The case for William Golding
Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Naval Lt. Christopher Martin’s ship has apparently blown up, and somehow he manages to make his way to a tiny Atlantic atoll, just a bit of rock, and there he attempts to survive. As time goes by, Martin remembers his cruel and dishonorable past, he hallucinates, he rants at God. Not so much a stripped-down version of Robinson Crusoe, Golding’s novel should instead be likened to a journey through a dark night of the soul. In fact, things are darker than we initially realize, for Pincher Martin is a novel with a secret, and its conclusion recalls one of the most famous of all 19th-century American short stories.
Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin—these three nightmarish existential visions of man’s inhumanity and suffering, one right after the other, would themselves justify the Nobel Prize that William Golding was awarded in 1983. But there are still other books, arguably just as fine, in particular The Spire (1964), about the moral costs in building a medieval cathedral’s tower, Darkness Visible (1979), which interlaces a story of mystical vocation with a terrorist plot, and the Booker Prize-winning Rites of Passage (1980), about an emotionally and spiritually storm-wracked sea voyage to Australia in the early 19th century. The latter was followed by two sequels, Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989). Parts of this angst-ridden trilogy—collectively titled To the Ends of the Earth—can be strangely comic, especially if you regard the unnamed vessel as a modern ship of fools.
William Golding was born in 1911, the son of an imaginative schoolmaster and a sensitive mother. He grew up playing the piano and once thought about a concert hall career. After finishing his degree at Oxford, where he studied natural science and English, he even worked for a while as an actor. During the 1930s Golding hewed politically to the left, partly because he viewed himself as a member of the working class. Throughout his life he was to regard the rich, posh, or aristocratic with suspicion and disdain.
At first, the young Golding imagined himself a poet, and Macmillan brought out a book of his rather Georgian verse as early as 1934. But he still needed to make a living, especially after he married a beautiful woman named Ann, who was slightly his social superior. Their marriage was to be, for the most part, a happy one, though Golding seems to have been an inveterate flirt—and perhaps more. (Carey is suggestive but still circumspect about possible infidelities.) To support Ann and, before long, their children Judy and David, he decided to become a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury. The behavior of Ralph, Piggy, and Simon in Lord of the Flies, and especially the savagery of Jack and Roger, are based on Golding’s own classroom experiences and observations.
During World War II, Golding served in the Royal Navy, participating in the D-Day invasion as the commander of a rocket-boat, a rather cumbersome barge-like craft loaded with missile-launchers. In a near suicidal operation at Walcheren, LCT (R) 331 managed to shell German defenses and get safely away, but virtually all the other ships, manned by Golding’s comrades, were not so lucky.
In later years, Golding would often revert to a hearty Cap’n Bill persona, a bluff, balding mariner with a beard who couldn’t possibly have written his sensitive and philosophical novels. Yet Cap’n Bill also possessed a real appetite for learning: Golding was so drawn to Homer and the Athenian dramatists that he taught himself ancient Greek. Behind the ritualized horrors of Lord of the Flies there clearly lurks the novelist’s memory of Euripides’ The Bacchae, in which crazed maenads tear apart and apparently devour the hapless Pentheus.
Meanwhile, during school breaks and sometimes even during classtime, Golding worked away on his fiction. One novel, Strangers from Within, made the rounds of most of the London publishers before it finally reached Faber and Faber. There, it was given to a professional reader, who scribbled the following report: