Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Pop Fiction: The Clan of the Cave Bear & The French Lieutenant's Woman

James Franco on General Hospital
I have yet to finish The Clan of the Cave Bear or The French Lieutenant's Woman. 

The Relative's new apartment at the OPH (my generic label = Old People's Home) is too small to accommodate both reading and TV.  The Talk, General Hospital, and Rachael Ray interfered even with the frothiest of novels. When the Relative fell asleep, I could not turn down the volume without waking her.  Spotting James Franco on General Hospital (a guest star appearance) and rating the makeovers on Rachael Ray became essential diversions. Was Franco the artist-mobster or the ponytailed boyfriend?  Did we prefer dread locks or the short hair in the makeover? The woman with the frizzy hair was pretty with her hair tamed.   At night I stayed in the Relative's empty house (some furniture is in the new apartment, the rest crammed into the basement), and gobbled parts of Jean Auel's first novel in her Earth's Children series and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman.  

The Clan of the Cave Bear kept me rapt for hours.  It is an entertaining pop historical novel, but has more in common with feminist SF or fantasy.  Ayla, the Cro-Magnon heroine, is the definitive autodidact female role model.  She can hunt, swim, and save cave-children from drowning and hyena abductions. Adopted by a Neanderthal medicine woman after an earthquake, Ayla, one of the Cro-Magnon "Other Ones," is hated by the men in the Neanderthal clan, especially by Browd, the chief's son.  She is more intelligent than the Neanderthals:  she can make inferences, deductions, and connections that are too difficult for the primitive clan.  They depend on a "race" memory for knowledge of their customs, and even knowledge of medicine and hunting, while she can reason and refine.  Browd beats her, berates her, and even rapes her, and this is within the realm of acceptable behavior.  She is almost killed after she saves Browd's child, because she killed the hyena with a sling and hunting is forbidden for women.

Auel is a pretty good writer.  I'm very happy to read about Ayla and her adventures. Now if only I were a PR whore, I would be happy to receive the COMPLETE EARTH CHILDREN SERIES ON MY NOOK. 

The French Lieutenant's Woman is supposed to be my "literary" pop fiction of the week. John Fowles is one of those writers I read at MY FRIEND'S COUNTRY HOUSE (illustration at left). 

Fowles is good, but is one of those best-selling writers likely to be forgotten.  His books, though smart, are not quite on the level of, say, John Barth's or Donald Barthleme's masterpieces.   The intricate design is there, but the voice, diction, and style are unsubtle and wordy.  There's a sort of chuckling at his own brilliance that undercuts his authority.   If you like meta-fiction, read Chapter 13 of his pseudo-nineteenth-century novel The French Lieutenant's Woman:

"If I have pretended until now to know my characters' minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and "voice" of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story:  that the novelist stands next to God.  But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes; if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the word."
Fowles provides footnotes and socio-economic analysis of class, politics, and sexual mores of the 19th century in addition to the narrative.  The multifaceted story centers on Charles, an aristocrat engaged to Tina, a bright but shallow rich merchant's daughter, who may someday be his intellectual equal, but is not now.  He finds himself fascinated by the French Lieutenant's Woman, a fallen woman closer to his own age who mysteriously walks by the sea and in the woods every afternoon.  Sara, deserted by the French lieutenant,  is nicknamed Tragedy, and Charles' involvement with her grows out of an entanglement that both attracts and repels him.  Sara's character is slowly revealed to us, through the eyes of men and women, through John Fowles, and through herself. 

I am enjoying this, but it is not quite a pop classic, and I'm wishing I'd upped the ante this pop week with a John Cowper Powys or an Elizabeth North.  Perhaps A Maggot, the novel I most enjoyed by Fowles, is his best.

There is a movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman, starring Meryl Streep, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.  


gina c in al said...

I recommend watching the films of the FLW and Possession as a double-feature. They complement each other in the way that they both look back into the past through the lens of the contepmorary time at which each was made. FLW being filmed in the early 80s and Possession in the early 00s. Irons and Streep were early in their careers and I suppose now that we can see the whole body of their work, its easy to predict that they would have become the great actors that they are now. with Possession its quite different, Paltrow and Eckhart still have a long way to go to prove their mastery of their craft. But Ehle and Northam in the Victorian bits are Wonderful and completely dominate! The scenes from the Victorian story are rich with color and romance, while the frame story seems pale by comparison. Hope you get to watch them both. have you read Possession?

Frisbee said...

I love Possession and what a great idea to compare the two. FLW has its footnotes; Possession has its poetry. It has been so long since I saw either movie, and I'm particularly interested in seeing FLW again because of the Pinter screenplay.