Classic Books: The Collector

There’s a scene in Stephen King’s Misery where Paul Sheldon, romance novelist held crippled and captive by psychotic fan Annie Wilkes, considers asking her whether she has read John Fowles’s first novel before very wisely deciding against it. I read The Collector recently, and it’s clear that King’s book owes a great deal to it: he has reversed the genders but it’s still a two-man tale of possession and obsession. Miranda is a butterfly: Paul Sheldon is a rare bird that came from Africa.

Miranda’s captor is an entomologist who has moved on to living specimens. The analogy is obvious but effective. The collector of the title is used to dead artifacts of beauty pressed onto pages, and can’t handle the real thing, flying around and alive. Miranda is a resourceful and spirited captive, banging against the bars of her cage. She seduces the kidnapper as part of an escape attempt, but he can’t perform with a living being, preferring to masturbate over photographs of his naked victim. Frederick Clegg’s preferred creative form is significant, and contrasted with art student Miranda’s drawings. ‘When you draw something it lives,’ she tells him, ‘when you photograph it it dies.’ 

The collector is like the pornographer in holding stillness above motion: it’s the nature of the pornographer to dehumanise both subject and audience in inverted art. I reviewed a book by a psychotherapist in which the author discusses a patient so addicted to online porn that he could no longer have sex with real women. ‘It’s a nasty, shameful little room that many of us are hiding in,’ the addict says. ‘Time to come out, boys.’

Despite his wealth and youth, Clegg will not be leaving this room any time soon. He’ll always sacrifice the risk of abandon for the security of control. While he has no qualms about assault, drugging and kidnap, he is prim when it comes to sexuality; Miranda keeps expecting a rape that never happens. He insists to us that he is not ‘just after her for the obvious.’ (Again, I’m reminded of Annie Wilkes, who slaughters and dismembers her way through Misery but who disapproves of smoking and has no cursewords stronger than ‘cockadoodie’.) Clegg’s propriety isn’t just sexual. He has a very clear idea of what is done and not done, based on his lower middle-class upbringing by a couple of maiden aunts (a bad sign in literature, as Saki and Wodehouse can tell you).

Clegg is not eccentric. He is relentlessly, terrifyingly normal: the desert of the real, the scorched earth of the conventional. Annie Wilkes is a retired nurse and occasional farmer: Clegg is a council clerk who lucks into a big pools win. He knows his wealth won’t open doors. ‘It was no good throwing money around,’ he says. ‘You could see them saying, don’t kid us, we know what you are, why don’t you come back where you came from.’ He kidnaps Miranda because he knows she would cut him dead in conversation. When she’s gone, Clegg reflects that he started too high: ‘I could never get what I wanted from someone like Miranda, with all her la-di-da ideas and clever tricks.’

The book was published in 1963, but the delineations between the hedonistic bohemians and the resentful, workaday mediocrities are just as stark now as they were then. The story is not just a battle between the upper and lower middle class, but between the cosmopolitan and the provincial: city, art and materialism versus the old poisons of tribe, faith and flag.

Miranda sums him up in a rant:

You despise the real bourgeois classes for all their snobbishness and their snobbish voices and ways. You do, don’t you? Yet all you put in their place is a horrid little refusal to have nasty thoughts or do nasty things or be nasty in any way. Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty? By passion, by love, by hatred, by truth. Do you know that?

This is why Miranda is wrong to give Clegg the nickname of Caliban. Caliban had passion. Clegg only has rules, and in some way it’s him who’s the collected, impaled and writhing against the cork.

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