The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’
by John Carey
Free Press, 592 pp., $32.50
Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Spill her blood!
Just pronounce those words and anyone who’s been to high school during the last 50 years will instantly remember their source: William Golding’s great and greatly disturbing Lord of the Flies. I would guess that it’s the most widely taught 20th-century British novel in America. The only serious competition that comes to mind is another fable, George Orwell’s more intransigently political Animal Farm.
Yet while almost anyone can name other works by Orwell, starting with Nineteen Eighty-Four and the much-studied essay “Politics and the English Language,” I suspect that few American readers know any of William Golding’s other novels. This is a pity, for he is—as John Carey’s superb biography shows—one of the essential novelists of the second half of the 20th century, possessed of an unflinching vision of both the human condition and the doleful human comedy. If you want to situate so sui generis a writer as Golding, imagine a cross between Thomas Mann and Marilynne Robinson: All three of them highly intellectual, yet full of deeply felt emotion, obsessed with the nature of good and evil, alive to sexual tensions and ambiguities, and nothing if not serious about the art of fiction.
Only a few years after its publication in 1954, Lord of the Flies had already become something of an albatross to Golding; he once even dismissed it as relatively minor. His own favorite among his novels was his second, The Inheritors (1955), in which early man, Homo Sapiens, commits the first genocide by wiping out the last band of loping, ape-like Neanderthals. It’s the only other Golding book that people sometimes know, in part because fantasy and science fiction fans have adopted it as one of their own. Golding himself probably wouldn’t object to this, since he was himself an avid reader of sc-fi.
Indeed, there have been interpretations of The Inheritors that claim the novel isn’t about the past at all; that it actually reveals a future in which mankind has been bombed into the stone age. The book thus describes the first steps in the march back toward technological civilization—and probably to another holocaust. From this perspective, it may be linked not only to Lord of the Flies (actually set during an imagined World War III) but also to such dystopian visions of tribalized life after nuclear disaster as Stephen Vincent Benét’s famous story “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980).
But whether located in the past or future, The Inheritors does what a great work of art should always do: It makes us see with new eyes. The novel’s point of view is largely that of Lok, a proto-hominid with the mental age of a human two-year-old, who almost incomprehendingly suffers the destruction of his “people,” of his very species. As a moralist, Golding compels us to recognize that humankind’s dominance on this planet has always come at the expense of other creatures—and yet he doesn’t portray the smarter Homo Sapiens as evil or sinful. They, or rather We, are the next big thing. But for Lok and his kind? This is the way the world ends.
Golding’s third novel, Pincher Martin (1956), is yet another tour de force: It opens with a man drowning, fighting for his life:
He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place—burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. He hutched his body towards the place where air had been but now it was gone and there was nothing but black, choking welter. His body let loose its panic and his mouth strained open till the hinges of his jaw hurt. Water thrust in, down, without mercy.
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:
Time: the Future. Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.
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
Michael Dirda is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure.