SFR welcomes author Lee Miller in his first column, which examines current events through a literary lens. This week, a 1963 novel lends eerie insight into contemporary sexual violence.
The recent sexual assault indictment of former IMF Managing Director and French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn raises several interesting physiological questions about “power” and “point of view,” many of which John Fowles vividly explores in his 1963 debut novel, The Collector. Strauss-Kahn allegedly attacked a 32-year-old Ghanaian chambermaid while she attempted to clean his Sofitel Hotel room in Manhattan, locking her inside the suite for approximately 30 minutes. The case evidence, along with a “consensual encounter” defense, point toward Strauss-Kahn’s guilt. Why would he ever do something like this? What was he thinking?
British author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus) explores these questions of human folly. The Collector has a simple plot: A friendless clerk and amateur butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg, becomes infatuated with a 20-year-old art student, Miranda Grey, who attends school near his office. When Frederick wins a large football pool (akin to a million-dollar lottery hit today), he quits his job, buys a house in the country, redesigns the wine cellar into an inescapable prison and proceeds to “collect” Miranda. Frederick considers the kidnapping of Miranda as a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, “like catching the Mazarine Blue or a Queen of Spain Fritillary.”
Power transforms Frederick’s fantasy into action. He believes the words of his former officemate Crutchly: “You have to push nowadays to get anywhere.” The blossoming British bourgeois society around him supports the axiom “money is power.” Frederick Clegg, like Strauss-Kahn, becomes overwhelmed by his social status and deciphers what is “good” or “bad” through a prism of personal power rather than common morality. As a rich loner, he creates his own rules for Right and wrong. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Miranda does not behave as Frederick fantasizes, and she does not fall in love with him. Like the Sofitel chambermaid, Miranda refuses to succumb to power, focusing all of her strength and smarts toward escape. She refuses to bow to her captor’s intents and perceptions.
The Collector provides fabulous insight into the subtle destructiveness of bourgeois values, where the principal concern is making money, finding a comfortable niche and then sitting and watching, rather than living beyond money and “being to the full.” During her long captivity, Miranda declares, “I hate people who collect things and give them names and then forget all about them.” In a materialist society, art is collected and classified more than it is experienced, and herein lies its devaluation. Fowles uses art as a metaphor throughout the book to explore social psychology.
The true artistic excellence in The Collector is Fowles’ masterful point of view play. The first 120 pages are written from Frederick’s point of view, using his voice. The next 160 pages are Miranda’s diary, recorded during her captivity in the cellar. A twenty page dénouement, returning to Frederick’s point of view, ends the story with a nearly even split between the captor’s perception and the “butterfly” view. This literary technique creates a counterpoint to every assumption, exploring the ideas of power, bourgeois morality, art, and even Shakespeare’s The Tempest. At one point in the story, Miranda draws a series of fruit bowl sketches and asks Frederick to pick out the best. He chooses the one she considers her worst. Their opinions and tastes, their different points of view, expound the “why?” The theory that “perception is reality” colors Miranda’s kidnapping, her fruit sketches and the handling of her severe illness, which ends the story.
The Collector has become an inspirational read for serial abductors such as Leonard Lake, Charles Ng and Christopher Wilder. Like The Catcher in the Rye, there is a moving psychological power to the writing that can be interpreted in a multitude of meaningful or destructive ways. Maybe Dominique Strauss-Khan also read this story? Or perhaps he will discover it in prison.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com).