Theophany

Frank Kermode

  • William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’ by John Carey
    Faber, 573 pp, £25.00, ISBN 0 571 23163 2

John Carey has had access to voluminous archives stored in the Faber basement or in the keeping of William Golding’s family. No one else may see them; he alone can quote from unpublished novels, journals, memoirs, correspondence and conversations. He has made excellent use of these privileges, and the result is a full, friendly, and on proper occasions candid, account of a remarkable man, who took a long time to achieve an understanding of how truly remarkable he was, and then did so only fitfully.

Carey’s prose has a deliberate, unaffected quality, a cool and sympathetic style appropriate to his account of a hero often fighting against his own rather gloomy modesty, now relishing and now resenting his embarrassing celebrity. Golding has been fortunate in his biographer, and he, in his turn, has been fortunate to be entrusted with such a subject, a man who not only wrote some remarkable books but also had a life that turned out to be far more interesting than he could have predicted when he settled reluctantly into a career as a provincial grammar school master (he had no great skill as a teacher, though he was of independent intellect and had an enduring, endearing passion for Homeric Greek). He owed a great debt to the example of an ingenious schoolmaster father, and to a period of service in the navy that must later have been an important factor in the transformation of teacher into author.

As a boy Golding was, like his father, a talented musician. He played half a dozen instruments, with a preference for the piano, at which he thought he might have reached a high level but for his left-handedness. In any case his father put an end to thoughts of a musical career by forcing him to go to Oxford. Golding loathed Oxford with what seems an almost morbid intensity. He had a special dislike for Brasenose, described by Carey as a college to which the public schools sent their least interesting men. His sojourn there – the lone grammar school product of his year, stranded among the philistines – was a disaster. He seems, in his Oxford years, to have been sullen as well as poor and lonely. Carey, who is Merton Professor of English, pauses to consider whether Golding was right to think he would have been happier at Merton, a much grander college, but decides with little hesitation that it would have made no difference: Golding would have been regarded as an inferior anywhere in Oxford. Carey cites surviving donnish reports on Golding as a candidate for various positions: when he applied to do a diploma in education he was described as fit only for day schools, and labelled, in what Carey calls middle-class slang, N.T.S. – ‘not top shelf’ – and Not Quite, meaning ‘not quite a gentleman’. He played his piano, too loudly in the opinion of some dons; he stole some books, ran up debts to the college, got a second-class degree and, rather surprisingly, published a slender book of poems.

In his schooldays, when he was living in Marlborough in Wiltshire and attending the local grammar school, he had conceived and nursed a hatred for the neighbouring public school as a place of privileged superiority; and his resentful, even vengeful attitude to that school and others like it evidently persisted at Oxford and into his later life.

With the aid of a memoir Golding wrote for the eyes only of his wife, Carey has been able to comment on the author’s early sexual experiences, which included an assault on a 15-year-old girl; he himself thought of it as an attempted rape. But she took a crafty revenge by luring him into alfresco sex in a scene Golding’s father was able to observe through his binoculars. Carey notes a certain desire on Golding’s part – in his books as well as in life – to compel women into submission, and there does seem to have been an element of violence in his sexual adventures, as there was, he admitted, in his personality more largely considered. Carey tells of a drunken assault on a Bob Dylan puppet belonging to the writer Andrew Sinclair and kept in his house, in a bedroom used by the Goldings. Waking in the night, Golding mistook the puppet for Satan, attacked it and buried it in the garden. There are other reports of barely credible drunken violence and insult. Sometimes it seems that his novel Pincher Martin is a nightmare autobiography or ‘confession’, and in fact that is what Golding himself called it. One can also detect an association between sexual violence and creative inspiration. In the posthumous novel The Double Tongue – very likely the least read of his books – Arieka, the girl chosen to speak for the Delphic oracle, must be raped before she can prophesy.

Golding once remarked that had he been born in Germany he would have been a Nazi. But this confession should be considered along with evidence that shows him to have been a generous and accessible man, with a deep, almost superstitious respect for goodness in others. He honoured that sanctity, which he first sought to express in the character of Simon in Lord of the Flies. Hence his special interest in the case of the curé d’Ars, a semi-literate French village priest, born in 1786 and canonised in 1925. Such was the fame of this priest as a confessor that the faithful arrived in busloads. He is said to have treated, or confessed, 120,000 penitents in one year, spending 16 hours or more a day in the confessional. Having solved with ease many difficult spiritual problems, and having effected a great many cures, he was proclaimed by Pius X the patron saint of all the parish priests of the world. He himself suffered much from his own mortifications and was plagued for years by poltergeist phenomena. These he dealt with calmly, attributing them to the action of the devil.

