John Fowles, the British writer whose teasing, multilayered fiction explored the tensions between free will and the constraints of society, even as it played with traditional novelistic conventions and challenged readers to find their own interpretations, died on Saturday at his home in Lyme Regis, England. He was 79.
His death was announced by his publisher, Random House UK. No cause was given, but Random House said Mr. Fowles, who suffered a stroke in the late 1980's and had heart problems, had been ill for some time.
Mr. Fowles's originality, versatility and skill were nowhere more evident than in his most celebrated novels, among them "The Collector," "The Magus" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman." In "The French Lieutenant's Woman," for example, he combined the melodrama of a 19th-century Victorian novel with the sensibility of a 20th-century postmodern narrator, offering his readers two alternative endings from which to choose and at one point boldly inserting himself into the book as a character who accompanies the hero on a train to London.
In "The Collector," Mr. Fowles painted an eerily plausible portrait of a psychopath who kidnaps a young woman out of what he imagines is love, telling the story from the two characters' opposing points of view until, at the end, the narratives converge with a shocking immediacy. And in "The Magus," the story of a young Englishman who gets caught up in the frightening dramatic fantasies of a strangely powerful man on an Aegean island, he again wrote an ending of self-conscious ambiguity, leaving the hero's future an open puzzle that readers are challenged to solve for themselves.
"Fowles's success in the marketplace derives from his great skill as a storyteller," wrote Ellen Pifer in the "Dictionary of Literary Biography." "Remarkably, he manages to sustain such effects at the same time that, as an experimental writer testing conventional assumptions about reality, he examines and parodies the traditional devices of storytelling."
For whatever reason - he always said it was because he was mistrusted by the British literary establishment that he had rejected - Mr. Fowles was always far more celebrated in the United States than in his native country. In America, his books became mainstays of college literature courses while achieving that rare combination: admiring reviews from serious-minded critics and best-seller status in the stores.
Not so in England, at least not all the time. "In many ways, I have been put in exile in this country," he once said. He lived a quiet, even reclusive life in Lyme Regis, in an old Dorset house that overlooked the English Channel. He threw himself into his writing and the natural world, and developed a reputation as a bit of a grouch, a writer who shunned the public eye and did not look kindly on the tendency of readers to track him down and invite him for a drink.
"I know I have a reputation as a cantankerous man of letters and I don't try and play it down," he told The Guardian newspaper in 2003. "A writer, more-or-less living on his own, will be persecuted by his readers. They want to see you and talk to you. And they don't realize that very often that gets on one's nerves."
At the height of his success in the 1960's and 70's, Mr. Fowles was regarded by many as the English-speaking world's greatest contemporary writer and its first postmodern novelist, but his work became less fashionable in his later years. He published his last novel, "A Maggot," in 1985, although he told an interviewer in 1998 that he was working on another one.
John Fowles was born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, England, on March 31, 1926, the son of Robert J. Fowles, a prosperous cigar merchant, and his wife, the former Gladys Richards, a schoolteacher. In an autobiographical essay, he described his hometown as a place "dominated by conformism - the pursuit of respectability." Although, to all appearances, he thrived in the environment - "I was given some facility with masks" was how he put it - his early years left him with a lifelong distaste for following the herd.
He felt alienated from his parents, saying "I seemed to come from nowhere."
"No one in my family had any literary interests or skills at all," he once said. "When I was a young boy my parents were always laughing at 'the fellow who couldn't draw' - Picasso. Their crassness horrified me."
Similarly, he recoiled from his role as head boy at Bedford School, his prep school. "By the age of 18, I had had dominion over 600 boys, and learned all about power, hierarchy and the manipulation of law," he wrote. "Ever since I have had a violent hatred of leaders, organizers, bosses; of anyone who thinks it good to get or have arbitrary power over other people."
After a brief, compulsory period of military service, which he spent as a lieutenant in the Royal Marines and which he loathed, he studied French at New College, Oxford, immersing himself in the literature of the French existentialists. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1950, and then took jobs teaching English in France, Greece and London.
In Greece, he met his first wife, Elizabeth, and also found the inspiration for "The Magus."
Mr. Fowles, who started writing in his early 20's, wrote: "I began because I have always found it easy to fantasize, to invent situations and plausible dialogue; partly because I have always rejected so much of the outward life I have had to lead. In one way at least teaching is a good profession for a writer, because it gives him a sharp sense of futility."
