A question for you: If a book’s opening pages amaze you, and its closing pages bring you near tears, have you read a great book? The need to pose the question at all is probably its own answer. Nevertheless, Darkness Visible, William Golding’s troubling and troublesome novel, had me hashing out this question long after closing the back cover.
The title refers to Milton’s evocation of hell in Paradise Lost:
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes.
And so, before we even open the book we have some idea of that into which we are about to be plunged. When Darkness Visible came out in 1979, Golding had not published a novel in twelve years, and you can tell. The pages are heavy with density of meaning. The writing is gorgeous, in places baroquely claused, allusive. Golding begins with hell on earth, a furnace – 1940 London during a German Blitz – out of which walks a flaming child. Listen to his description of the moment the child is spotted by the fire crew peering into the blaze left by a bomb:
At the end of the street or where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world – at that point where the world had become an open stove – at a point where odd bits of brightness condensed to form a lamp-post still standing, a pillar box, some eccentrically shaped rubble – right there, where the flinty street was turned into light, something moved. (12)
That phrase, “no longer part of the habitable world”, is large, and apt, to the passage and the novel, for clearly, after his twelve-year silence, Golding had come to wonder what part of the spiritually decimated post-WWII post-Vietnam world, whose only hopeful generation was being conquered by and divided between the guru and the radical, remained habitable, “humanly speaking.” To explore this problem, he adopted the convention of the double, two characters opposed, the guru and the radical, who, though they never meet, set in motion a philosophical weather system.
The first is Matty, the flaming child, whose stride out of the Blitz and onto the page loudly echos the most famous photographic image from the Vietnam War. Severely burned, he becomes, almost point by point, the “burning babe,” in Robert Southwell’s somewhat off-putting allegory of Christ.
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
In the character of Matty the saccharin is, thankfully, neutralized by his daunting literalness, which makes him at once a holy fool and destructive element. His face makes visible his character, and the darkness therein: the left side has been burned away to a bald white scar while the right remains intact. After his rescue, Matty (Matthew Septimus Windrove, as he has been named, though no one uses the middle name or can ever quite get a handle on the last) is taken to the mythical town of Greenfield where he is put in a school for foundlings. There he meets the homosexul pedophile, Sebastian Pedigree. Mr. Pedigree, to deter rumors about his practice of giving the most beautiful boys private “tutelage”, bumps one, his beloved Henderson, for Matty, whose grotesque appearance disgusts him, but, he hopes, will quash suspicion. Matty is only able to take this turn in his favor at face value, and so believes Pedigree to be his “one true friend”, and pretty Henderson to be essentially bad because fallen from grace. When Henderson falls even further, from the lean stairs outside Pedigree’s window to his death, Matty is implicated because his gym shoe is found near the body. Accident, suicide, murder – Golding is admirably ambiguous on this point. In any case, both Pedigree and Matty are removed from the school in disgrace, but not before Pedigree spits out a curse on Matty, calling him “That horrible, ugly boy!” and telling him “It’s all your fault!”.
Matty spends the next years of his life attempting to atone for a sin he accepts without attempting to understand. He becomes a highly idiosyncratic Bible freak, expatriates to Australia where, among other things, he undergoes a “crucifarce” in which he is nearly emasculated by an Aborigine. He keeps a journal in which he records his conversations with two angelic presences, one dressed in red robes and hat, the other in blue, the first “more expensive” than the second, who tell him he is “very near the center of things.” He puts himself through a bizarrely convoluted cleansing ritual or baptism in a swamp near Darwin before repatriating to Greenfield, which he enters riding the bicycle equivalent of Monsieur Hulot’s automobile. He becomes a handyman at an exclusive boarding school, and emerges as a kind of prophet, at least in the minds of two rather mediocre men, a retired school teacher named Edwin Bell and a bookseller named Sim Goodchild.
Matty’s double is Sophy, the more deadly of two beautiful sociopathic twins. Early in our acquaintance with this character, one of Golding’s vilist, we see her as a small girl, throwing stones at dabchicks as they swim down a river. With awful precocity, she ascertains the exact arch and moment of release which will cause her stone to kill one of them. To her, the mere possibility of doing so makes it an imperative.