Golding, who once asserted to some dinner companions that saints were the most interesting things it was possible to talk about – especially ‘miraculous, levitating saints’ – praised this French curé in his lecture ‘Rough Magic’, and clearly admired the man’s long and successful struggle against the opposing forces of evil. He explained to his editor, Charles Monteith, that Matty in Darkness Visible was meant to be a saint, like Simon and the curé d’Ars and St Thérèse of Lisieux. ‘It’s a figure I’ve tried for again and again and I suppose Matty in Darkness Visible is as near as I shall ever get.’ But chiefly he wants to assert an affinity between the saint and the creative artist. The priest’s inexplicable but incontrovertible power was to know people, ‘to see clean through’ his penitents. It could be said that Flaubert, George Eliot and Dostoevsky shared that power; and it might also be said that Golding himself aspired to it.

That aspiration was already evident in an unpublished novel called Circle under the Sea, of which Carey is able to give an account. In it Golding divides his own personality between two characters, one a yachtsman with ‘a capacity for supernatural experiences’, a peaceful, rather fat man with a spiritual insight into evil; the other an ineffective, underpaid schoolmaster with an interest in prehistory, a longing for fame and a drink problem. He was, of course, both these characters, but the first was the one he thought well of.

Golding acknowledged a belief in original sin as necessary to any explanation of the darkness of the human lot, and he knew what it meant to experience the uncanny or unheimlich. ‘Uncanny’ originally meant ‘mischievous’, ‘malicious’, ‘unreliable’, but already it was moving towards its modern sense, strengthened by an affinity with Freud’s term. There was probably some involvement, too, with the fear of the supernatural, ‘uncanny stones’ of Stonehenge. Emerson’s description of Stonehenge as ‘uncanny stones’ is cited in OED as an early instance of the developing modern sense of the word, which came to be more strongly associated with a fear of the supernatural. At much the same time there was a vogue for Rudolf Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy, which, as it happens, cites Stonehenge as an instance of what Otto called ‘the numinous’, a concept, some maintain, that may be welcomed by people who avoid more usual religious categories, but wish, as Golding did, to speak of perceptions of good and evil that mostly elude description, especially in rationalist epochs like the present. It seems likely that Golding would have found these related ideas congenial. He is known to have planned, but seems not to have written, a story about Stonehenge, which is just down the road from where he lived in Wiltshire. Many episodes in his fiction as well as in his life called for a supernaturalism remote from that offered by official religions, a language to deal with dreadful experiences like the apparition of the stag which terrified him in childhood, or the horror in the cellar (as remembered in Free Fall it might be the slime of human decomposition), or the ‘skittering’ stones under the collapsing spire – symptoms of an evil that is countered only by the sanctity of rare individuals. Carey believes that ‘moments of profundity and uncanniness’ harmed the chances of Circle under the Sea, which has indeed never been published.

That may explain what is otherwise rather puzzling: the vagaries of Golding’s reputation. In the decade after the publication of Lord of the Flies in 1954 he published The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall and The Spire – four novels of extraordinary originality and power, which brought him fame and eventually the Nobel Prize. Here, it might have been assumed, was a writer of such force and variety that one might expect something closer than usual to critical unanimity. Part of the explanation may be that each book was so different from its predecessor – something Golding rather prided himself on – that the new one might seem to disappoint expectations, might even look like a falling-off. There was the example of Lord of the Flies; despite its good reception and virtually unprecedented later success it encountered some hostile comment, perhaps because some read it as if it really were the sort of book that was spiked by Faber’s first reader; indeed, thanks to her, it stood a good chance of never being published at all. Had it been scrapped it seems possible that it would have had no successors.

The story of its escape is well known: a professional reader employed by Faber mistook it for a bad book of a sort she was all too familiar with. Only the skill and persistence of the publisher Charles Monteith saved it. The grubby typescript, the polite resistance of his boardroom colleagues, finally the tiny advance on royalties, all this is calmly set forth by Carey. Monteith, still a junior member of the firm, struggled against heavy opposition to keep it alive.

Yet it must be remembered that even he disliked certain aspects of the book and insisted on several changes, here studied, illuminatingly, by Carey. Monteith was especially worried by the boy Simon. Golding wanted him to experience a theophany, the manifestation of a god. Monteith thought it would be enough to make Simon ‘in some ways odd, different, withdrawn’. He admitted that the theophany was ‘the imaginative foundation’ of the book, but wanted it ‘buried’, pointing out that foundations are meant to be built on and concealed. Golding agreed that he was given to overstatement and toned down the passages that worried Monteith. Simon’s behaviour was now explicable in terms that seemed less bizarre to the publisher. You feel that, at this moment, while the Faber editors continually debated the value of the book and Monteith made his careful suggestions for its improvement, Golding would have done almost anything to get it into print. Carey provides an admirable account of the negotiations. One can be glad that the death of Simon survives intact in its extraordinary, numinous beauty. Golding liked to represent certain actions as entailing the co-operation of the cosmos, and Simon’s death offers him perhaps his finest opportunity to do so.

