Obituaries: Sir William Golding
Monday 21 June 1993
WILLIAM GOLDING was arguably the greatest English writer of the second half of the 20th century.
His first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), had become by the early Sixties what it remains, the only piece of recent writing which has been read by everyone in the English-speaking world who reads high literature. When, late in the Seventies, the eclat had faded enough for him to recall his thought on finishing Lord of the Flies - 'I could win the Nobel Prize for that' - as an example of an author's silly confidence when he discovers his vocation, he wrote Rites of Passage (1980), which won the Booker Prize and probably gave the final impulse needed to win him, in 1983, the Nobel Prize itself. Quite probably his most popular book will prove to be the completion of Rites of Passage through two sequels - Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989) - revised in one volume in 1991 at his 80th birthday as To the Ends of the Earth. But perhaps none of these is his best book, for which one would turn to the perception of a world like Eden in The Inheritors (1955), to the awe-inspiring Pincher Martin (1956), or to the sheerly inevitable narrative drive of The Spire (1964). Golding himself, interviewed on his 80th birthday, engagingly said of the whole body of his writing: 'It's not much, is it? . . . I still have to write my best book.'
Not all readers, nor writers either, value his work as highly as his achievement demands, or indeed are really sure what his achievement is and how it fits into English literature. Even Lord of the Flies is said to have been refused by 21 publishers before Charles Monteith at Faber saw what was in it. Only one of the younger generation of writers, Ian McEwan - although significantly he may be the best handler of language among them - is ready to acknowledge himself as following on from Golding. This sense of enigma, of not fitting in, is not surprising, given that Golding himself demanded of each of his novels that it should look at experience afresh, with what he called intransigence. He felt indeed that he only wrote novels because he could not write poetry, and even to poetry might have preferred genius as a musician. And besides, although the most companionable of conversationalists, hosts and friends, he was a private person, conscientious but uneasy with critics and interviewers, so that he might either give them all they wanted, or close up altogether.
This oddly mingled humility, confidence and sense of isolation could only come from a writer inspired in the full romantic sense, a man who had to wait on, or was driven by, a daemon or a genius. In a different vein, he remarked about this that when as a child he first looked at the illustrations to Dickens's Christmas Carol, he assumed that the ledgers chained to Marley's ghost must be novels. To put it another way, his surface was intimate with his depths, but unpredictably so. It was impossible to anticipate, if one talked to him about his novels, what would turn out to have been carefully planned, what apparently given, and what he would welcome from a reader as a discovery of something which he himself had never noticed. When he saw Lord of the Flies in Peter Brook's 1963 film version, his reaction was sheer wonder - 'I imagined that]' Yet he insisted of his fuller or more intense passages - the pig's head that talks with the voice of the Lord of the Flies to Simon, or the ship that Talbot boards at the beginning of Rites of Passage - that it was as if he had heard, seen or remembered them.
His intense involuntary power of visualisation extended beyond the imagination of things happening. In The Spire, exploring Dean Jocelyn's power of seeing visions, his confessor asks him: 'When you hear things, do you see them?' Jocelyn fails to see the point of the question: but the answer was clearly yes for him, and for his creator as well. Both in synaesthesia and in visualisation words came alive for Golding, as he was pleased to note that the ancient Egyptians thought their hieroglyphs might. Words came alive for him in a third sense, in a kind of stripping from worn-out or abstract words of their dead weight of customary associations, so that, individually or as whole books they were brought back to living experience. Anyone might know that our old half- comic word Beelzebub names a personification of evil, and anyone can read in a dictionary of Bible commentary that it means 'the Lord of the Flies': but Golding saw a brutally severed pig's head hanging on a stick surrounded by the buzzing of flies under a tropical sun. And this horrific vision is only part of a leading back to experience, a looking afresh at the old book about children alone on an island, R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857).
Whatever gives rise to the sense of an evil for which we are not entirely responsible, what mythmakers and theologians call original sin or the devil, is given us in fresh words as an experience. The part played in the book by Golding's imagination is further emphasised if one reads Lord of the Flies alongside a book whose moral is similar, by an author whom he began by admiring, but in the end abandoned, Aldous Huxley's Ape and Essence (1948). Huxley and Golding share a piercing intelligence and an indignant moral sense: but Ape and Essence leaves us in mingled respect of the author's intelligence and disgust for the world he had created, while our terror and grief for the children in Lord of the Flies is interwoven with wonder and delight at the world, the imagined island in which they act and suffer.
The sources in Golding of this union of imagination and conscience with an obsessively exploratory, sceptical and analytic mind went back to his childhood, to his mother, who had something of his own narrative genius, and to the world created round him by his father, a teacher at Marlborough Grammar School, who lived in delight, wonder and hope at the possibilities of scientific enlightenment. The son never lost hold of that wonder, and from it came in him an amateur's passion for such sciences as (especially) archaeology, but also engineering, palaeontology, geology, astronomy, botany and biology. As an incidental outgrowth from the wonder, it was he who gave James Lovelock the name 'Gaia' for his hypothesis of the earth's biosphere as a kind of self-regulating organism.
But throughout his life Golding was driven to discover and rediscover two things which do not easily fit his father's world-picture: that homo sapiens is, and so far as we have record always has been, heroic but sick, and that hidden behind the darkness within, or else revealed against homo sapiens, and incommensurably more worthy of attention, is God. A constant flow of images and experiences embodied the awareness - in his childhood the darkness of the cellar beneath, and of the graveyard beyond the garden wall of the Goldings' house at Marlborough, together with an imaginative involvement with ancient Egypt which stemmed from Rider Haggard's Cleopatra, but soon became a serious obsession with archaeology and history: then at Oxford a discontent with the scientific studies he went to Brasenose College to follow, which turned him to read English literature and to become fascinated by Anglo-Saxon poetry. He published, in 1934, his own volume of poems, something of the visionary kind of Walter de la Mare, but without de la Mare's haunting and elusive music: and sadly concluded that he was no poet.
After Oxford, having tried his hand at acting, he married Ann Brookfield, and began a career as a schoolmaster. But the war interrupted his life with its experience of intolerable suffering, suffering that he was reminded is immemorial because he was simultaneously learning ancient Greek to read Homer and the tragedians in the original. Homer offered him another world of suffering, but a world lightened by such tender glimpses as that of Hector's baby lifted up by his mother Andromache, and crying at his father's bright helmet, of which Golding was reminded, on leave from the navy, by his daughter's reaction to the braid on his cap. Aeschylus and Euripides sharpened his need to dig at the roots of the human condition.
In Lord of the Flies, the hunting and tearing of living bodies by possessed people in Euripides' Bacchae superimpose themselves on Coral Island, and the memory of the war haunts the day-to-day experience of family life and what Golding became after the war, a schoolmaster at Bishop Wordsworth's School under the spire of Salisbury cathedral. In this novel, as in most of those that followed, those various experiences and those interlocking capacities were united, as he once said in 'A single activity . . . like the apple tree growing out of a seed'. Their power as stories is overmastering. Few writers have had such power to enable a reader's consciousness to identify with what is going on in a book as experienced by its protagonist, to intensify the identification and accelerate the pity and terror associated with it, and yet at some point so sharply to break the chain of events and force a total transfer of consciousness to another viewpoint. In the two novels which immediately succeeded Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, this identification is taken far beyond the limits of ordinary consciousness to have the reader identify with the minds of a prehistoric people who do not know what it is to impose an idea on experience, and of a man in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of the War, struggling to preserve his life at the point of death. In these books Golding does what many modernist writers have done, he raises a continual doubt as to where our ordinary moment-by-moment experience differs from creating fictions, and yet, like few modernists or indeed writers of any kind, makes Pincher Martin's consciousness reach its limit when he hears God asking him, 'Have you had enough, Christopher?'
Paradoxically, those of Golding's novels where the reader least identifies with the protagonist's consciousness are those told in the first person, as direct memories of the present century: Free Fall (1959) and The Pyramid (1967) among his earlier novels, The Paper Men (1984) among his later ones, in which the language is not less vividly creative, but the power of characterisation less overwhelming. Perhaps one sees why in one of his most powerful novels, The Spire (1964), in which the medieval visionary Jocelyn's direct description of himself and his experience are increasingly seen to be self-deceived, although the spire which he saw in a vision, when he has forced a mason to embody it in wood, glass, steel and stone, forces from him, with a wonder not unlike Golding's own at the completed and filmed Lord of the Flies, the dying exclamation 'It's like the apple tree]' The closer we approach Golding's narrators, the more we are apt to share the distrust of themselves which is that profoundest self-knowledge: it is only when they and their experiences are a little externalised that they become matter for compassion, wonder and awe.