Then there was the longer pleasure, the achieved contemplation of the scrap of fluff turning gently as the stream bore it out of sight. (109)
Well then. She awakens to sexuality early, through her preternatural awareness of her feelings for her emotionally distant father (the twins’s mother left early on), and his relationships with a series of “aunties”. It is almost a matter of course that her eroticism turns violent. She has her first orgasm only when, during sex, she stabs her thuggish boyfriend, Roland, deep in his shoulder. She can’t fathom his fuss. A radio broadcast on the subject of entropy articulates for her the sense that “the whole universe is winding down.” She believes the only viable course of action is to help it along. While her sister, Toni, heads out for a career in international terrorism, Sophy remains in Greenfield where she uses sex as a magnet to bind a handful of dupes to her like iron filings, and, with them, hatches a terrorist plot of her own. This involves kidnapping the son of an oil sheik from the school where Matty is employed. As the operation commences, she imagines murdering the boy in such graphic detail, and in such an orgiastic swoon, that I had to read the passage twice to satisfy myself that the murder didn’t actually happen. The bomb the terrorists use to incite the chaos brings Matty full circle; as the kidnapping gets underway, Matty, immolating, pursues the kidnappers and thwarts the operation.
The accumulation of pages, up to this point, had left the book’s importance, and Golding’s urgency, thoroughly overdetermined, and I was looking forward to being done with it. So much so that I was entirely unprepared to find the novel’s beating heart, right there in the last four pages. Matty, as it turned out, was not finished with his task on Earth. Pedigree was still out there, all those years later, old, disintegrating, and still grievously in thrall to his addiction to “the sons of the morning”. We see him, lonely and broken, in the park with its public restroom where he habitually operated. He positions himself on a bench near the gravel playground. He has with him his lure of choice, a big many-colored ball. Just as he is preparing to use it Matty appears to him, transfigured. The tables are turned, and Pedigree finds himself the object of an unwanted advance. A tussle ensues, more awesome than any of the preceding conflagrations, for Pedigree’s soul. It is a paradox that here, at the end, when the story becomes most blatantly metaphysical, it also becomes most believable.
Darkness Visible groans and buckles under converging pressures: Vertically, it staggers under its freight of symbolism. Horizontally, it is stretched by the tortured exigencies of plot.
Take Matty, by comparison the more approachable of the two protagonists. He is an amalgam of metaphors. In addition to being Golding’s most transparent Christ, there is his name, Matthew Septimus. Looking up Matthew 7 in the Bible, one finds Christ’s warning against false prophets. Though he be Christ, he is one of these too. Then there is his face, split between the hideously wasted left and the healthy right. In the bicameral brain, the left hemisphere controls speech and sequential reason, the right is inarticulate but feels, has visions, making him a fool-proof fool to play against Sophy’s extreme rational materialist. A. S. Byatt, who loved the book, can’t get enough of this game:
If the beautiful twins are the fallen Whore, Matty, piebald, mutilated, is the incarnate Second Coming, the figure in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, the alchemical conjunction of opposites in one body and thus the Philosopher’s Stone – which was often pictured as a naked child and referred to as the orphan. He is also Horus, Horapollo, one-eyed God of Light, who was imagined as a naked boy with one bald side to his head and one “lock of youth” over his temple. Horus is also falcon-headed, and it is as a great golden bird that Matty finally appears to Mr. Pedigree at the end of the novel, flaming, feathered, golden, loving and terrible. That is why I also believe that the name which came into the hospital superintendent’s mind, the name no one speaks, was Windhover – Hopkins’s Falcon, the Christ whose blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion…. If Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Golding has said that he believes man is “the local contradiction to this rule,” that in him “the cosmos is organising energy back to the sunlight level.” Matty is the contradictory burning bush that is not consumed.
Matty, it seems, is a veritable kitchen sink of symbols an and allusions. He is everything, it seems, except an actual human being, about whom one can feel a shred of empathy. To me, he comes across as a Joan d’Arc cum Don Quioxte without the romance of either.
In spite of a lot being said about her, including how her pointy breasts rise in her father’s presence, Sophy is even more reduced. With Matty we can at least feel pity. With Sophy, only revulsion. Everything about her pertains to her nihilism. She is more a type of sin than a person. Her belief in the ennobling power of gratuitous acts of violence makes her a cousin to Gide’s Lafcadio, albeit drained of all wit or charm.
