Tuesday, January 19, 2021

SF Luminaries: William Golding

John Carey: William Golding (2009)

The Man Who Wrote ...

There's a - probably apocryphal - saying attributed to Oscar Wilde: "There are two ways of disliking my plays. One is to dislike them. The other is to prefer The Importance of Being Earnest."

Something similar would seem to apply to William Golding. Either you've never read him at all, or you've only read Lord of the Flies and didn't realise he'd written anything else.

William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)

But of course he did. The question is whether anything else in his oeuvre matches that first, miraculous, epoch-making success - one of the few novels, along with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and The Catcher in the Rye, to achieve lasting name recognition, and (what's more) to equate with a particular view of the world.

Even if you've never actually read any of them, you've no doubt already gathered that 1984 is about totalitarianism, Brave New World is about hedonistic excess, and The Catcher in the Rye is about the clash between youthful idealism and the compromises required by the adult world. As a label, Lord of the Flies stands in similarly for reversion to barbarism the moment societal constraints are removed.

Can it really be called a work of SF? Well, technically, yes, it would have to be defined that way. It's set in the (then) near future, after an atomic war, and while it might seem to deal with 'eternal human values', they're very neatly confined to the customs and mores of British schoolchildren of a particular era, the 1950s.

William Golding: To the Ends of the Earth (1992)

As you can see from the bibliography below, Golding published twelve novels in all. They include the nineteenth-century sea trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, another couple of historical novels (The Spire and The Double Tongue), together with various tales of contemporary life.

William Golding: Pincher Martin (1956)

Among the most fascinating of his works are the brilliantly imaginative psychological tour-de-force Pincher Martin, about the last moments of a drowning sailor, and the prehistoric fantasy The Inheritors, about the first encounter between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon men.

William Golding: The Inheritors (1955)

Under which King ... ?

It made a big difference to the reputation (and sales) of a twentieth-century novelist whether or not they were corralled in some 'genre' ghetto, or could be regarded as reliably 'mainstream.'

Golding's inclusion in a 1956 anthology of stories, Sometime, Never, with SF stalwart John Wyndham and Fantasy writer and artist Mervyn Peake, signals his somewhat equivocal status at this early point in his career.

William Golding, John Wyndham, & Mervyn Peake: Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination (1956)

To be honest, his first two novels could have been read either way, as 'SF' or mainstream. Nor was Pincher Martin much help, though it did signal a relentlessly experimental bent in his approach to fiction. Free Fall (1959) is more acceptably autobiographical in nature, and also includes elements of the spiritual questing characteristic of such luminaries of the post-war British novel as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

After that it became clear that - whatever occasional flirtations he might have with 'genre' themes and fascinations - he was to be marketed as an occasionally 'difficult' modern novelist, rather than as any kind of pulp affiliate. He had more in common - in publishing terms, at least - with Patrick White or Janet Frame than with his near-contemporary Arthur C. Clarke.

The brilliance of Golding's prose at every stage of his career - and his recurrent set of obsessions: Ancient Greece and Egypt, visionary experience, and the ongoing effects of the Second World War - combined with his predominant theme of the loss of innocence, make this an understandable decision. For all their skill and intensity as writers, neither John Wyndham or Mervyn Peake could be said to chafe against their genre confines as much as Golding.

Nevertheless, it has - somewhat paradoxically - led to the unfair dismissal of Golding as a 'one-book man', since none of his subsequent works achieved the quasi-mythic status of Lord of the Flies.

William Golding: The Paper Men (1984)

In fact, I'd say that my dominant impression of Golding's work as a whole is variety. It was never possible to predict what era (or genre) he would attach himself to next. Who, for instance, after reading those intense social novels of his middle years, followed by the rather tired satire of The Paper Men, could have foreseen the swashbuckling readability of his late sea trilogy?

And while he never completed his revisions to it, his final novel The Double Tongue, narrated in the first person by the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, is as clear and arresting as anything he ever wrote.

He's well worth rediscovering. If you've never read any of his books except Lord of the Flies, you're in for a bit of a surprise. At times one wonders how he got away with such daring departures from the literary norm. I suppose because that first book kept on selling, his publishers continued to indulge him in the hopes that he'd do it again.

He never did. But in the process he became an inspiration for anyone dissatisfied with the status quo. It's not that his work is ever uncontrolled - on the contrary, he's one of the most fastidious of literary craftsmen. It's just that he seemed to have no fear of extremities in his work: no theme - madness, cannibalism, eternal damnation - seems to have been untouchable for him.

William Golding: The Double Tongue (1995)

The Monster

Of course, one reason for this may have been his own self-definition as a 'monster':
Golding kept a personal journal for over 22 years from 1971 until the night before his death ... The journal was initially used by Golding in order to record his dreams, but over time it gradually began to function as a record of his life ... At one point Golding describes setting his students up into two groups to fight each other - an experience he drew on when writing Lord of the Flies. John Carey, Emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford university, was eventually given 'unprecedented access to Golding’s unpublished papers and journals by the Golding estate'.
"I do not know," said Carey in his biography of Golding, "why he thought he was a monster." He ends his long account, however, by admitting there may be a primal scene, a hidden obscenity, that still eludes him – "something I have not discovered".

