William Golding’s 1967 novel The Pyramid was not the book the blurb on its back cover had led me to believe it was. “Written with great perception and subtlety,” said the blurb, “The Pyramid is Golding’s funniest and most light-hearted novel, which probes the painful awkwardness of the late teens, the tragedy and farce of life in a small community and the consoling power of music.”
Having dealt with such hallucinogenic (and at times mentally exhausting) scenarios as a prehistoric one where gentle and semi-telepathic Neanderthals were exterminated by newly-appeared and ruthless Homo Sapiens (in The Inheritors), and a medieval one where a visionary and increasingly demented cathedral dean oversaw the building of a towering and tottering spire (in The Spire), and of course a desert-island one where a bunch of marooned private schoolboys descended into savagery (in Lord of the Flies), Golding could surely be forgiven for wanting to take a break from the heaviness, put his feet up for a while and write something light and wryly humorous about teenage frustrations and pretensions in a sleepy English country town. However, I hadn’t gone far into The Pyramid before I realised it was going to be a darker and more challenging book than I’d expected.
Firstly, it should be explained that The Pyramid isn’t properly a novel, but a trilogy of novellas with the same central character and first-person narrator, and the same setting: Oliver, son of a lower-middle-class chemist employed in a doctor’s dispensary, and Stilbourne, the English Home Counties town where Oliver has grown up during the 1920s. The supporting cast, which varies slightly from story to story, consists of Oliver’s parents and neighbours in Stilbourne. Only in its central novella does The Pyramid supply the light-hearted fun that’s promised by the back-cover blurb. I found the first and third novellas rather bleak.
In the first and longest story, Oliver is 18 years old and is sitting out the final summer before he leaves Stilbourne and begins undergraduate life at Oxford University. He’s first seen moping, in classical teenager fashion, about the great imagined love of his life, Imogen Grantley, who comes from a higher-class family “with money to spend” and is soon to be married. Thoughts of Imogen vanish, however, when events throw Oliver into the company of another local girl, Evie Babbacombe, who “was the Town Crier’s daughter and came from the tumbledown cottages of Chandler’s Close.”
The fact that, in the town’s social pecking order, Evie is as below Oliver as he is below his beloved Imogen is underlined by an observation he makes about Evie’s eccentric mother: “At normal times Mrs Babbacombe radiated a social awareness and friendliness that was indomitable, though seldom reciprocated…” She’d make “a gracious, sideways bow to a person entirely out of her social sphere. Naturally these greetings were never acknowledged or even mentioned; since no one could tell whether Mrs Babbacombe was mad, and believed herself entitled to make them, or whether she came from some fabulous country where the Town Crier’s wife and the wife of the Chief Constable might be on terms of intimacy.”
Oliver becomes infatuated with Evie – “In the conflict between social propriety and sexual attraction there was never much doubt which side would win” – though it’s a physical infatuation only. When they enter into a relationship, of sorts, he has no intention of extending it beyond the start of autumn when he’s due to arrive among Oxford’s ivory towers and dreaming spires. Accordingly, he is panic-stricken when the possibility arises that he may have made Evie pregnant.
The Pyramid’s opening tale is in many ways its most troubling, because we see Oliver unconsciously treating Evie with as much social contempt as others in the town – for example, Robert Ewan, caddish son of the local doctor, who has his own designs on Evie – treat him and his parents. And when he first forces himself upon Evie on a wooded slope overlooking Stilbourne, for all his teenage clumsiness and cluelessness, we find his behaviour repellent. Later, Evie spells out to him just what it was he did to her: “It all began… when you raped me… Up at the top of the hill… In the clump.”
After that, the second novella in The Pyramid provides some welcome humour. Set during the holiday period at the end of his first term at Oxford, it tells how Oliver, back in Stilbourne, gets roped into participating in a production called The King of Hearts, staged by Stilbourne Operatic Society (SOS), for which his mother plays piano.
Even here, the town’s class system – its virtual caste system – throws a long shadow: “…even if we had had a mass of talent and a vast stage, orchestra pit and auditorium, there would still have been an overriding limitation, the social one. None of the college’s closed society was available; and Sergeant Major O’Donovan helped us only because he was right on the fringe of it. Then again, at least half of Stilbourne’s population was ineligible, since it lived in places like Chandler’s Close and Miller’s Lane, and was ragged. Though Evie sang and was maddeningly attractive, she would never have been invited to appear, not even as a member of the chorus. Art is a meeting point; but you can only go so far.”
To produce their musical, the society has hired a professional called Evelyn De Tracey, whom Oliver’s besotted mother describes as “a charming man” who’s “taken all difficulties in his stride.” Unexpectedly, Oliver gets taken into De Tracey’s confidence and he discovers the producer to be a drunken reprobate who quietly regards Stillbourne Operatic Society as the parochial, petty-bourgeoisie no-hopers that, frankly, they really are. Making things more interesting still is the fact that Oliver, who has been drafted in to play a gypsy fiddler, has to share a stage with his old love Imogen and her new husband, Norman Claymore. Claymore’s singing voice is described as sounding “like a gnat”. His ego, however, is considerably larger than a gnat.
In its third and final episode, The Pyramid has Oliver returning to Stilbourne many years later, a successful man who has risen in the social hierarchy. A chance meeting sets him reminiscing about the woman who taught him music when he was a child, an aloof and free-spirited woman called Clara ‘Bounce’ Dawlish who was never held in high esteem by Stilbourne’s respectable society. Bounce scandalised the town by getting involved with a humble Welsh chauffeur called Henry Williams – “poor, hard-working, eager to improve himself, a lover of music and a first-class mechanic.” Ironically, during the decades that followed, Henry – who represents technological and financial modernity – opened a garage in Stilbourne, built up a business and became its most powerful inhabitant, thus disrupting the established order.
As I embarked on this final novella, I expected what I was reading to become a sweet, wistful meditation on the impossibility of conducting a romance across the class divide in a closed-minded community. However, the story proves to be more twisted. It incorporates manipulation, betrayal and eventually madness, and neither Bounce nor Henry emerge from it particularly well. Also, a last-minute comment from Oliver himself changes our perception, disturbingly, of how he’d viewed Bounce and her relationship with Henry.
As this entry should make clear, the class system is the monster in whose baleful gaze the incidents of The Pyramid take place. (Incidentally, I assume this is why the novel is called The Pyramid, because it refers to the shape of the social hierarchy, with many at the bottom and few at the top). It pervades the three stories as unwelcomingly but as powerfully as the fly-smothered pig’s head that proclaims itself the beast in Lord of the Flies.
I used to have a rather fanciful notion of what William Golding was like. When he was still alive, white-bearded and venerable-looking, I imagined him as a cross between a grizzled old sea-dog and a wise old mystic, a figure partly Ferdinand Magellan and partly Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was a surprise when, last year, I read an article by Robert McCrum in the Observer, in which McCrum described a less serene William Golding, a man tortured by feelings of class inferiority. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/11/william-golding-crisis.)
Mentioning Golding’s daughter, Judy Carver, McCrum writes: “But he was never at ease, even with literary recognition. When I came to know him, many years later when I was an editorial director at Faber and Faber, he was by then garlanded with both the Booker and the Nobel prizes. But he always struck me as someone who was not just socially awkward, but mildly belligerent about his awkwardness, too. His daughter says that, with her father, the touchy subject of class is something ‘you cannot make too much of’. She adds that ‘the good burghers of Marlborough’ (where her father grew up) never failed to arouse the most bitter feelings of social inadequacy. For Golding the class gulf was ‘as real as a wound’, and contributed to terrible episodes of rage throughout his life.” I don’t know how much truth there are in McCrum and Carver’s comments – but The Pyramid certainly provides evidence to support them.
The other monster stalking the pages of The Pyramid is the small-town nosiness that compels everyone to find out about everyone else’s business and to pass (usually disdainful) judgement on it. Stilbourne comes across as being as tiny, as mercilessly exposed and as maddeningly claustrophobic as the little tooth of rock on which the title character finds himself stranded in Golding’s Pincher Martin. Emblematic of this is Oliver’s mother, who “(l)ike all the women in our Square… was a habitual detective. They, the women, were not satisfied with the railed-off enclosure before each house, nor with the spring-locked doors… My frail little mother, then, might stand behind our muslin curtains for half an hour, watching to find what a new hat, a meeting, a gesture, an expression even, could reveal.”
With such monsters at large in the social milieu of Stilbourne, one might conclude that young Oliver is not that much better off than Ralph, Piggy, Jack and company, stuck on the most famous desert island in 20th-century English-language literature.