William Golding

People who met William Golding (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Golding) towards the end of his life were often surprised by his appearance. With his deeply creased face and neat white beard, he had the look of an old sea dog about to break into a shanty, or possibly advertise fishfingers, but hardly that of a Nobel laureate who had produced some of the century’s most startlingly original fiction.

In 1966, when the BBC asked the sculptor and painter Michael Ayrton what sort of man Golding was, he described him as ‘a cross between Captain Hornblower and St Augustine’. The nautical allusion was well chosen – Golding had joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1940, took part in the sinking of the Bismarck, and ended up commanding a rocket ship during the D-Day landings. Ayrton’s other model was less convincing, unless he had in mind the pre-conversion Augustine who came up with the prayer ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet’. For in his own eyes Golding was far more sinner than saint. ‘One day, if my literary reputation holds up’, he wrote in his journal, ‘people will examine my life, and they will come to the conclusion that I am a monster’.

This superb biography by John Carey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Carey_(critic) and http://www.johncarey.org/) certainly does not stint on examples of Golding behaving badly, from general boorishness to the slapstick of the evening on which he won the Booker Prize for Rites of Passage. ‘I went to the loo’, one publisher recalled, ‘and William Golding, who’d clearly had a lot to drink, came in, fell flat on his face and said, ‘—-‘.  At no stage does Carey refer to Golding as an alcoholic, but it is worth noting how often his account repeats the words ‘drink’, ‘drank’ and ‘drunk’, creating a rhythm sadly suggestive of someone who may have enjoyed a drink but needed it even more.

More interesting are the incidents that later re-emerged in lightly disguised forms in Golding’s novels. As a ‘somewhat dishevelled’ teacher, he took charge of rehearsals for Julius Caesar, and was especially keen that the boys should experience the emotions of a bloodthirsty mob. He gave detailed instructions on how to use a dagger, explaining that ‘you must thrust the dagger up into the belly and rip it open’. Later, when organising a school trip to a Neolithic earthwork near Salisbury, ‘he gave permission for the boys to form into two groups, one to attack the enclosure and the other to defend it’. If the first event sounds like a rehearsal for Lord of the Flies, the second is like an early draft of The Inheritors, in which one tribe hunts another to extinction. Both reveal how tempted he was to treat real life as fieldwork for the writing of fiction. Both suggest that in doing this he sometimes treated his pupils like wasps, which he put into a jam jar and shook vigorously to see what would happen.

Yet describing Golding as a monster makes him sound both more unpleasant and more single-minded than he was. It would be more accurate to say that he recognised in himself monstrous elements that he shared with the rest of mankind, not least an appalled fascination with suffering, violence and everything else that fell on the shadow side of civilisation. Indeed, when he mapped out mankind’s recent history, he seems to have been fully in agreement with the old cartographers, whose standard warning he contemplated using as the title of Darkness Visible: ‘Here Be Monsters’.

The much-publicised revelation that as a young man Golding attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl offers a good case in point. He felt sure that ‘she wanted heavy sex and at the same time was frightened of it’, and when she fought him off and began to cry, he shouted at her, ‘Hold your row, you silly little bitch’. He hardly emerges well from this episode, especially when he tried to justify his actions by claiming that she was ‘depraved by nature’ and at the age of 14 was already as ‘sexy as an ape’. It is, though, worth noting that he later introduced a failed rape into the mind of his protagonist in Pincher Martin, where it is just one more symptom of a life largely spent flailing around in anger and sorrow. Thinking that he is trapped on a rock, Martin spots a crack on the surface that widens as he lowers himself down the side, until he sees that ‘Inside the crack was a terrible darkness’. No doubt there are psychosexual fears at work here, but in Golding’s mind the crack also represents the history of his readers, and in particular the events of the Second World War, which he felt had broken the 20th century in two. It was inside that crack, he believed, that there was a truly terrible darkness. Before it, he told his friend Jack Biles, he had believed in the perfectibility of man; afterwards, he could see little but man’s ‘beastly potentialities’.

His fiction ruthlessly draws out that potential. In The Paper Men, the novelist hero hears a critic rummaging around in his dustbins and assumes it is a badger. Later he forces him to behave like a dog, lapping at a bowl and barking. But Golding was also capable of fierce pity for the badgered and hounded, as when he describes in Lord of the Flies how the other boys hunt down the fat and asthmatic Piggy, though this might also have been a form of disguised self-pity, given the gloomy references in his journal to his ‘porcine’ shape and ‘white sow’s belly’.

In this context one might have expected Golding to have treated the prospect of a biography like a heap of burning coals. In the wrong hands it could easily have turned into an exercise in pointing and laughing, like one of his recurrent nightmares of humiliation brought tremblingly to life. And yet he kept his drafts and notebooks, and seems to have resigned himself to the idea that he would be exposed as a ‘monster’ whether he wanted it or not. Luckily, in Carey he has found a biographer who is wonderfully alive both to his strangeness as a man and to the desperate brilliance of his fiction.

Funny, generous, humane and unsparing, Carey has a sharpness of eye and shapeliness of phrase that perfectly match his subject. The Golding who emerges from these pages is a creature of paradoxes. He was at once a shaggy mystic, who claimed that ‘the most interesting thing to talk about is saints – miraculous, levitating saints’ and an ordinary bloke who enjoyed Carry On Up the Khyber (‘very good, and made me laugh myself silly’). He was almost pathologically shy and yet trod the public lecture circuit with a sense of duty not easily separable from a craving for applause. He was capable of dizzying flights of the imagination, but also of writing a novel, The Spire, which comes close to being a drawn-out pun on the word ‘aspire’. Carey excuses nothing and explains everything and as a result we can now do to Golding what his writing habitually did to the world. We can look at him with fresh eyes. This is a fine biography.

First published 2009.

592 pages in Faber & Faber paperback edition

ISBN 978-0571231645

William Golding

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