His earliest literary efforts were marked by false starts and stops, as he discarded many manuscripts that he thought weren't good enough for publication. He honed his craft by studying and imitating writers he admired, including Flaubert, D. H. Lawrence, Defoe and Hemingway. In 1963, he began work on "The Magus," his second novel, and published his first, "The Collector."
"The Collector," whose point, Mr. Fowles said in an interview, was to "show that our world is sick," was an instant success. The story of Frederick Clegg, a sad-sack clerk and butterfly collector who decides to add a beautiful young woman, Miranda Grey, to his collection by locking her in his basement, the novel was praised for its subtle examination of dueling notions of free will, even as its subject matter chilled reviewers.
"The slow degrees" by which Clegg destroys Miranda, wrote Alan Pryce-Jones in The New York Times Book Review, "make one of the most agonizing chapters in the whole literary history of obsession."
"The Magus" was more complicated and opaque than its predecessor, leading its hero, an English schoolteacher named Nicholas Urfe, to a remote Greek island and putting him at the mercy of the elaborate fantasies, or "godgame," concocted by the title character, the rich, mysterious Maurice Conchis. ("Magus" means sorcerer or conjurer.) There, Urfe begins to doubt what is real and what is fiction, and is forced, agonizingly, to question who he is.
Some critics complained that the novel was an overcomplicated pretension. But others took its part with passion, saying Mr. Fowles had more than succeeded in using the novel to illustrate the existential dilemma of life: that people must decide for themselves how to act in the face of absurd, unpredictable circumstances.
He was best known for his next novel, "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969), which Karel Reisz made into a successful movie in 1981, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The book, set in 1867, tells the story of Charles Smithson, a gentleman geologist (as was Mr. Fowles) in Lyme Regis and a budding adherent of the theories of Charles Darwin. Engaged to a young woman of his class and station, Smithson finds himself drawn to a willful governess who has been wooed and abandoned by a French sailor. On the surface, the story seems classically Victorian, with elaborate 19th-century language, highly wrought plot twists and extensive epigraphs introducing each chapter.
But the book's narrator is straight from the 1960's, and it is his all-knowing voice - constantly interrupting the narrative with mini-lectures on extra-textual subjects, freely discussing people who haven't been born and historical events that haven't yet happened - that makes "The French Lieutenant's Woman" so unusual. Along the way, the reader is treated to the narrator's - that is, Mr. Fowles's - views on Victorian England, Freud, Marx, the dilemma of the modern novelist and 20th-century existential despair.
Mr. Fowles was also celebrated for "A Maggot," a book heavy with symbolism, ambiguity and multifaceted meanings. The first part tells the story of a group of mysterious travelers who set out on a journey on horseback in 1736; the rest concerns the Rashomon-like testimony of the survivors after one of the group, a manservant, is found hanged, and another, a nobleman, goes missing.
Other fiction included "Mantissa" (1982), an extended dialogue between a successful author and his difficult psychiatrist-cum-muse; "The Ebony Tower" (1974), a collection of five linked stories that included Mr. Fowles's translation of the Celtic medieval romance "Eliduc"; and "Daniel Martin" (1977), an autobiographical work about a middle-aged British writer re-examining his life, in which Mr. Fowles again blurred the line between the narrator and his fictional creation.
Among Mr. Fowles's numerous works of nonfiction were "The Aristos: A Self-Portrait in Ideas" (1964), a philosophical examination of life in the 20th century modeled on Pascal's "PensČes"; "The Enigma of Stonehenge" (1980); and "A Short History of Lyme Regis" (1983).
His most recent book was "Wormholes" (1998), an anthology of writing that included journal entries, literary essays, and musings on Englishness, religion, the environment and a host of other topics.
Mr. Fowles was married twice. His first wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1956, died of cancer in 1990. He is survived by his second wife, Sarah.
As much as it frustrated some of his readers, Mr. Fowles always believed he had done the right thing by leaving the endings of his most celebrated novels open-ended. But he was not above bending his own rules when the occasion called for it.
He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of "The Magus," was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. "Yes, of course they were," Mr. Fowles replied.
By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of "The Magus." "Why can't you say what you mean, and for God's sake, what happened in the end?" the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter "horrid" but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: "They never saw each other again."