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Piggy’s Back

The case for William Golding

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Every writer needs a bit of luck, and Golding’s now appeared in the shape of a new young Faber editor. Charles Monteith had been with the firm for about a month, but one day happened to pick up a shabby typescript from the reject pile. This was late September 1953. Monteith began to read Strangers from Within, eventually taking it home. Let Carey take over in telling the story:

The first pages described a nuclear war, and contained no characters at all. Later, attention switched earthwards, where there was a hurriedly organized evacuation of schoolchildren. The planes in which they flew had detachable cabins, “passenger tubes,” which could float to earth beneath giant parachutes. Then the focus switched to a particular plane, to a fierce air battle over the Pacific, to the release of the passenger tube, to a tropical island and—at last—to some human beings, who were all boys.

Monteith eventually cut all this preliminary matter, and asked Golding to tone down Simon’s Christ-like character, this latter change being one that Golding eventually came to regret. Still, it’s clear that Monteith was an invaluable partner in the creation of Golding’s first published novel, and in all those that followed. Typically, the writer would send Monteith his typescripts, expressing great uncertainty about their quality. Monteith would nearly always praise what he saw, announce that he was willing to publish the book as it stood, then suggest possible changes, while encouraging his author in every way. The working relationship turned into a friendship and paid off handsomely for both men: Over the years Monteith rose in the firm, eventually becoming chairman of Faber, his stable including Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, Tom Stoppard, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and of course, William Golding. 

When Lord of the Flies appeared in 1954, Golding was 42 years old. In England, the book received enthusiastic reviews without becoming a runaway bestseller. In the United States, it was published by Coward-McCann, which sold a couple  thousand copies and remaindered the rest. I own a first American edition because my steelworker father would sometimes pick up cheap department store remainders to stock the bookcase he had built for his children. He told me that he paid 59 cents for the novel—its green jacket, showing jungle scenery, bears the words: “The Struggle for Survival in a World without Adults.” Today, a fine copy of the American first of Lord of the Flies sells for a thousand dollars. The English first can go for ten times that.


 

Golding was still a schoolmaster when The Inheritors and Pincher Martin appeared. Only in 1962 did he finally give up his day job. Shortly thereafter, Lord of the Flies began its second life, as students somehow discovered the book and it became all the rage on American campuses. Since then it has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages.

Golding did take a job as a visiting writer at Hollins College just before his boom years started, and he would lecture with increasing frequency at university campuses around the world. For the last 30 years of his life, and largely because of Lord of the Flies, Golding was able to travel, afford an expensive boat—sailing remained his chief pleasure and he regularly took his family on nautical holidays—and even complain about British taxes. But he also worked steadily, not only on his fiction but on essays and travel articles for magazines, many of them collected in The Hot Gates (1965) and A Moving Target (1982). He and Ann visited Italy, Greece, the United States, Canada, Egypt, India, Australia, Japan.

For a late starter, William Golding managed to do very well for himself, being made a companion of literature in the summer of 1983 (along with Graham Greene and Samuel Beckett), winning the Nobel Prize later that same year, and then being knighted in 1988. Nonetheless, he remained uneasy at lavish soirees and parties, often drinking too much and growing testy with other guests. He was happiest mucking around in his garden and messing about in boats. On the day before he died, Golding was up on a ladder cleaning out his gutters. That evening he threw a party, drank a lot, passed out in an empty bathtub, and was put to bed in his son’s room. The next morning he was discovered lying on the floor, crouched in the fetal position. He was 81.

John Carey pointedly hopes that this admiring life will lead to a greater appreciation of a magnificent writer, now sadly neglected. As such, it is really a critical biography, containing as much material about the various novels as about their author’s day-to-day existence. (In this regard, note that the book does reveal Golding’s plots, which some readers may find distressing.) Throughout, Carey draws heavily on unpublished diaries and manuscripts, and the result feels definitive. Moreover, as befits the chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times, Carey writes with exemplary clarity, efficiency, and wit. As an emeritus professor of English at Merton College, Oxford, he also brings to bear great learning and critical authority.

Yes, William Golding was “the man who wrote Lord of the Flies,” but only in the sense that Samuel Beckett was the man who wrote Waiting for Godot and Vladimir Nabokov the man who wrote Lolita. All three of those works made their authors rich and famous, but such undoubted masterpieces are themselves only parts of larger oeuvres. One might even argue that Endgame is Beckett’s greatest play, and Pale Fire Nabokov’s most Nabokovian novel. John Carey’s excellent biography reminds us that William Golding produced not just one remarkable book but an entire shelf
of them.

Michael Dirda is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure.


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