Golding clearly wanted much for this novel, so much, in fact, that its complexity comes perilously close to mere complication. For example, before the kidnapping, Matty holds a kind of seance with Bell and Goodchild, his devotees. I won’t go into how it comes to be held in the room in which Sophy and Toni grew up. Bernard F. Dick, in his excellent study of William Golding, tries to rescue the book from charges that it strains credulity past bearing, and nearly succeeds. If Darkness Visible
is judged solely on a narrative basis, it would be like subjecting Twelfth Night or The Tempest to the standards of literary realism. Although Golding’s novels abound in realistic detail, they are not realistic novels; one does not “believe” in a Golding novel the way one believes in, say, Madame Bovary.
For Golding, it seems, his plot was but a point of departure, a hook on which to hang his meditation on the late 20th century world, the nature of evil, anomie, the divorce of heart from mind. Very well. I can accept this. But this means that, for all of Darkness Visible‘s undeniable riches, its narrative, that for which, when it comes down to it, we read novels, is subsumed under its own meanings. His characters become illustrations of arguments rather than agents of the actions, or even thoughts, Golding provides for them. Which is what makes Pedigree’s final moments so shattering. Faced with the awful prospect of redemption, he at once longs for its release and recoils from it in terror. After 260 pages, Golding at last exhausted his topic, and could afford this moment of true, human drama, of which our recognition is immediate and total. And it is worth all the rest combined.
I began my previous post, “Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s The Spire (part 1)”, with a quick rundown of the pitfalls of allegory, how it can grab a narrative by its throat, twist it about, and force it to kiss its own rectitude, and how it can make for lifeless characters whose only function is to represent a particular moral principal. Ever since publishing Lord of the Flies William Golding has regularly born the charge of failing to miss the banana peel at the edge of the allegorical pit. I then wrote about how The Spire (1964), his fifth published novel, is read by some as confirmation of this criticism (It is, after all, about building a “spire”, wink wink.), making his career, at least up to that point, a possible subject for an allegory about the “folly of good intentions”. Then I shared my own experience of actually reading it, how I had expected its flaws to skitter over the pages like medieval demons over the doorstep of a lost soul. But after two careful readings, I was unable to make any of the complaints adhere. Instead, I found it magnificent. Which means that if someone where to write an allegory about the virtue of “just appraisal” or “the giving of second chances”, the author might invent a character named “Snotnose, a reader with a blog”, and relate his comedown and subsequent redemption through a reading of Golding’s The Spire.
Salisbury Cathedral, visible from Golding's window at Bishop Wentworth's School for Boys, where he taught from 1939 to 1961 (with five years off for wartime service in the Royal Navy), was the inspiration and model for the catheral in THE SPIRE. Salisbury Cathedral's 404-foot spire is the tallest in Great Britain.
One of the ways Golding uses, and then transcends, allegory is through his portrayal of his protagonist. Jocelin is dean of a medieval English cathedral for which he believes God has commanded him to construct an impossibly tall spire. Like most who claim this kind of direct connection with God, he comes across as thoroughly glazed, eyes never dropping lower than the mid-distance. Lacking the gravitas of, say, Noah, he is dependent upon his position of authority to counter all challenges to this vision. His most vocal opponent is Roger Mason, his master builder, who recognizes the insanity of pressing onward and upward with the great stone phallus known to all, save Jocelin himself, as “Jocelin’s Folly”. Jocelin traps him with a narcissist’s acumen for detecting the weaknesses of those within his orbit. First, he cuts off the possibility of other, better, work for Roger and his men. Then, more deviously, he allows an affair to bloom between Roger and Goody Pangall, wife of an impotent and crippled verger. “She will keep him here,” he rationalizes. The affair has the double function of allowing him to distance himself from from his own stifling and stifled sexual desire. He treats the liaison, ultimately a lethal one, with a kind of willed blindness, perhaps his most salient attribute. As building progresses, and the menace of disaster looms ever larger, Jocelin proves a virtuoso of the blind eye turned. The cost of building materials, the alienation of his clergy, his spiritual duties to his “flock”, the paganism of the workmen, the mental dissolution of Roger, his own misbegotten position, even a case of human sacrifice in which the victim is walled into the foundation of the cathedral (an event Golding conveys with masterful ambiguity), all of it goes unmarked by the obsessed dean.