Golding discovered a way through this difficulty in his later novels by using journals. For some 11 years after The Pyramid he published no new novel: there was splendid writing in the three novellas of The Scorpion God (1971), but much of that had been composed earlier. Perhaps his urgent need to write only novels that began afresh on both vision and technical problems played a part, and the device of the journals was part of his answer. Certainly throughout the journal of the outcast visionary Matty in Darkness Visible (1979) and the pair of contrasting journals in Rites of Passage of the Whiggish, likeably callow Talbot, and of Colley, the romantic ecstatic Evangelical who died of shame, Golding wrote near the height of his powers. Yet even in those books the most overwhelming passage, one of his two or three most extraordinary pieces of writing, is written in the third person and seen through the eyes of a group of firemen watching east London burning in the Blitz and Matty as a small boy emerging from the flames. It is a passage that seems to owe something to the renewal of some of Golding's childhood impressions by the sight of the Colossi of Memnon, in Egypt, which with their royal posture and their faces, 'struck away as if blasted by some fierce heat and explosion', offer him 'an image of a creature maimed yet engaged to time and our world and enduring it with a purpose no man knows and in effect that no man can guess'.
A third factor in the powerful, delayed emergence of Darkness Visible and Rites of Passage may have been the depressing effect of the Seventies on a man both somewhat to the Left in politics and profoundly patriotic. Both are in their own ways condition- of-England novels, and both seem to owe something to a visit to Australia which gave Golding an unfamiliar standpoint with which to connect a vision of England.
After he won the Nobel Prize, Golding's admirers became a serious oppression: some of them stood at his garden gate in Wiltshire staring. He had perhaps already felt a mixture of enchantment and oppression in the country round Marlborough and Salisbury where he spent most of his life. There always seemed something mythic about his relation with it. He was actually a small man, but I have a tendency to judge people's size from the impact of their personalities: in the cottage in Wiltshire this seemed exaggerated, as Bill in fact stumped under the timbers that cracked my head. He fled down to Cornwall where he was born and where his mother came from. The house he bought, which was secluded, although its drive opened on to a road too busy for anyone to stand and stare from, had various effects on him. It was pure delight to him that the Rev Francis Kilvert had stayed in it a century ago, but Eisenhower stayed there before D-Day and Princess Marthe Bibesco's previous ownership seemed to get in his way: he had an embroidery of a unicorn hung over the marble tablet in the hall commemorating Eisenhower. Overall he seemed to become freer and happier with himself there. I never found him anything but a delight to be with, nor ever wanted to go to bed except under the influence of drink when I stayed either in Wiltshire or Cornwall.
If you cared about God, or about Homer, ancient Egypt, English poetry, gardening or music, he was the best of conversationalists and kindest of companions. But not everyone found him so, and clearly he did not always feel so about himself. I was told about his death yesterday morning, just as I was setting out for church, and spent two-thirds of the Eucharist in a confusion of reactions: but they eventually settled on the end of a letter he once wrote to me, 'You see, in what I conceive to be my better moments, I believe passionately in the existence of That not this. Even the elders cast down their crowns, so what should poor Tom do but throw himself?'
The completion of Rites of Passage, To the Ends of the Earth, was Golding's happiest book. Both as audience and as creator, Golding liked art which came as he put it 'from on high'. What came from on high in his earlier books tended to express awe verging on terror: it corresponded to an odd experience when he was still trying to persevere with studying science at Oxford, and a friend having hypnotised him said with some alarm of what Golding said under hypnosis: 'It was like a chapter of the Old Testament.'
Yet he also enjoyed a delighted apprehension of the going on of the world of craft and nature: and in some visionary passages of his last books, what came from on high to him fitted better with that delight - in the vision, for example, on the Spanish Steps in Rome in The Paper Men, or in the revelation which he revised in 1991 for his half-comic half-impressive radical philosopher Aloysius Prettiman in the final version of To the Ends of the Earth: 'He confessed that he now believed there was a profound mystery (rather than secret) at the heart of the cosmos to which man would be admitted. He was made extraordinarily happy.' It would be pleasant to think that Golding came as close here as he ever did in his novels to expressing his own fundamental conclusion.
William Golding: a list of works
Lord of the Flies 1954
The Inheritors 1955
Pincher Martin 1956
Brass Butterfly 1958
Free Fall 1959
The Spire 1964
The Hot Gates 1965
The Pyramid 1967
The Scorpion God 1971
Darkness Visible 1979
Rites of Passage 1980
A Moving Target 1982
The Paper Men 1984
An Egyptian Journal 1985
Close Quarters 1987
Fire Down Below 1989
To The Ends of the Earth 1991
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