THERE IS SOMETHING precarious about interviewing one's heroes. You can all too easily be disgustingly sycophantic or, compensating, overly harsh. Worse still, overawed. But John Fowles makes it childishly simple. Propped up in bed, swaddled in voluminous nightwear, the remnants of breakfast still flecking his beard, he looks nothing like arguably Britain's greatest living author, the sofa-sized brain behind The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus. The latter, voted in one poll as one of the best 100 novels of the 20th century, was so erudite that even the reviews were baffling. The Financial Times wrote: 'A splendidly sustained piece of mystification such as otherwise could only have been devised by a literary team fielding the Marquis de Sade, Arthur Edward Waite, Sir James Frazer, Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky, C. G. Jung, Aleister Crowley, Franz Kafka.' And the movie, starring Michael Caine but regrettably shot in Majorca instead of Greece, was so impenetrable that Woody Allen, when asked how he would live his life differently if given the chance, replied: 'Exactly the same, except I wouldn't watch The Magus.' Fowles chuckles throatily at this assessment, adding that as the screenwriter for movie he was 'completely defeated'. At the age of 77, Fowles has been ravaged by ill-health. He had a stroke in 1988, two years before Elizabeth, his wife of 33 years, died of cancer. He subsequently had heart surgery and his diaries, out last week, may be his final book. He says this will be his last interview. Today he is nursed at his rambling seaside refuge in Dorset, England, by his second wife Sarah, 20 years his junior and an old friend of Elizabeth. He has not written a novel since A Maggot 18 years ago, reads only his old Oxford University French text books, and battles to maintain his daily diary. 'I do think a lot, though,' he adds. And therein lies the rub. For the intellect that has so dazzled readers since the publication of The Collector 40 years ago is still razor-sharp, if haphazard. His memory is patchy - he refers to The Magus as 'that Greek book I wrote a long time ago'. And he is forever wafting a questioning hand at his wife - 'She is my memory now'. Fowles is constantly tripping off in bizarre tangents, zooming from his erstwhile sexual exploits to his father's 'ghastly' attempt at a novel, and back to his love of France, a recurring theme: 'I think in French, you know.' As Sarah, who handles him like a public school matron, says wearily: 'I do adore him, but it is very difficult. Seriously creative people, which he obviously is, are a rare species.' Fowles must be hard work indeed. A born recluse, he despises parties and pomp, is uneasy around other writers - he dislikes 'vain' Martin Amis in particular - and shuns fame even more than he craves attention. Hence his self-imposed, 40-year exile, hidden away in a magnificently shambolic country house. 'I know I have a reputation as a cantankerous man of letters and I don't try to play it down. I pretend I am just that. But I'm not really,' he says. These days his visitors are scarce. Even Sarah, a senior advertising executive, spends much of the week in London. And so it seems a tad rich of him to complain, however mildly, of gawpers, especially since The French Lieutenant's Woman - made in 1981 into a five-time Oscar-nominated movie with Meryl Streep - single-handedly catapulted his home area of Lyme Regis into the spotlight. He came to live on the south coast of England with Elizabeth after writing The Collector, the book that transformed him from mediocre teacher to feted author, and sent him briefly, and unhappily, to Hollywood. His story, that of an unhinged millionaire loner who abducts and ultimately murders a beautiful young girl, was made into a film starring Terrence Stamp. His time in America inspired his love-hate relationship with that country. 'I am much more loved in America than here. I feel the average critic in this country is like a preparatory school headmaster. A means of keeping the devil - us, the writers - down,' he laughs wryly. 'But I really have a very deep, profound contempt for Hollywood. You become a victim of the whole engine.' Fowles is, above all, a man of contradiction. He is not quite sure whether he wants to be seen as a womaniser or a feminist, a naturalist or a novelist, his books to be filmed, or not. At school he was head boy and captain of the cricket team. But at Oxford he was a Marxist. Now he is a humanist. Even his choice of retreat is increasingly ambivalent. The tangerine paint peeling and chipped, steel handrails everywhere, the occasional cheap watercolour on the wall, it resembles more a down-at-heel nursing home than what it once was - a roomy 18th century mansion. But he and the house do go together, both slowly crumbling, misunderstood giants. Fowles was born in Essex, eastern England, his father a tobacconist and his mother a teacher. Perhaps he fears this makes his mother sound too dull because he adds grandly: 'She was the daughter of the chief lingerie buyer for John Lewis.' Fowles' leading characters are invariably womanisers, middle class, caddishly intelligent, and orphans. From Nicholas Urfe to Daniel Martin to Charles Smithson, he never dallies in killing off the parents. And that is because that's precisely how Fowles sees himself. As a one-off genetic fluke. 