Guardian reviewer Peter Conrad considers this quiet admission of defeat a distinct cop-out for any biographer: "Carey documents Golding's ogre-like antics, but is reluctant to speculate about their origins." Conrad himself has no such qualms:
Golding called himself a monster. His imagination lodged a horde of demons, buzzing like flies inside his haunted head, and his dreams rehearsed his guilt in scenarios that read like sketches for incidents in his novels, which they often were. After dark, his mother became a murderous maniac, hurling knives, shards of shattered mirror or metal pots of scalding tea at little William; a girlfriend he had cast off returned as a stiffened corpse, which he watched himself trying to bury in the garden. At his finest, Golding paid traumatised tribute to the pain of other creatures, like the hooked octopus he once saw impaled by the "vulnerable, vulvar sensitive flesh" of its pink, screaming mouth, or a rabbit he shot in Cornwall, which stared at him before it fell with "a combination of astonishment and outrage".
But pity didn't prohibit him from firing the shot. He understood the Nazis, he said, because he was "of that sort by nature". His sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl has been titillatingly leaked to publicise Carey's biography. More generally, his son-in-law testifies that Golding specialised in belittling others – if that is, he recognised them at all. As Carey notes, he chronically misspelt names because he couldn't be bothered with people and their pesky claim to exist.
- Peter Conrad, The Guardian (30/8/2009)

William Golding: The Scorpion God (1971)

So, a drunk, a snob, a possible rapist ... Conrad concludes his review by speculating that "it may be that Carey is too sane or puritanical to comprehend the creative madness of his subject."

In Carey's defence, it should be said that he provides abundant evidence of all these aspects of Golding's personality - but also of his more loveable, less 'monstrous' traits. What's more, much of this self-condemnation comes from the pages of Golding's own dream-diary, which is far from being an objective source.

Carey does, admittedly, stick closely to the script of the documents he's been handed. But that may turn out, in the long run, to be the most valuable thing about his very unhysterical account of Golding's OTT imaginings about his own life. The heightening required to manufacture his fictions may always have lived more in the imagination than in the cold light of day.

Finally, who knows? Both Carey and Conrad are in agreement on the fact that Golding was not always a particularly pleasant person to be around. As the latter records:
His worst rampages occurred when he was drunk. Once, staying at a friend's house in London, Golding awoke in panic and dismembered a Bob Dylan puppet because he thought it was Satan.
Luckily his work can now be confidently claimed to have outlived such considerations. What's more, Carey includes a list of as-yet-unpublished "early drafts for published novels or extracts from projects unjustifiably abandoned," at least some of which will surely be allowed to appear at some point?
a "magnificent" but unfinished work of Homeric science fiction, a memoir that was self-censored because too raw, a film script about a traffic jam that rehearses the Apocalypse, a first version of The Inheritors that "cries out to be published as a novel in its own right" and a segment excised from Darkness Visible that is also "a masterpiece crying out for publication".
At the time, 1983, he seemed an odd choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Posterity may yet vindicate the judgement of the Swedish Academy.

William Golding (1983)

Sir William Gerald Golding


  1. Lord of the Flies. 1954. London: Faber, 1954.
  2. The Inheritors. 1955. London: Faber, 1975.
  3. Pincher Martin. London: Faber, 1956.
  4. Free Fall. 1959. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.
  5. The Spire. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1964.
  6. The Pyramid. 1967. London: Faber, 1969.
  7. Darkness Visible. 1979. London: Faber, 1981.
  8. The Paper Men. London: Faber, 1984.
  9. To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy, comprising Rites of Passage; Close Quarters; and Fire Down Below. 1980, 1987 & 1989. London: Faber, 1992.
  10. The Double Tongue. London: Faber, 1995.

  11. Stories:

  12. Golding, William, John Wyndham, & Mervyn Peake. Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956.
  13. The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. 1971. London: Faber, 1973.

  14. Drama:

  15. The Brass Butterfly: A Play in Three Acts. 1958. Faber School Editions. London: Faber, 1963.

  16. Non-fiction:

  17. The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces. 1965. London: Faber, 1984.
  18. A Moving Target. London: Faber, 1982.
  19. An Egyptian Journal. London: Faber, 1985.

  20. Secondary:

  21. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, & Ian Gregor. William Golding: A Critical Study. 1967. London: Faber, 1984.
  22. John Carey. William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies - A Life. London: Faber, 2009.

William Golding: Plaque (1945-62)


Richard said...

I agree re the seeming 'odd choice' for Nobel Prize. I had read TLOTFs, The Inheritors and I am pretty sure Darkness Visible (which I want to re-read). Later, more recently, Pincher Martin, which I have read about three times. I also read The Spire. But before I had read those last two, once, a fellow I used to see at the Auck Uni Club, asked me if Golding deserved the prize. For some reason I simply said "yes". I had no reason, just loyalty to those first three I had read and I think a couple of others. And at the time I wondered why as I didn't even know he'd been given the prize. But later I read more of his books. 'The Spire' is incredible. An amazing book. Ted Jenner and I have been agreeing re Golding for some years. It helps that Golding was also a classics scholar I think. But he is good. I have all his novels except the novellas The Scorpion God, and I haven't got The Pyramid. I do have a travel book by him and a critical commentary. A lot of people will only have read 'Lord of the Flies' which we had at school with 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'. I failed to read any more of Hardy (but I did like that book), but read more of Golding. He is on his own for sure. He is not like anyone else much. It edges on Sci Fi. The rape sounds like a teenage fantasy: he at least didn't make a practice of it. At 15 we all have strange ideas about sex and everything else....Good to see Golding here.

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