William Golding, By John Carey

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The apotheosis of William Golding's career probably came on 11 June 1988. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature five years before. Now, in the Queen's Birthday Honours List, followed the announcement of his knighthood. As John Carey notes, in one of this excellent biography's most amusing passages, the news was not altogether unheralded. It had been preceded by some backstairs manoeuvring of a practically Trollopean cast.

Highly placed friends had been instructed to lobby. The secretary of state for education, at work on a book for Golding's publishers, had been nobbled at a banquet. "Are you kultivating my K?" ran a postcard to Faber's managing director, Matthew Evans. Gong duly trousered, Golding's response to his newfound status was almost comically triumphal. The family passports were straightaway altered to "Sir William and Lady Golding", while his journal takes a positive pride in what Carey calls "the grovelling attentions" of hotel managers and head waiters.

Clearly the author of Lord of the Flies – world sales 10 million-plus since its debut in 1954 – had come a long way. But exactly how far? It is scarcely necessary to say that Carey's Golding is an outsider, a grammar-school upstart from a humble-ish, radical home, resentful of the young gentlemen at Marlborough College, the nearby public school, an unconfident teenager whom Oxford thought "not quite a gentleman", a brooding drifter who spent long years in the stagnant ooze of provincial schoolteaching before his lucky break. Carey thinks it significant that Golding's most recurrent dream was of his own execution. There is talk of "the pain that lingered from his early years of neglect and rejection" and some choice remarks about "literary establishments" and their imperviousness to deserving talent.

This was Golding's personal myth, as Anthony Powell might have put it, to which the 5,000-page private diary Carey uses as his principal source contributes on an almost daily basis. Golding went to his death, in 1993, in the conviction that his early life had dealt him a bad hand, and yet amid these laments about exclusion and privilege, it is worth pointing out that the idea of the "establishment" is always relative.

To John Betjeman, for example, five years his junior, a Marlborough schooling was a mark of wilful middle-classness. Plenty of Golding's contemporaries (he was born in 1911) denied the three years at Brasenose, the teaching job at a minor public school, and the eventual sponsorship by Faber's Charles Monteith – a near-run thing, admittedly – had far less cushy apprenticeships.

In textbook terms, Golding is an extraordinary – and extraordinarily isolated - figure: an elementalist and spiritual-depths merchant at large in a postwar literary landscape awash with social realists and class warriors. As a writer, on the other hand – in his habits, obsessions and routines - he fits every archetype known to the trade. Broadly speaking, apart from distinguished wartime service in the RNVR and the years spent scribbling through his lunch-hours at Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury, he did nothing except write, take lavish holidays and lecture on behalf of the British Council, which he seems to have regarded as a kind of high-class travel-agent.

One of the great advantages of Carey's treatment is its unrelenting focus on the way in which a writer's life is lived at bedrock – how much he gets for his books, what the editor thinks and what the critics say – and the inner demons to which this solitary existence is prey. Thus we learn, to nobody's very great surprise, that he was a depressive, a drunk whose intake makes, say, the late Kingsley Amis look like the merest tap-room trifler, a thrify plutocrat who liked orchids because they stayed in flower longer (40 pence a day, he estimated), and pathologically unable to withstand the ministrations of book reviewers. He "felt the touch of the Higher Criticism like a cold wind" he once wrote – this at a stage of his career when most authors are lucky to be reviewed at all. Free Fall's middlingly hostile reception in 1959 is supposed to have set him back creatively for years.

As Carey could perhaps have emphasised a little more, it was the Higher Criticism that sent him scurrying up Parnassus in the first place. The US hardback of Lord of the Flies, published in 1955, sold 2,383 copies before going out of print. Ominously, though, academics had already begun to take an interest: there were two long pieces in the Kenyon Review as early as 1957. As John Sutherland notes in his Fiction and the Fiction Industry, "from being an academic discovery, Golding gradually became a favourite with American students, by the natural processes of intellectual percolation downwards".

By 1962 he was, as Time put it, "Lord of the campus". There were other novels, equally good – Rites of Passage won the Booker in 1980, heading off a challenge from Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers – but Golding continued to complain that the success of his inaugural masterpiece would always overshadow the merits of what came later.

As the biography of an internationally distinguished author by an emeritus Merton Professor at Oxford, this is, among other things, a showcase for two sensibilities. One is Golding's: impulsive, detached, generous-minded, self-lacerating (he considered himself "a monster", for no very good reason one can see); the other is Carey's – partisan, tough-minded, and taking the usual unsparing Carey line against anyone unwise enough to get in his way.

Obscure dons such as the luckless CH Wrenn ("still a byword for tedium in 1950s Oxford") who made the mistake of boring the young undergraduate are righteously sent packing. Fabulously insignificant critics are blown into fragments by lumps of metaphorical thermite. The sight of TC Worsley, "establishment" gang-member and Old Marlburian (and also the author of a brilliant autobiography, Flannelled Fool, which Carey doesn't mention) not liking Pincher Martin has him virtually gnashing his teeth. There are some withering assaults on academic jargon and that old middlebrow bogey Artur Lundkvist of the Nobel Committee, who displays "the common highbrow disdain for writers who appeal to a wide readership".

All this is very funny, but it also gives the book the greater part of its attack, the sense of a man furiously annoyed about large aspects of the 20th-century literary-critical landscape and constantly calling his hero in to redress the balance. As for the work – next to which all of Golding's quintessential literary bad habits, the amour propre, the drunks and the misery, pale into insignificance – Carey is excellent on what gives the novels their distinctive patina: that odd mix of symbolism, derring-do and elemental human hurt. Here, inevitably, Golding's detachment from the literary world works to his advantage. A sharper operator, who spent his time carousing with Kingsley and co., would have lost something in the process. You suspect that in the end he falls into Virginia Woolf's invaluable category (first applied to Hardy) of "genius but no talent". But it is this that makes him modern literature's great outsider – not the sulks about Marlborough or the wasted days before the Bishop Wordsworth's blackboard.

DJ Taylor's novel 'Ask Alice' is published by Chatto & Windus; he will be speaking at the 'Independent' Woodstock Literary Festival on Sunday 20 September: www.woodstockliteraryfestival.com

William Golding: struggle and success

William Golding's first book, Poems, was published in 1934, the same year he graduated from Oxford University. Marrying Ann Brookfield at the start of the Second World War, he fought in the Royal Navy. He had a literary breakthrough in 1954 with Lord of the Flies, twice adapted into films. More publishing success followed, and he was awarded the Booker Prize in 1980 for Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later. He was knighted in 1988. He died in Cornwall in 1993.