Magazine August 16, 2010, Issue

Through A Glass, Darkly

William Golding, The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies: A Life, by John Carey (Free Press, 592 pp., $32.50)

We’ll never know for sure what the English writer William Golding (1911–93), a publicly private man, would have thought about the publication of this book. Thanks partly to Golding’s failure to cooperate, no biographies of him were published during his lifetime, but the assumption that follows from that would probably be wrong. Feast has followed famine: To help him in his work on this book, the Golding family granted John Carey, a prominent Oxford academic, distinguished literary critic, and acquaintance of Golding, access to the author’s previously closed archive. It was a hoard too extensive not to have been designed as an invitation, one day, to biographers, and this appears to have been exactly what Golding intended. He just had to die first. Safe in his grave, Golding couldn’t be pestered; but he could be remembered.

The Golding papers contain (amongst much else) early drafts of what was published, and copies of what was not — including novels or their fragments, two autobiographical works, and a 5,000-page warts-and-all journal maintained more or less daily for 22 years. As a resource for Carey, this trove was essential — and it was not wasted. This book must be one of the most closely observed portraits of an author ever written. If you are looking for a perceptive, marvelously written close-up of a body of work being shaped and reshaped, this is the book for you. And if you want to know when Golding upgraded chess computers — and to what model — this is also the book for you.

As a picture of both the man and his oeuvre, this makes for an engrossing (if sometimes overly pointillist) read, but I finished it unconvinced that Golding was worth all the effort. As Carey’s title reminds us, his subject’s reputation has dwindled. Golding no longer needs no further introduction, and so he has been given that implicitly condescending identifier, “The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies.”

Carey explains that this was meant both ironically and as bait to lure new readers in, but I doubt that Golding himself would have been greatly amused. The book may have made his fortune (since its publication in 1954 Lord of the Flies has sold 20 million copies in the U.K. alone) and his reputation (there would have been no Nobel Prize without it), but Golding himself later described it as “boring and crude.” False modesty? In part, but as with so much else about Golding, the truth was more complex than the performance. The disdain Golding came to feel for his first published novel was genuine, and very revealing. And it’s no less revealing that Carey, a biographer convinced of his subject’s genius, makes so little of it.

Could the reason for this be that Golding’s most brilliant book was, in some crucial ways, among his least representative? To be sure, its big theme — man’s fallen nature — became the leitmotif of much of Golding’s writing, and, yes, like so many of his novels, Lord of the Flies is characterized by passages of astounding power and almost hallucinatory beauty. Nevertheless, by Golding’s standards it is a remarkably spare and uncluttered work. Its message may be profound, but its language and its storyline are stark, straightforward, and unburdened by the rococo rambling that bedevils so much of his later writing.

#page#Much of this was thanks to the efforts of Faber and Faber’s Charles Monteith, the novice editor who was the first to see what Golding’s much-rejected typescript could become. The fruitful relationship between the clever, long-suffering, and benignly manipulative Monteith and his histrionic, pathologically self-absorbed discovery is wonderfully described by Carey — and is essential for a proper understanding of Golding’s career. The two men were to work together for four decades, but it is reasonable to assume that Monteith’s creative influence was at its peak right at the beginning of their relationship. Golding wanted to be published, and Monteith appeared to be the only person who could make it happen. So Lord of the Flies was slimmed down, losing both back-story and, more significantly, a messiah. Golding had originally envisaged the character Simon as a Jesus figure. His death was to have been an act of self-sacrifice: noble, mystical. After Monteith’s intervention, it is reduced to a cruel accident, the result of hysterical misunderstanding. The only god on this island was the devil that the children had dreamt up for themselves. They are — we are — alone.

Monteith was right. Horror is amplified by hopelessness. But the change, I suspect, may have left Golding thinking that the book that made his name was not quite his. He was deeply (if unconventionally) religious. He had, he disclosed, seen spirits and apparitions. Psychiatrists can make of that what they will (while Carey generally has plenty to say about what made Golding Golding, he shies away from medical commentary, which is a mistake), but to Golding such fancies were fact. Taking the Jesus out of Simon must have seemed to him an unnatural and arbitrary act. Years after Lord of the Flies was published, he was, as Carey notes, still talking up the sanctity of Simon — and still failing to reverse the effects of Monteith’s shrewd editorial pen, a failure he finally tried to remedy with Matty, the enigmatic central character in the largely incoherent Darkness Visible (1979), a figure who may be an angel, a holy fool, or both, but either way remains overshadowed, like all Golding’s later characters, by a handful of feral schoolboys.

