William Golding: 1911-1993 part Hornblower, part Lear

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The Independent Online
'ELEMENTAL' is the word one most associates with William Golding: a reflection on both his person and his imagination. Wind, rain, storm and fire in particular seemed to represent his natural habitat. With his unruly shock of white hair and storm-damaged beard, he looked in later years like King Lear after a hard night on the blasted heath.

When he won the Booker Prize in 1983 he was filmed riding a shire horse across the meadows of his beloved Salisbury, man and beast in perfect, shaggy harmony. He could discourse with passion and eloquence on the geological sub-strata and pre-history of Wiltshire and Cornwall as though telepathically attuned to them.

The last time I saw him in public was at last year's Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, where he delivered a talk on the art of storytelling, sounding for all the world as though Coleridge's Ancient Mariner had elected to cease from wandering and try a new career on the lecture circuit.

The sea, the first element and his favourite, booms and reverberates through his career, as it does in his fiction. It is no surprise to find that he served in the navy during the war, in charge of a rocket ship, and later taught naval cadets. He fits almost too patly the role of the bluff seadog, part Hornblower, part Odysseus, steering the battered craft of fiction into uncharted waters. In Golding's case, the image is misleading. The genius of his work is a pagan spirit wildness, indiscipline, misrule that subverts every complacent human endeavour, whether it be the building of a cathedral spire, a voyage to the New World or an attempt, by children on a desert island, to recreate civilisation.

Golding learned from his father, a science master at Marlborough grammar school, to be a rationialist, a sceptic and an atheist. But it may be that his mother's influence was the more profound in filling his mental landscape with anti-rational horrors.

Profoundly affected by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Golding's mother delighted in telling him ghost stories about his native Cornwall, about phantom ships and the banshee wail of 'the Crake' that announced someone would soon be drowned. Her son was greatly influenced.

A further blow to his confidence in the rationalist amelioration of mankind was dealt by his experience of war and the horrors of which men were capable. It resurfaced as a later show of stunning images in his fiction, perhaps most notably in the opening chapter of Darkness Visible (1980), when a burnt child called Matty, his hair 'shrivelled to peppercorn dots', walks slowly through the blitzed streets of London.

Golding's first novel, Lord of the Flies, after rejection by 15 publishers, was published in 1954 to massive acclaim and rapidly became a set text on school syllabuses. Its curious status - a book about children discovering that, in isolation, all attempts to establish a civilised society break down in anarchy and murder, a book for sophisticated adults which is offered to children - is a tribute to its uniquely forceful simplicity, reflected in the elemental chilliness of the chapter headings: Beast from Air; Beast from Water; Fire on the Mountain.

Subsequent novels such as The Inheritors (about prehistoric man learning to kill his more kindly forebears) and Pincher Martin (about a man clinging to a rock in the ocean learning to face hunger, madness and death) offered even more glumly relentless prognoses about the descent of man.

It was not, however, an appealing or user-friendly agenda for a writer to offer British readers in the callow Sixties, and Golding's reputation gradually dwindled; he became thought of as a gloomy bore, a Jeremiah at the party. When Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1983, it astonished critics for its unaccustomed sprightliness of tone, its lightness of touch, its wholly unprecedented humour and irony. Apparently offering no more than the record of a sea voyage in the early 19th century by a bumptious young adventurer, it deployed a cast of characters like a small village, watched their petty rivalries, lusts and jealousies as they sailed from Tilbury to Sydney and carried its symbolic freight with a breezy confidence.

In the hindsight of literary analysis, it and the other novels that make up the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, may well be seen as the finest work of a passionate agnostic who found, at the end of his life, the perfect synthesis of the mystical, the stern and the compassionate in his bleak but magnificent imagination.

Charles Monteith, former chairman of Faber & Faber: 'When he first sent us Lord of the Flies it was a particularly unattractive manuscript called Strangers from Within. It was in a brown, hairy cardboard wrapper and had clearly been to a lot of publishers. It was difficult reading at first but once I got beyond the first chapter I was totally taken.'

Nigel Williams, novelist and playright: 'He was self depreciating and unpretentious. Lord of the Flies is the most original, perhaps the most powerful British post-war novel.'

Malcolm Bradbury, novelist and critic: 'His work is peculiarly timeless. He wrote about the nature of good and evil and the emergence of human beings from Neanderthal man.'

Anthony Burgess, novelist: 'His work will survive, but he should have written more. I blame him for that.'

(Photograph omitted)