John Fuller was born on 1 January 1937 in Ashford, Kent, son of the poet Roy Fuller. He was educated at St Paul’s School and New College, Oxford, where he edited Isis and won the Newdigate Prize. In 1960 he married Prue Martin. They have three daughters and three grandsons. He began teaching as a Visiting Lecturer at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1962, and then was appointed an Assistant Lecturer in Frank Kermode’s English Department at the University of Manchester. From 1966 to 2002 he was a Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford, where is now an Emeritus Fellow. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1980.
He began early as a poet, publishing his first collection at the age of 24 and appearing at about the same time in such influential anthologies as New Lines 2 and Alvarez’s Penguin The New Poetry. He has published 24 collections to date. The latest is Asleep & Awake (Chatto & Windus, 2020). Chatto published a Collected Poems in 1996. His poetry has been awarded many prizes, including the Forward Prize for Stones and Fires in 1996, and the Michael Braude Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. His “Valentine”, the first poem to be published by the magazine Cosmopolitan, is one of the Nation’s Favourite Love Poems, and his work has been displayed on the New York subway. Of his Collected Poems Alan Hollinghurst wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: “No other living British poet has produced a body of work so entertaining and beautiful.” And in the Spectator of 15 September 2012 Alan Brownjohn called him “arguably the best poet now writing.”
Since the late 1970s John Fuller has also been writing fiction, and is known equally as a novelist. His first novel, Flying to Nowhere, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1983, and went on to win a Whitbread Prize. It has been translated into eight languages. As with his poetry, he likes to explore the technical possibilities of verbal forms and traditions, and to set up challenging and dramatic situations, puzzles and paradoxes.
In a lecture on the contemporary British novel, the writer A. S. Byatt summed up this interest with enthusiasm: “Flying to Nowhere. . .is a fable about an island, full of apples and a life-giving well, where the abbot is dissecting dead pilgrims in the search for the secret of life, where dreadful things happen to novices, and a horse called Saviour, terribly drowned, produces hot, maggoty, swarming life. This was followed by an elegant tale of a shy English composer. . .who is struck, artistically and as a man, by a black American jazz singer. If Flying to Nowhere was fable, Tell It Me Again is part thriller and menacing detective story, but it uses the genre metaphysically, so to speak. Look Twice is different again —- it is a central European tale of conjuring and trickery, a group of strangers in a railway carriage escaping to Cologne or Paris from the city of Gomsza, telling and retelling their stories, lies, revisions. The Worm and the Star is a book of fragments, glimpses of lives, stories of Achilles and the tortoise after their race, observations by a visitor from a distant planet,which slowly make up the whole vision of life, here, now, vanishing.”
There are seven other book-length fictions by Fuller. The Adventures of Speedfall explores ghost stories and locked-room mysteries in comic mode. The Burning Boys is set on the Lancashire coast during World War Two and explores the mysteriously related relationships and experiences of a badly disfigured pilot and those of a young boy. A Skin Diary recounts the experiences of a pregnant Welsh farm girl from the point of view of the embryo during the precise weeks of gestation (it is invisibly structured upon the categories of Roget’s Thesaurus). The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole is a first-person account of an indomitable 18th century woman painter, shipwrecked on Madagascar and outliving five husbands. Flawed Angel is a teasing tale of French deserters at the court of an oriental ruler who finds that he cannot rationally order his life. It is a modern Arabian Nights tale, with multiple themes of beauty and deformity, terror of death and philosophical calm, erotic longing and fantastical escapism. The Clock in the Forest is an experiment in setting a fictional narrative within an autobiographical framework: the composer Maurice Arne and his family are invented, but the narrator is the 18 year-old Fuller, in the middle of his National Service. Loser is an investigation of suburban right-wing prejudice, in the form of a gruesome thriller.
Fuller is a playful but philosophical writer, always interested in telling a story. Here are some critics’ views. Of The Burning Boys: “studded with precise but magical notations of the everyday world” (Observer); of Look Twice: “It’s funny, it’s clever and it is great great fun” (Evening Standard), “tantalising and amusing” (Sunday Telegraph); of A Skin Diary: “superb” (Times Literary Supplement), “The British novel is certainly alive and kicking” (Financial Times), “Rich and marvellous writing indeed” (The Scotsman); of The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole: “An extraordinarily good novel. . .[it] tells us more about being female and smart in Georgian England than a whole slew of social history books ever could” (Daily Telegraph), “Fuller combines intelligence and ravishing lyricism with a gorgeous gift for storytelling. . .Fuller is something special” (Literary Review); of Flawed Angel: “A repertory of wonders. . . this fairy tale will surely outlive him” (The Times), “Sumptuously written. . .a curiously beautiful and life-affirming story” (Telegraph), “A delicious treat” (Guardian); of The Clock in the Forest: “Fuller [has] invented a new genre of fiction at the age of eighty-two. . . . here it is, the autofictional pastoral, and what a jolly wheeze it is (TLS), “Rich in wanly comic or sententious phrase-making, modulating at times into the kinetic subtlety of his finest poems” (Standpoint), “Deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling” (Edward Mendelson).
A very large part of Fuller’s writing, whatever its inspiration, has been done in Wales. The family has had a cottage in the parish of Llanaelhaiarn in Gwynedd for over fifty years. The Mountain in the Sea and A Skin Diary are set there, and so is The Extraordinary Wool Mill and parts of The Last Bid. The hero of The Burning Boys crashes his elderly Whitley bomber there, on Yr Eifl, and Flying to Nowhere is set on nearby Bardsey Island. Writing the Picture is entirely on Welsh subjects, inspired by the photographs of David Hurn.
John Fuller has been active in other forms of writing. Amongst his varied criticism and editorial work is the Chatto Book of Love Poetry, the Oxford Book of Sonnets, a 650-page Commentary on the work of W. H. Auden, and most recently Who is Ozymandias?, a book about puzzles in poetry. He has also written books for children and texts for songs and short operas. His most recent opera libretto was Dream Hunter for Nicola LeFanu. This opera, an original story set in Corsica, had a short Welsh tour at the end of 2011 before production at Wilton’s Music Hall in February 2012 (“A model libretto. . .an outstanding poet and storyteller, he is well-equipped to sculpt a strong, spare verse-play, inspiring responses and finding its fulfilment in LeFanu’s sentient and highly-charged music”: The Times). LeFanu has more recently set a version of his long poem “Siege” as The Crimson Bird for soprano and orchestra, premiered on 17 February 2017 at the Barbican Centre, with Rachel Nicholls and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.
Much of Fuller’s role as a teacher has involved helping younger writers. For a quarter of a century his Sycamore Press published the first work of young poets like James Fenton and Mick Imlah as well as interesting obscurities from established poets, such as Auden’s “Sue” (reconstructed from notebook illegibility) and Larkin’s rare version of Baudelaire. In 2004 two of the short-listed Booker novelists, Gerard Woodward and Alan Hollinghurst (who won), had had their first titles published by the Sycamore Press. John Fuller and the Sycamore Press by Ryan Roberts was published by the Bodleian Library in 2010.
Two recent interviews with John Fuller can be found at lidiavianu.scriptmania.com/John%20Fuller.htm (with Lidia Vianu) and at https://journals.openedition.org/ebc/6706 (with Aurélien Saby).
A 25pp feature, “John Fuller at Eighty” appeared in PNR, issue 233, Jan-Feb 2017, including an interview with Alan Hollinghurst.