• Tag Archives British Literature since World War II
  • Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s THE SPIRE (part 2)

    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”

  • Happy 100th to The Lord of the Fly in the Ointment, Sir William Golding

    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.