By John Fowles

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In Mantissa (1982), a novelist awakes in the hospital with amnesia — and comes to believe that a beautiful female doctor is, in fact, his muse.


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They were generally represented as young,

beautiful, modest virgins, were fond of

solitude, and commonly appeared in differ-

ent attire, according to the arts and

sciences over which they presided.

– Lemprière, under Musae

IT was conscious of a luminous and infinite haze, as if it were floating, godlike, alpha and omega, over a sea of vapor and looking down; then less happily, after an interval of obscure duration, of murmured sounds and peripheral shadows, which reduced the impression of boundless space and empire to something much more contracted and unaccommodating. From there, with the swift fatality of a fall, the murmurs focused to voices, the shadows to faces. As in some obscure foreign film, nothing was familiar; not language, not location, not cast. Images and labels began to swim, here momentarily to coalesce, here to divide, like so many pond amoebae; obviously busy, but purposeless. These collocations of shapes and feelings, of associated morphs and phonemes, returned like the algebraic formulae of schooldays, lodged in the mind by ancient rote, though what the formulae now applied to, why they existed, was entirely forgotten. It was conscious, evidently; but bereft of pronoun, all that distinguishes person from person; and bereft of time, all that distinguishes present from past and future.

For a while a pleasing intimation of superiority, of having somehow got to the top of the heap, still attached to this sense of impersonality. But even that was soon brutally dispersed by the relentless demon of reality. In a kind of mental somersault it was forced to the inescapable conclusion that far from augustly floating in the stratosphere, couched as it were in iambic pentameters, it was actually lying on its back in bed. Above the eyes presided a wall-lamp, a neat, rectangular, apposed white plastic panel. Light. Night. A small grey room, a pale grey, the color of a herring gull's wing. Eternal limbo, at least eventless, tolerably nothing. If it had not been for the two women staring down.

Obscurely reproached by the closer and more requiring face, it made another unwilling deduction: for some reason it was a center of attention, an I of sorts. The face smiled, descended, with a mixture of the solicitous and the skeptical, concern tainted with a perhaps involuntary suspicion of malingering.


With another painfully swift and reducing intuition it realized it was not just an I, but a male I. That must be where the inrushing sense of belowness, impotence, foolishness came from. It, I, it must be he, watched the mouth glide down like a parachutist and land on his forehead. Touch and scent, this could not be film or dream. Now the face hovered over his. Whispered words issued from the red orifice.

"Darling, you know who I am?"

He stared.

"I'm Claire."

Not at all clear.

"Your wife, darling. Remember?"


The most strangely alarming yet: to know one has spoken, but only by the proximity of the source of the sound. The brown eyes hinted at appalling depths of conjugal betrayal. He tried to attach word to person, person to self; failed; and finally shifted his eyes to the younger and more distant woman on the other side of the bed – who smiled as well, but professionally and indifferently. This person, hands in pockets, trimly observant, wore a white medical coat. Now her mouth also gave birth to words.

"Can you tell me your name?"

Of course. Name! No name. Nothing. No past, no whence or when. The abyss perceived, and almost simultaneously, its irremediability. He strained desperately, a falling man, but whatever he was trying to reach or grasp was not there. He clung to the white-coated woman's eyes, abruptly and intensely frightened. She came a step or two closer.

"I'm a doctor. This is your wife. Please look at her. Do you remember her? Do you remember having seen her before? Anything about her?"

He looked. There was something expectant in the wife's expression, and yet hurt, almost peeved, as if its owner resented both the stupidity of the procedure and his silent stare. She looked nervous and tired, she wore too much makeup; the air of someone who has put on a mask to prevent a scream. Above all she demanded something he was not able to give.

Her mouth began to announce names, people's names, street names, place names, disjointed phrases. Some were repeated. He had perhaps heard them before, as words; but he had no idea what relevance they were supposed to have, nor why they should increasingly sound like evidence of crimes he had committed. In the end he shook his head. He would have liked to close his eyes, to have peace to reforget, to be one again with the sleeping blank page of oblivion. The woman bent closer still, scrutinizing him.

"Darling, please try. Please? Just for me?" She waited a second or two, then glanced up. "I'm afraid it's no good."

Now the doctor leaned over him. He felt her fingers gently widen his eyelids, as she examined something about his pupils. She smiled down at him as if he were a child.

"This is a private room in a hospital. You're quite safe."


"You know what a hospital is?"


"A power cut." A hint of dryness enlivened her dark eyes, a merciful straw of humor. "We'll soon have you switched on again."

"I can't remember who…"

"Yes, we know."

The other woman spoke. "Miles?"

"What miles?"

"Your name. Your name is Miles, darling. Miles Green."

The faintest flit of an alien object, a bat's wing at dusk; but gone almost before it was apprehended.

"What's happened?"

"Nothing, darling. Nothing that can't be cured."

He knew that was wrong; and that she knew he knew. There was altogether too much knowing about her.

"Who are you?"

"Claire. Your wife."

She spoke the name again, queryingly, as if she began to doubt it herself. He looked away from her to the ceiling. It was odd, yet soothing; gull-grey, yes, gulls, one knew gulls; lightly domed, and quilted or padded into small squares, each of which was swollen out, pendent, with a little cloth-covered grey button at its center. The effect was of endless upside-down rows of miniature but perfectly regular molehills, or antheaps. Somewhere, in the momentary silence, a sound obtruded, the hitherto unnoticed ticking of a clock. The doctor leaned over him again.

"What color are my eyes?"

"Dark brown."

"My hair?"



"Pale. Smooth."

"How old do you think I am?" He stared. "Have a guess."

"Twenty-seven. Eight."

"Good." She smiled, encouragingly; then went on in her briskly neutral voice. "Now. Who wrote Pickwick Papers?"


"A Midwinter Night's Dream?" He stared again. "Don't you know?"


"Fine. Who?"


"Can you remember a character in it?"

"Bottom." He added, "Titania."

"Why do you remember those two in particular?"

"God knows."

"When did you last see it acted?"

He closed his eyes and thought, then opened them again and shook his head.

"Never mind. Now – eight times eight?"


"Nineteen from thirty?"


"Good. Full marks."

She straightened. He wanted to say the answers had come from nowhere, that being mysteriously able to answer correctly only made incomprehension worse. He tried feebly to sit up, but something constrained him, the tight way the bedclothes were tucked in; and a volitional weakness, as in nightmares, where wanting to move and moving are aeons, or an eternal baby's crib, apart.

"Lie still, Mr. Green. You've been under sedation."

His secret alarm grew. Yet one could trust those alert and intent dark eyes. They held the muted irony of an old friend of the opposite sex – completely detached now, yet still harboring the ghost of a more affectionate interest. The other woman patted his shoulder, reclaiming her share of attention.

"We must take it easy. Just for a few days."

He reluctantly transferred his look to her face; and derived from that "we" an instinct to displease.

"I've never seen you before."

She laughed, a little noiseless gust, as if she were amused, he was so preposterous.

"I'm afraid you have, my dear. Every day almost for the last ten years. We're married. We have children. You must remember that."

"I don't remember anything."

She took a breath, slightly bowed her head, then glanced again across at the doctor, who he now sensed shared, though it was veiled behind her bedside manner, his growing dislike of this implication of blame, or moral imperative. The woman was too anxious to establish an ownership of him; and one has to know who one is to wish to be owned. He felt an overwhelming desire to be inviolable: an object she might pretend to possess, he could not fight that, but not her tame pet to prove it. Best to regain the nothingness, the limbo, the grey, ticking silence. He let his eyelids fall. But almost at once he heard the doctor's voice again.

"I'd like to start some preliminary treatment now, Mrs. Green."

"Yes, of course." He caught the wife-face making a simper across the bed, woman to woman. "It's a relief to know he's in such good hands." Then, "You will let me know at once if…?"

"At once. Don't worry. This first disorientation is quite normal."

The woman, his alleged wife, looked down at him, still unconvinced, still tacitly accusing. He realized, but with irritation, not sympathy, that she was flustered, without a recipe for such situations.

"Miles, I'll be in again tomorrow." He said nothing. "Please try and help the doctor. Everything's going to be all right. The children are missing you." She tried one last appeal. "Jane? Tom? David?"

Her voice was almost wheedling, and made them sound more like overdue bills, past follies of spending, than children. She took another small breath, then bent and pecked him on the mouth. I plant this flag. This land is mine.

He did not watch her leave, but lay looking up at the ceiling, his hands by his sides beneath the bedclothes. The two women spoke by the door in low voices, out of sight. Sedation. Power cut. Anaesthetic. Operation. He shifted his feet, then felt for the side of his legs. Bare skin. He felt higher. Bare skin. A door closed, the doctor was back beside him. She reached and pressed a bell-stud beside the bed, and scrutinized him for a moment.

"You must try to understand it's a shock for them as well. People don't realize how much they rely on recognition as a proof they exist. When things like this happen, they feel scared. Insecure. Right?"

"I've got nothing on."

She smiled briefly at the non sequitur; or perhaps at the notion that loss of clothes was more shocking than loss of memory.

"You don't need anything. It's very warm. Much too warm, in fact." She touched her own white tunic. "I wear nothing under this. They keep the thermostat so high, we've all complained about it. And not having any windows." She said, "You know what a thermostat is?"


He craned a little, looking for the first time around the room. There was indeed no window, and hardly any furniture, no more than a small table and a chair in the far left-hand corner from where he lay. The walls were grey-quilted like the domed ceiling. Even the door opposite the foot of the bed was quilted. Only the floor had been spared, in some attempt to lighten the monotony of the rest: it was carpeted in a dull flesh-pink, the tone painters once called old rose. Quilting, padding, prison: the connection escaped him, but he sought the doctor's eyes, and she must have guessed what he lacked words for.

"For silence. The latest thing. Acoustic insulation. We shall move you out as soon as you start picking up."


"Yes." She pointed. It hung on the wall behind him, near the corner to his left, an absurdly fussy and over-ornamented Swiss cuckoo clock, with an alpine gable and a small host of obscure shapes, peasants, cows, alpenhorns, edelweiss, heaven knows what else, carved on every available brown wooden surface. "It was left us by a previous patient. An Irish gentleman. We thought it added a human touch."

"It's awful."

"It won't disturb you. We've disconnected the striking mechanism. It doesn't cuckoo anymore."

He remained staring at the hideous clock: its lunatically cluttered front, its dropped intestines of weights and chains. It did disturb him, standing for something he feared, he couldn't say why; an anomaly, an incongruous reminder of all he could not remember.

"Was he cured?"

"His was rather a complex case."

He turned his head and looked up at her again. "He wasn't?"

"I'll tell you about him when you're better."

He digested that. "This isn't –"

"Isn't what?"

"Mad people?"

"Heavens no. You're as sane as I am. Probably saner."

Now she sat on the edge of the bed, her arms folded, turned slightly towards him, as they waited for the bell to be answered. Two pens and a thermometer case were clipped inside an upper pocket of her tunic. Her dark hair was bound severely back at the nape, she wore no makeup; yet there was something elegantly classical about the face, of the Mediterranean. The skin was very clear, a warmth hidden in its paleness, perhaps she had Italian blood; not that she did not seem perfectly English in manner, obviously of well-bred, even upper-class, background, the sort of young woman whose intelligence had made her choose a serious profession rather than live in idleness. He wondered if she were not after all Jewish, a scion of one of those distinguished families who had long combined great wealth with scholarship and public service; then wondered from where on earth he could even wonder that. She reached a hand and patted the side of his body, to reassure him.

"You're going to be fine. We've had far worse."

"It's like being a child again."

"I know. The treatment may not work at once. We must both be patient." She smiled. "So to speak." She stood and pressed the bell again beside the bed, then resumed her seat.

"Where is this?"

"The Central." She watched him. He shook his head. She glanced down, said nothing for a moment, then looked at him with one of her quick quizzes. "I'm here to get that memory of yours back into circulation. You search. Everyone knows the Central."

He sought; and in some peculiar way knew both that the seeking was a waste of time and that there was something wise in not trying. It was not so unpleasant, after the first shock, this total severance from all one was or might be: to be not expected to do anything, to be free of a burden, forgotten in its kind, but deducible by its absence – a weight one had never seen, yet one's mental back felt relieved. Above all there was the restfulness of being in this coolly competent young woman's hands and care. A delicate neck and throat showed in the discreet V of the white tunic.

"I wish I could see my face."

"I'm your mirror. Just for now."

He consulted it, and saw nothing distinct at all.

"I haven't been in an accident?"

She looked grave. "I'm afraid so. You've been turned into a toad." Slowly, by something in her eyes, he realized he was being joked out of too much self-alarm. He managed a wan smile. She said, "That's better."

"Do you know who… what I was?"




He waited for her to go on. But she watched him in silence: another test.

"You're not going to tell me."

"You're going to tell me. One day soon."

He was silent for a moment or two.

"I suppose you're a…"

"A what?"

"Couches. You know."


"That's it."

"Neurologist. Abnormal brain function. My special field is mnemonology."

"What's that?"

"How memory works."

"Or doesn't."

"Sometimes. Temporarily."

Her hair was tied at the nape by a wisp of scarf, the only feminine touch about her clothes. The ends showed an alternate pattern of tiny printed roses and detached elliptical leaves, black on white.

"I don't know your name."

She turned towards him on the edge of the bed and slipped her thumb under the left lapel of the tunic. There was a small plastic name-tag: DR. A. DELFIE. But then, as if revealing even this tiny bureaucratic detail about herself was unclinical, she stood.

"Oh where is that nurse."

She went to the door and looked out; in vain, since she returned once more beside the bed and pressed the bell, long and insistently this time. She glanced down, her mouth wryly pressed, exonerating him from any blame over her impatience.

"How long have I been here?"

"Just a few pages."


She had folded her arms, and yet again there was the ghost of a quiz in her watching eyes. "What should I have said?"


She smiled more openly. "Good."

"Why did you say 'pages'?"

"You've mislaid your identity, Mr. Green. What I have to work on is your basic sense of reality. And that seems in good shape."