Golding uses his creation as would an allegorist, disallowing him that final measure of freedom, to fidget about and exhibit incongruities, that is the hallmark of more lifelike fictional characters. A more flexible and far-ranging novelist, like Patrick White, creates characters who are buffeted by the winds of their own consciousnesses, apparently separate from the author’s, and who experience such vicissitudes of circumstance and event that they can’t help but respond with vicissitudes of their own, emerging as essentially dignified agents, however flawed, of their own lives. By contrast, one never senses that, in the process of writing this book, Golding ever woke up wondering what stunt that crazy Jocelin was going to pull next. Rather, he brings his character into sharp focus solely through the lens of his sin. Pride, the deadliest of the famous seven, is referenced into everything he does, says, or thinks. But the sin itself, and any moralistic stance towards it, is not really Golding’s subject. More, it is the impetus to sin, and in The Spire the impetus is multiform, a miasma of sexual repression, physical disease, narcissistic scaffolding, spiritual fragility. Golding is willing to trade a measure of “realism” for a more concise and dramatically useful embodiment of these complex dynamics. Jocelin is guilty of pride, but is not Pride himself. He is more a figure from Greek myth than medieval allegory.
Mythic though he may be, Golding is too sophisticated a writer to allow a single reading of Jocelin. On the one hand, he is a narcissistic demon, oblivious to the lives he destroys. Golding’s rendering of him as such is subtle. To the criticism, mentioned in the previous post, that Golding has “seriously underwritten” his novel, showing characters and their settings in mere outline, I rejoin that he has, with a remarkably steady hand, drawn his readers into his protagonist’s consciousness. The Spire is what Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) describes as a third-person narrator-agent novel, a third person novel whose central character so influences the action that he functions nearly as a first-person voice. Through the sparsity of the setting, and those outlines and gestures which pass for people, we see the world as Jocelin sees it. That is, we see the attenuation of all that does not immediately come to bare on his God-haunted vision.
On the other hand, Jocelin is the portrait of an artist. He confronts the modern Western reader with one of our culture’s most cherished archetypes: the Visionary. We are gluttons for stories about the artist-hero who, against all odds and opposition, and unlike most of us, remains true to his or her vision, seeing it through to its triumphant completion. (No matter how clear-eyed our world view, there is always a little Ayn Rand lurking behind a polyp in our soul.) While Jocelin brings destruction, not least of all to himself, he is also the agent of creation. His sin may be pride, but his virtue is a kind of simplicity, a singleness of purpose that any true artist must exhibit. Whatever is demonic in him, his faith is genuine, and it is It is not, I think, a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, having undergone a highly ambivalent redemption in which he is, paradoxically, shorn of this very faith, together with his “vision”, Jocelin dies, but —his spire still stands.
I hope Golding sent at least an expensive bouquet of flowers to whoever talked him out of his original title, An Erection at Barcester, for he would have done his own vision a grave disservice.
"Round about the year 1200, Bishop Poore was standing on a hill overlooking the confluence of the local rivers, according to legend, when the mother of Jesus appeared to him, told him to shoot an arrow and build her a church where the arrow fell. The arrow flew more than a mile and fell in the middle of a swamp. There, with complete indifference to such things as health, foundations, access and general practicability, the cathedral was built. Eighty years later, with a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child's play, the builders erected the highest spire in the country on top of it, thousands of tons of lead and iron and wood and stone. Yet the whole building still stands. It leans. It totters. It bends. But it still stands...a perpetual delight, a perpetual wonder." ---William Golding, "An Affection for Cathedrals"
Allegory, the use of symbolic figures or actions to convey abstract, often moral, principles or ideas, can, in the hands of a skillful writer, add a layer of meaning to a narrative. But, how skilled that writer must be lest characters shed flesh and blood and become mere signifiers, “Truth” or “Avarice” in all but name. How subtle, lest every action, every gesture become a schoolyard tattler pointing a righteous finger at its own meaning. When allegory infects a narrative’s structure, it becomes as false and awkward as “asset enhancing” underwear, worn to trick the eye into thinking there is something there when there isn’t. The Victorian bustle is perhaps the most famous example, worn by women of all shapes and sizes as an “allegory” of their own sexual identity. William Golding has often been faulted for being an allegorist, a designer of literary bustles.
"Le Stryge", Charles Meryon's 1853 etching of one of Violloet-Le-Duc's gargoyles perched on a balustrade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which Golding acknowledged as one of the inspirations for the "ravonlike" egoism of Dean Jocelin.