'No one in my family had any literary interests or skills at all,' he says. 'I seemed to come from nowhere. I didn't really have a happy childhood. What bored me about my mother was her lack of taste, her uncritical view. She bored me into the ground. 'When I was a young boy my parents were always laughing at 'the fellow who couldn't draw', Picasso. Their crassness horrified me.' Was his father an intellectual? Fowles snorts: 'No, he was a tobacconist.' Sarah leaps in: 'They never understood him, but they were proud. He was good at cricket, and they were pleased about that. I presume they were proud when he went to Oxford on a scholarship. For such a curious man, it's extraordinary he doesn't know what his parents thought.' Fowles all but jumps out of bed at this: 'Correction, correction, correction. I do not want to know what my parents really felt. And that's part of growing up. It's not knowing how your parents judge you or esteem you. To get a response, you have to ask a question. And I never asked them what they thought of my books.' He thinks for a moment, admitting obliquely. 'I knew they would find my books difficult.' Clearly there is - and was - anger and guilt there. His sister, Hazel, was born when he was 16. Never easy, but when you are a slightly chubby, introverted intellectual, wholly absorbed by books and nature, such a shock is that much harder to bear. Just before Hazel's birth, he suffered what he calls a nervous breakdown and had to be taken out of school for a term. 'I suppose there was a sense of being cut off when my sister was born,' he says. 'I wasn't jealous, absolutely not. I just thought she was a rather pretty, oppressive little thing.' Fowles, the doting uncle, has no children of his own. Elizabeth, like Sarah, was unable to conceive. 'I wouldn't say it was a sadness. If I'm with someone like her,' he points at Sarah, 'who wishes she had children, yes, I feel a bit sad. And I do like the idea of little boys and girls running around me, so I could teach them the importance of natural history, to see and understand. I have a fondness for children.' But, he adds, they would be a distraction. After Elizabeth's death, and before his marriage to Sarah five years ago, he embarked on an eight-year-long string of affairs. 'When my wife died it was a dreadful experience,' he says. 'I have always loved women and there has been quite a long chain of pretty women.' But here Fowles, ever the master of reinvention, wants to have his cake and eat it too. 'I like women, pretty women, who have sometimes exploited me, used me for their own ends. But that's part of the law of life, really.' This, of course, chimes perfectly with one of Fowles' fondest fancies: 'I am a feminist,' he says. 'Men need to realise that a great deal of truth in life lies in the woman. A woman's main task is to educate us, to make us see we're not fully educated yet. Can a feminist be predatory? I certainly at one point used to make after women. But sex is nothing more now than a happy memory.' His wife is less sure of his claims to feminism. And it is hard to argue with her as Fowles insists on describing her as 'this delicious little thing' - not an expression you'll find in Naomi Wolf. But Sarah is tough and counters easily: 'His generation can't be feminists. I think the confusion has come because he likes women very much. But that doesn't make him a feminist. I doubt he even knows what feminism means.' He seems rather lost all of a sudden, a writer who can no longer write. His diaries are fascinating but there will not be another novel. He is an atheist and has no children. His health can only worsen. Does he have regrets? 'I wish I knew more. But that's a matter of luck. I don't spend much time in self-loathing or self-admiration. I have a great deal of contempt for writers who are vain, who want fame. You do have to have a certain amount of vanity to be successful, to sell books. But you have to keep it under control, you can't take yourself too seriously or you become what you pretend to despise. 'Writing about oneself is a clear form of vanity. You think you are important and people must want to know what you're creating.' So why publish his diaries? Fowles hesitates for a moment. ' I just hope they give a detailed picture of what I have been,' he says. It is almost as if he is already dead in his own mind. He shakes his head sadly: 'I do not begin to understand my own personality myself.'