"It's like losing all one's luggage."

"Better luggage than limbs. As they say."

He stared at the ceiling, struggling to reconquer a past, a place, a purpose.

"I must be running away from something."

"Perhaps. That's what we're here for. To help you dig back." She touched his bare shoulder. "But the thing now is not to worry. Just relax."

She moved once more to the door. It was strangely dark beyond, he could see nothing. He stared at the domed and quilted ceiling, its forest of little hanging pods, each with its end-button. For all their greyness they were breastlike, line after line of schoolgirls' breasts, a canopy of nippled buds. He felt like pointing this out to the doctor, but she remained waiting in the open door; and then an instinct told him it was not something he could say to a woman physician. It was too personal, too whimsical, and might offend her.

At last the doctor turned. Someone came quickly in behind her: a young West Indian nurse, white cap and brown face over a starched blue-and-white uniform. In one hand she carried a coiled red cylinder of rubber sheeting. She rolled her eyes at the doctor.

"Sister on the warpath. For a change."

The doctor gave a resigned nod, then spoke down to him.

"This is Nurse Cory."

"Nice to have you with us, Mr. Green."

He made a sheepish grimace up at the nurse.


She raised a mock-stern finger; a flash of brown eyes, a rich Antillean voice.

"Now no sorry. Else you get smacked."

A pretty girl, a humor, a jolly bossiness. By some rare coincidence in what otherwise must have been very different racial genes, her eyes were exactly the same color as the doctor's.

"Close the door, nurse, would you? I want to do the primaries."


Once again Dr. Delfie had her arms folded, in what was evidently a favorite pose. Her gaze down at him seemed for a moment to be curiously speculative, as if she had not yet fully made up her mind what his treatment should be; as if she saw him as less a person than a problem. But then she gave a small smile.

"They won't hurt. Many patients find them pleasantly relaxing." She glanced across at the nurse, who had returned to the other side of the bed. "Okay?"

They stooped and with a familiar expertise eased up the mattress first on one side, then on the other. The bedclothes were released and in a quick series of folds stowed away to the end of the bed. He tried to sit. But the two were at once back beside him, forcing him firmly but gently down again.

Dr. Delfie said, "Lie still. Just as you are." Though quiet, her voice was markedly more brisk; and she read his embarrassment. "My dear man, I'm a doctor, this is a nurse. We see naked male bodies every day of our lives."

"Yes." He added, "Sorry."

"Now we have to put a rubber sheet under you. Turn towards me." He turned, and felt the sheet laid close along his back by the nurse. "Now the other way. Over the roll. That's right. Good. On your back again." He stared up at the quilted ceiling. The sheet was pulled taut beneath him. "Now raise your arms and put your hands under your head. Like so. Good. Now close your eyes. I want you to relax. You're in the best hospital in Europe for your problem. We have a very high success rate. You're not lost anymore, you're on the way to recovery already. Just relax all your muscles. And your mind. Everything's going to be fine." There was a pause. "Now we're going to test for certain nervous reactions. You must lie quite still."


He kept his eyes obediently closed. There were a few moments more of silence, only the ticking clock, then the doctor said quietly, "Right, nurse."

Two light hands touched the underside of the arms cocked back on the pillow, ran down to the armpits, then down his sides; stopped at the hip bones, pressed down on them.

"My hands nice and warm, Mr. Green?"

"Yes thank you."

The nurse removed her hands, but only momentarily. One of them deftly lifted his limp penis and laid it back and rested on it; while the fingers of the other hand encircled his scrotal sac and began to massage it slowly. His eyes opened in alarm. The doctor leaned over him.

"The memory nerve-center in the brain is closely associated with the one controlling gonadic activity. We have to check that the latter is functioning normally. This is standard procedure. No reason to feel shy. Now please – close your eyes again."

In her eyes there was no longer any humor or dryness at all, only medical seriousness. He closed his own again. The scrotal massaging continued. The other hand began to stroke the exposed underside of the penis. Though he did not feel relaxed at all, the manipulation did seem merely clinical, a routine matter; and as if to confirm it, the doctor spoke across the bed and his body to the nurse.

"Have they done anything about that sluice yet?"

"You're jokin'."

"I don't know what it is about Maintenance. The more you complain, the longer it takes."

"All that lot do is play gin rummy in the boiler room. I seen 'em."

"I'll try to get Mr. Peacock to chase them."

"Best of luck."


On Sale
Apr 2, 2013
Page Count
208 pages

John Fowles

About the Author

John Fowles (1926-2005) was educated at Oxford and subsequently lectured in English at universities in Greece and the UK. The success of his first novel, The Collector , published in 1963, allowed him to devote all his time to writing. His books include the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novels The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Daniel Martin. Fowles spent the last decades of his life on the southern coast of England in the small harbor town of Lyme Regis.

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