Golding found himself on firmer ground when he returned in book after book to the wickedness of you and me. “Man produces evil,” he wrote, “as a bee produces honey”: a typically melodramatic overstatement redeemed by the subtler suggestion that we have no real choice in the matter, it’s just who we are. When the last dumb but decent Neanderthals of The Inheritors (1955), the novel with which Golding followed Lord of the Flies, are wiped out by the New People (your ancestors and mine), their annihilation is merely the inevitable consequence of the arrival of smarter, more assertive Homo sapiens. It’s just what we do.

#page#The sources of Golding’s misanthropy were complex and (I’ll take psychological speculation a little further than Carey is prepared to go) rooted in a disordered, depressive psyche, lunatic spirituality, and the need for an alibi to assuage the overwhelming sense of guilt that descended upon him during his (distinguished) service in Britain’s wartime navy and never went away. The war, explained Golding, generated “a sort of religious convulsion” within him, giving him for the first time “a kind of framework of principles.” Once they were in place, however, he realized that he had not lived up to them. “I have,” he claimed, “always understood the Nazis because I am that sort by nature” — a characteristically absurd, characteristically self-important exaggeration. The similarities that Golding saw between himself and the Hitler crowd lay in what he now — eyes freshly opened — believed to have been the “viciousness” and “cruelty” of his younger self. To be sure, there was that clumsily attempted (and mercifully unsuccessful) date rape, and the smashed heart and mind of an abandoned fiancée (her traces can be detected in 1959’s Free Fall), as well as some more persistent suggestions of sadism, but, for all that, he was a long, long way from the Third Reich.

This overwrought sense of his sin would only have been exacerbated by — he was a child of his era — a mix of curiosity and unease about his obvious homosexual leanings. But after fantasies of sodomy and hints of the lash came the reality of rum. As Carey records in sometimes spectacular detail, Golding was for decades a guzzle-yourself-prone drinker, and obnoxious with it: not an unknown phenomenon in literary circles, but in his case it could come with a distinctive twist. We may laugh (well, I did) at the tale of a drunken Golding attacking another author’s Bob Dylan puppet, but that’s before discovering that Golding had mistaken the marionette-troubadour for Satan. That sense of his sin may have helped drive Golding to drink, but it also followed him there. How much better if Golding could soothe himself with the idea that he was not really as bad as he thought. In the absence of a sense of proportion, the next best thing would be the conviction that everyone else was just as bad. It’s not a case that Carey makes, but some of Golding’s onslaught on the Old Adam must have been an attempt to conscript his fellow man into sharing the burden of the wickedness that he could not bear to shoulder alone.

But perhaps he drank to deal with something else too. Lord of the Flies is an extraordinary creation, a ghastly glimpse of a very dark place, but much of the rest of Golding’s work (with the exception of 1956’s remarkable Pincher Martin) is dreary, pretentious, and sometimes just nuts. Carey would certainly not agree, but for all his canny, well-crafted explanations of some of Golding’s more puzzling writing, and despite his deployment of a series of enthusiastic mid-century critics to hosanna his hero, the suspicion must remain that Golding’s talents were more second-division than first-. After Lord of the Flies, Golding had shot his bolt and, I reckon, he knew it. He was, after all, smart enough and insecure enough to be his own fiercest critic. If that obsessive guilt of his was not already reason to turn to the bottle, the growing realization that he would never repeat the success of his debut would surely have done the trick, particularly if, like so many high achievers, he already felt like a fraud. And he often did.

All this may also help explain Golding’s prickliness, rumored plagiarism (a topic too quickly passed over by Carey), money worries that lingered even as his bank balance fattened, and — he was British after all — undignified scramble for a knighthood and, presumably, the validation that some might believe a “K” could bring.

But, still: One masterpiece ought to be enough for a reputation. The island transformed by this bleakest of Prosperos into mirror and hell will endure long after the booze and the bluster have passed into trivia:

Toward the end of the afternoon, the mirages were settling a little. They found the end of the island, quite distinct, and not magicked out of shape or sense. There was a jumble of the usual squareness, with one great block sitting out in the lagoon. Sea birds were nesting there. “Like icing,” said Ralph, “on a pink cake.”

What could go wrong?

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of  National Review Online. 

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