One need read no further than the title of The Spire to suspect confirmation of this criticism. If the novel turned out to be about nothing other than what the cover claims, then we could already assume the author has used his Everyman quill to give us a good medieval talking to. At its most mundane, a spire is an allegorical piece of architecture. Even without invoking Freud, it is a symbolic declaration of power, void of function apart from its meaning. And when the bespired building is a Christian cathedral, the allegorical gruel thickens. The general upward thrust of the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, and of their spires in particular, was intended to lift the people’s eyes upward, releasing their attention from the ground where they labored, and into which their lives were headed, and to remind them of the direction their souls would take at the end of a life of obedience to the church. The higher the spire, the wealthier the diocese, or the more wealthy it was perceived to be, and therefore, the more favored by God.
And then, so sorry, there is Freud.
I read The Spire (1964), William Golding’s fifth published novel, the first time at least, with an ear out for what could be problematic. So primed, the problematic obliged. Jocelin, Golding’s protagonist, is the quintessential out-of-touch clergyman with, oh dear, a divine vision. He believes God has ordered him to build a four hundred foot spire on the cathedral of which he is dean. Can you say, “Pride”? Only, guess what, the building has foundations barely sufficient to support itself as it is, spireless. A spire, we are told, must “go down as far as it goes up,” surely the moral of something or another. The master builder, Roger Mason (Can’t fault the name. People in the middle ages were often identified by their trades), digs a deep pit at the church’s crossing to prove to Jocelin the lack of adequate foundations. Not only is his point made, but, it turns out, the earth creeps; the church – wait for it – has been built on shifting sands. Already there is enough portent here to tempt even the greatest writer’s heavy hand. But then, how about those four pillars on which the weight of the tower will rest. They are far too narrow. Joceline attributes all arguments against building the spire to Roger’s lack of faith and forces his vision towards completion. As it rises, ludicrous, priapic, and the pressure on the pillars increases, they being to “sing”, emitting a high pitched “eee”. And then they begin to bend, as solid stone should never do. As it turns out, their apparent solidity is the common illusion of ashlar stone, that is, a veneer of squared, “dressed” stone fronting rubble. To top it all off, so to speak, the obsessed Dean is observed at one point holding the model of the spire close, and stroking it. Oh, honestly!
Another common criticism of Golding is that he is ill-adept at depicting complex adult human relationships. The Spire could be read as corroborating evidence. The characters who flicker in and out of Joceline’s line of vision are composed of outlines, gestures. Father Anselm, Joceline’s tight-lipped confessor, is little more than a posture. Goody Pangall, wife of the crippled and impotent cathedral servant, and the object of Joceline’s insufficiently sublimated lust, is finally reduced to a tuft of red hair. The setting, too, is narrow, almost amputated. There is, we deduce, a town, with townspeople, but when rains threaten to wash the town away, the sense of emergency seems purely theoretical, and a reader may even be a bit surprised that there is a place in the world Golding has evoked for rain to fall, apart from the roof of the nave. Event is similarly sparse in its rendering. Golding offers barely a hint of the religious activity native to any active cathedral. As the spire rises, we are shown dust, snapshots of progress, but no sweat, a minimum of muscular exertion. All this haunting lacuna prompted one critic to describe the book as “seriously underwritten.”
So, if one is predisposed to dismiss this novel, one need not look far for reason. I found myself unable to do so.
Within the first dozen pages, I believed I had the novel pegged. The consistently taut and beautiful prose notwithstanding, I knew where this story was going and could see no prospect for surprise. Yet, following the trail of those fascinatingly poised and pointed sentences, I kept on, and found that, page by page, the narrative never went where I thought it would, at least not quite, and in the end, not at all. So that months later, needing a brief respite from The Brother’s Karamozov, I opened The Spire again, this time setting aside my reservations and allowing for one of two possibilities:
A. that I might have bad taste and be easily manipulated by heavy handed symbolism and shameless allegory, or
B. that Golding, whatever his limitations, might just have known what he was doing after all.
I read with growing fascination as Dean Jocelin’s mania transformed him from a blind narcissist into a gargoyle (quite literally; a craftsman, dumb and smiling, carves his beaky visage to be placed on each of the four corners of the tower), which, in the end, cracks open to reveal a deeply flawed and broken human being. I tried rolling my eyes a little when the rains brought forth the smell of corruption from the open earth at the crossing where the tombs of long forgotten bishops had been disturbed, but found it somehow unsatisfying, as if caught in my own caginess rather than Golding’s. The singing pillars, in spite of their admittedly underlined reference to the fall awaiting the sin of Pride, nonetheless evoked a very real and hypnotic sense of menace. The play of Light (sun bursting through the stained glass windows) and Dark (the pit, human sacrifice) blurred in the cathedral’s dust-laden atmosphere.
