(c) The Guardian
During my youth I read a number of books by William Golding. I read Lord of the Flies (1954) as a schoolboy, of course. While he was teaching it as a set text on the English syllabus, my teacher recommended a couple of other novels by Golding and I tracked down and read them too. These were The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956) and The Spire (1964). Somewhere along the way, I also read The Scorpion God (1971), consisting of three novellas that were set in prehistory, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt. But for a long time afterwards, that was that as far as William Golding was concerned for me.
Then a few years back, in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up a set of novels that comprised Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy: Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989). I greatly enjoyed them, especially the first one, which in the year of its publication had won the Booker Prize. No doubt one reason why I liked them so much was the fact that I’m a sucker for any sort of story taking place in a ship, on the high seas, in historical times. Anyway, the trilogy reminded me that there were several books by Golding I still hadn’t read – books that seemed to remain below the radar, out of sight and out of mind, while everyone raved on about Lord of the Flies. So I vowed to read the rest of Golding’s fiction.
I recently completed my quest, having read five more William Golding novels in the last two-to-three years. Coincidentally, each one of the five was published in a different decade during the second half of the 20th century: the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Here’s what I thought of them.
Free Fall (1959)
Golding’s meditation on fate, free will, memory and regret has an Englishman called Mountjoy – who’s a talented artist but a troubled human being – end up in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. There, he gets incarcerated in a terrifyingly black and unknowable room with the promise that he’s soon to be tortured. The German officer who’s placed him in it was, disturbingly, a psychiatrist in his pre-war civilian past.
Alone in the darkness, struggling to retain his sanity, “trapped without hope”, the artist relives parts of his life: his impoverished childhood, his adoption by a priest, his schooldays when he alternated between the influences of a sympathetic, rational-minded science teacher and a sadistic religious-education one, and his tragic relationship with a young woman.
It’s an uneven book. I read it two years ago and can still remember the prison-camp scenes and the childhood ones vividly, although other parts of it have faded in my memory. But overall, Free Fall had a considerable impact on me and it’s definitely an underrated novel in the Golding canon.
3.5 out of 5, I’d say.
(c) Faber Books
The Pyramid (1967)
The Pyramid is a trilogy of connected novellas concerning a young man – later, not-so-young – called Oliver and his relationship with the small market town in ‘middle England’ in which he grows up. Its cover-blurb would have you believe that The Pyramid represents William Golding lightening up and attempting to write something funny. And the central novella is funny, dealing with Oliver’s involvement in a production by the town’s amateur operatic society, organised by an outside professional producer who, it becomes clear, is utterly contemptuous of his small-town charges and is also a drunken reprobate.
But the first story, dealing with Oliver’s first love affair, is actually very troubling. The way he ends up treating the object of his affections makes us wonder if the barbarism that soon surfaces on the island in Lord of the Flies is actually any further away from the teenaged characters here, in England. Meanwhile, the final story has a sad, with-the-wisdom-of-hindsight flavour as Oliver looks back on the life of the eccentric and ostracised woman who taught him to play piano. It ends with a savage twist that gives a new perspective to what has gone before.
I struggled with the first story in The Pyramid, but the second and third ones are very well-told. For all its pastoral charm, incidentally, the town is portrayed as being rife both with social snobbery and with the curtain-twitching desire to know and gossip about everyone else’s business. Actually, it doesn’t sound that much more hospitable an environment for Golding’s characters than the desert island in Lord of the Flies or the prehistoric forest in The Inheritors.
My verdict? Another 3.5 out of 5.
Darkness Visible (1979)
For me, Darkness Visible was where Golding lost the plot. Literally lost it – for though there are tracts of memorable writing here, the plot is too bizarrely convoluted for it to be enjoyable. We get a social misfit called Matty, grotesquely disfigured in his childhood thanks to a German bomb during the London Blitz, who grows up with possible supernatural powers, including the ability to converse with spirits; a pair of attractive but sociopathic twin girls called Sophie and Toni, whom we first see stoning a duckling to death as it swims past on a river; an episode dealing with Matty’s schooldays and his encounters with a paedophilic schoolmaster; a detour to Australia, where Matty almost gets castrated by an Aborigine; and a criminal plot, hatched by one of the twins, to kidnap the child of a wealthy oil sheik from the English boarding school where Matty has found work as a handyman. Darkness Visible feels like Golding throwing his hands up in disgust at the 1970s, a decade of oil shortages, terrorism and general doom and gloom. But the disgust he tries to express here comes out in too garbled a form.
2.5 out of 5 for this one.
(c) Faber Books
The Paper Men (1984)
For all its faults, I prefer Darkness Visible, which at least had some memorable sections, to The Paper Men, which isn’t memorable at all. Indeed, The Paper Men is another example of why, for me, so much British literature sucked in the 1980s – because it’s about writers. (The situation reached its nadir in 1984, when the Booker Prize managed to have on its six-book shortlist five books that had novelists, biographers, literary critics and literary lecturers as their main characters.) Surely, if you’re a writer, nothing is more pointless, irrelevant and incestuous than writing about other writers? Yes, they say you should write about what you know, but why write about something that’s of no interest to the 99.999% of the world’s population who aren’t writers?
Worse, The Paper Men is about an ageing writer called Wilfred Barclay being pursued by a single-minded academic who wants to get hold of his personal papers so that he can write Barclay’s biography. This makes it a particularly up-its-own-arse variant on the above – a campus novel. (In the 1980s you could hardly move for the number of campus novels around, penned by the likes of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson.) The ruefully abrupt ending to The Paper Men sticks in my mind, but I can barely remember anything about the 190 pages that preceded it.
2 out of 5 (and I’m being generous).
The Double Tongue (1995)
After The Paper Men, I thought I’d read everything by William Golding. But then I discovered that a final novel, The Double Tongue, had been published two years after his death in 1993. I didn’t expect much of it, since what was published was a second draft – and if he’d lived a little longer, Golding would’ve done another draft before submitting it to his publisher. Thus, as it stands, The Double Tongue is an unfinished version.
But I found the book surprisingly enjoyable. The story of a girl called Arieka who becomes a priestess at the Oracle of Delphi on Greece’s Mount Parnassus, at a time when the Romans are flexing their muscles in the direction of the Ancient Greeks, it’s brisk, wry and melancholic. It’s probably not quite what Golding had intended, and it’s not in the same league as something like Robert Graves’s classic 1934 novel I, Claudius (which also features an appearance by the Oracle of Delphi). But The Double Tongue at least ends William Golding’s career on a positive note.
A solid 3 out of 5.
(c) Farrar, Straus and Giroux