1830 through 1870. It takes its name from the village of Barbizon, France, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where many of the artists gathered. Some of the most prominent features of this school are its tonal qualities, color, loose brushwork, and softness of form.
Pisanello (~1395 – 1455) was one of the most distinguished painters of the early Italian Renaissance and Quattrocento. Pisanello is known for his resplendent frescoes in large murals, elegant portraits, small easel pictures, and many brilliant drawings.
The Vision of Saint Eustace is a painting by Pisanello, now in the National Gallery in London. The date of the work is unknown, but the National Gallery’s website currently dates it to “about 1438 – 42.” The work depicts Saint Eustace before a stag, between the antlers of which is a crucifix, as described in the Golden Legend.
The painting can be seen on the National Gallery’s site.
He had gone for a year to the Courtauld Institute after college (…) His own work came under the influence of Op Art and Bridget Riley, and benefitted from her star.
The Courtauld Institute of Art commonly referred to as The Courtauld, is a self-governing college of the University of London specializing in the study of the history of art and conservation.
Op art, short for optical art, is a style of visual art that uses optical illusions.
Bridget Riley (b.1931) is an English painter who is one of the foremost exponents of Op art.
His own work began to get enough reputation as it moved from beneath the Op Art umbrella to guarantee plenty of red stars at his exhibitions.
From context, I assume a red star on an art piece means it’s been sold but I can’t find verification.
He had had coals of fire to spare, when he was in London in 1969, for Victor Pasmore’s head.
Victor Pasmore (1908 – 1998) was a British artist and architect. He pioneered the development of abstract art in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s.
De Stijl, Ben Nicholson and the rest.
Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982) was a British painter of abstract compositions (sometimes in low relief), landscape and still-life.