In the end, it turned out that I had read, for a second time but as if for the first, a complex novel, not at all “underwritten”, whose final ambiguity enables it to transcend the sum of its frequently allegorical parts. Unlike with a bald faced allegory, such as Lord of the Flies, I emerged from The Spire unsure what to think, wondering just what had happened here, but having been deeply moved.
I don’t frequently reread books. In my next post I will say more about why, this time, I am glad I did.
Have you read The Spire? Any other of Golding’s novels? I would love to hear your thoughts.
At some point during a book signing in Stockholm on the Tuesday following the Nobel award ceremony the newly laureled William Golding had to use the “loo”. Over five hundred people had queued up to meet the famous author, whose pessimistic view of human nature had, in spite of itself, yielded more than a half-dozen novels. Perhaps the wait was too much for one of his admirers who seized the occasion of Golding’s attendance to physical imperative, followed him into said loo, and requested his autograph. “A first, I think,” Golding said later. It is, of course, unverifiable whether the solicitation came before or after the business at hand had been completed.
A few days earlier, as part of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the awards, he had been presented to Carl XVI Gustaf. The King, a furrow-browed young man in spectacles, shook his hand and said, “It is a great pleasure to meet you Mr. Golding. I had to do Lord of the Flies at school.” Which sounds a bit like Royal for “Thanks for nothing you pedantic English turd.”
Both moments are commensurate with a certain lack of gravitas that seems to have attended Golding from the first announcement of his Nobel Prize, and which persists, in some measure, to this day, eighteen years after his death. I challenge anyone to consider his memory without a sympathetic wince: Here was a man who had spent his life working hard, often with troubled heart and drink-flamed nose, at being a serious novelist, only to have his efforts rewarded by being just a little better remembered for having written Lord of the Flies than for having been the first, and so far only, laureate in the hundred and ten year history of the prize to incite public dissent among the members of the Nobel committee. In a now legendary breech of protocol following the announcement, Swedish poet, Artur Lundkvist pronounced Golding “a small British phenomenon of no importance.” Then, backpedaling, but only slightly, which may have been worse than not backpedaling at all, he said, “I simply didn’t consider Golding to possess the international weight needed to win the prize, but that doesn’t mean I am against him. He is a good author.”
More public disparagement followed. Paul Gray, writing for Time Magazine, seemed particularly irked. To him, Golding was “a comfortable Englishman with no extreme political opinions,” whose work was of interest mainly to adolescents. How, he wondered, could the committee have chosen him over Gordimer, Grass, or Greene (all equally suitable “G” names)? It was enough, he thought, to “give pause to even the staunchest defenders of the Nobel experiment.” One must search, in fact, to find anyone, apart from Golding himself and a few notable supporters, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Fowles among them, who was actually glad of his award. The choice, if left to the British, would, it seems, have been either Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess. Lundkvist himself was an admirer of Burgess. “He is of far greater worth than Golding and is much more controversial.”
Golding put on a good face, as any discomfited “comfortable Englishman” would. To Michael Davie of the Observer, he said “That panel chose me. Another panel would have chosen someone else. So I am not in the least distressed by a dissentient.” As you say, William. But it had to hurt, especially all the invocations of his old rival Anthony Burgess whose book Earthly Powers had, just four years earlier missed catching the Booker Prize, scored instead by Golding’s Rites of Passage. Burgess took his revenge the year after Golding’s Nobel in a review of The Paper Men, which most agree is a thin book in more ways than width. He dressed his disdain in a coat of shining irony: The novel’s dust jacket had it that the Nobel Prize had been “the final recognition of Golding’s genius”, a “confirmation of his unique greatness”, to which Burgess responded, “It would seem to me that, with right British modesty, Golding has deliberately produced a post-award novel that gives the lie to the great claim. He is a humble man, and The Paper Men is a gesture of humility.”
All this fun at Golding’s expense could be chalked up to the perils, too common among writers and their keepers, of dining solely on ego salad. Lundkvist, for example, had been used to dominating the Nobel committee. He and his cohort, Anders Osterling, had been largely responsible for the selection of many of the more floridly obscure laureates of the post-War years. But Osterling had died the year before, at the age of 96, and Lundkvist, 77, felt the sapping of his clout. He went so far as to claim that the other committee members had “carried out a coup”, excluding him from the second round of voting. Now all comes clear. Lundkvist was feeling impotent and, like a character out of Philip Roth, made a scene about it. Problem solved. Give the old coot a Viagra to play with and leave Golding’s reputation in tact. Of course, there is the problem of his first published novel, the famous Lord of the Flies…
Just the other day I was telling a friend who does deep message that I was working on a post about William Golding. “Did he win for Lord of the Flies?” she asked, her elbows gouging my rhomboids. “The Nobel is generally given for a body of work,” I explained, groaning in pain. To which she replied, leaning hard near my left scapula, “I didn’t even know he wrote anything else.” “Ow!” And this is where it stays for most people. That monstrous brood of pre-adolescent English Hitlers, worshiping their skewered pig head and doing each other in on the set of Robinson Caruso has usurped what little energy the average reader has for giving Golding any attention at all. It is a work hogtied, so to speak, by allegory, unable to breath lest it awaken even a wraith of free will among any of its so-called characters. Even its few – very few – critical admirers concede that it lacks the subtlety he would learn to employ in his subsequent novels. Golding himself acknowledged its triteness. If this is the only book for which he is generally known, then doubts about his merit, whether ultimately sustainable, have a right to a hearing.
So then, explain The Times of London‘s 2008 published ranking of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Golding places third, just below George Orwell, just above Ted Hughes. A list, in itself, is a dumb beast, useless for determining the actual worth of anything. But, as with the Nobel roster, such a list can be suggestive: Clearly, there are those, and not a few, who continue to hold Golding in high regard.
Sir William Golding, 1911-1993
In advance of William Golding’s centenary, I have spent the last few weeks reading his novels, trying to determine for myself if he is worth anyone’s bother. So far I have read The Spire, Darkness Visible, and Lord of the Flies. Yesterday I began Pincher Martin. After completing this one, if I have not burned out on Golding, I will read The Inheritors. I’ll be posting my impressions of each of these novels in upcoming weeks (though probably not until after next month’s Nobel announcement.). For now, I must confess that, with three novels down and a fourth begun, I still don’t know quite what to make of him. Clearly he is a better, more adult, more complex novelist than snippy Paul Gray would have it. He may even, on occasion, dance with greatness. Or at least wave at it. Nobel Prize material? Let’s wait on that one. In any case, reading him is giving me surprising, if mixed, pleasure.
I invite any of you who have read Golding, taught him, (met him?) even if it was a long time ago, to share your impressions. I would love to know what you think, what you feel are his best books, his virtues as a writer, his liabilities.
And now, to the shade of Sir William Golding: Today is September 19th, 2011. Happy 100th to you. May the memory of you and your work fare well.
- 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature (5)
- 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature (3)
- American laureates (7)
- Asian laureates (1)
- British laureates (2)
- Brodsky, Joseph (1)
- Buck, Pearl S. (3)
- Chinese language laureates (1)
- Elytis, Odysseus (3)
- English language laureates (16)
- Garcia Marquez, Gabriel (2)
- Golding, William (4)
- Hemingway, Ernest (1)
- Le Clézio, J. M. G. (1)
- Mahfouz, Naguib (1)
- Milosz, Czeslaw (3)
- Mistral, Gabriela (1)
- Mo Yan (2)
- Morrison, Toni (3)
- Müller, Herta (2)
- Naipaul, V. S. (1)
- Nobel Cinema (1)
- Nobel Knowlege Literature Quiz (4)
- Nobel Prize for Literature (11)
- Novelists (21)
- Novels (9)
- Poems (13)
- Poets (14)
- Sholokhov, Mikhail (1)
- Should have won (2)
- Symborska, Wislawa (1)
- The Prize should go to… (4)
- Tranströmer, Tomas (3)
- Walcott, Derek (4)
- White, Patrick (3)
- You weren't going to forget about ___ were you? (4)
Literary web sites and blogs