Monteith, the critic who wished to deny Simon his theophany, remained Golding’s friend and editor thereafter. Their correspondence was to continue for 40 years. A London fellow of All Souls, Monteith was well suited to the business of publishing, being at once highly literate and an able businessman. In seeing great merit in Golding’s book, yet feeling able to criticise it almost destructively, he was doing the writer a service which he would repeat, only less doggedly for the novels that followed. For his criticism was in its way just; Golding agreed that he was inclined to go over the top, though he might well have added that his whole method depended on his preserving the right to do so, as in the terrific opening pages of Darkness Visible when Matty emerges, aflame, from the fires of the Blitz.

Matty, as Golding himself said, was the character who binds together so many of his concerns: sanctity, the uncanny, the numinous. They are found elsewhere, in Pincher Martin, in Rites of Passage, in The Double Tongue. Since he had to write like that, he had also to accept the obvious criticisms. Before long it would appear that Monteith’s adverse opinion was shared by other capable judges. It was easy to dismiss the book as either a contribution to or a parody of the genre to which Faber’s first reader had consigned it. Only a year or so later, The Inheritors, that beautifully imagined, poetic fable, could be dismissed as a freak, and Pincher Martin, another imaginative triumph, trivialised and misunderstood. Golding soon came to hate and fear the newspaper critics, and later the academics, flourishing their arcane interpretations.

As Golding’s talent reached its apogee, one increasingly heard his books criticised (despite many audible and intelligent notes of praise) as naive or obvious or spurious. He could hardly complain of neglect. Eventually, and thanks mostly to the mad success of Lord of the Flies, he became so rich that his problem was what to do with money that refused to be burned even by lavish expenditure on boats, cars and travel. His way of life was transformed. He even joined the chorus of the rich in protesting about the level of income tax. His rate of production slowed; after Free Fall there was a two-year gap in which he did nothing in the way of fiction, and he sometimes feared there was no more to say. It doesn’t appear that he enjoyed his years of intermission, his ‘gap’. He took pleasure, though not to excess, in his celebrity; he was uneasy with ideas of fame that were not natural to him, or which attributed to him powers he did not claim. He wrote novels about very large and important subjects but insisted he was not a sage, not a guru, not a prophet.

Somewhere about 1961 or 1962 there occurred this episode. At the time I was teaching at Manchester University, and I answered an unexpected summons to lunch from two very eminent physicists. These men lived constantly aware of a horrific but ill-defined threat from ‘certain structures’, of the existence of which, they said, their work daily reminded them. They could not understand why there seemed to be no real public awareness of this immediate threat, and had decided that it must be given wide and powerful publicity. To whom should they turn for advice? Naively, they chose the professor of English. Of course they were not asking me to sound the alarm myself, but to nominate for the job a literary personage highly esteemed by both his professional peers and the general public. There was plenty of money available to fund the enterprise, and it seemed that nothing but good could come of it.

Various names were mentioned, but Golding’s easily prevailed. Having agreed, not cheerfully, to give the idea a try he came north and was given a dinner, during which he said almost nothing. The physicists talked and drew sketches and finally remarked that if you threw six dice you can be pretty sure they will not all come to rest with the sixes on top. But if you threw them thousands of times it might well happen at least once, and the odds on the catastrophe that was troubling them were as good as that.

Golding said little and was still silent as we drove back to my place, but when we were settled in he complained a bit about being dragged into a position in which his false reputation for wisdom had betrayed him. After much thought he offered a solution that depended on the availability of copious television advertising time. One of the professors should be shown, live, every half-hour or so, rolling his dice. Perhaps there would be suitable music, a few well-chosen and alarming words, or other inducements to listen and watch. It was a rotten idea, and he knew it, and I was sorry to have let him in for it. It was an odd part of the price he paid for innocently radiating wisdom, for somehow allowing himself to be treated as the sort of sage he had no ambition to be. For, as he wrote in one of the pieces in A Moving Target, he was, when all was said, ‘an ageing novelist, floundering in all the complexities of 20th-century living, all the muddle of part beliefs’. Better still, he was just an artist, that was his job.

Carey thinks he was inspired by fear, and this is true. It was not simply a fear of God or the devil or even of the supernatural as he had experienced it. He also knew fear in a simpler and perhaps more urgent form, a variety more familiar to people of his age who did not miss the war. Golding knew the war at sea, the long ordeal of the Atlantic convoys; he became an efficient officer and commanded a warship, a rocket-ship, small but very powerfully armed and dangerous to friend as well as enemy, at the Normandy landings and again in the important action at Walcheren, of which Carey provides a skilfully reconstructed account. Things went awry there, and there were heavy casualties. ‘Memories of Walcheren haunted him for the rest of his life.’ He had to live, like many of his contemporaries, with memories of dead friends and the knowledge that he had probably killed a number of people. These experiences didn’t scare him away from boats, and he and his family were run down in the Channel by a Japanese freighter, another moment under the threat of death. He was a brave man and competent under extremely stressful conditions. His courage was an essential part of the terror with which he contemplated the beauty of his private world. When one looks at the list of his novels, including the remarkable late trilogy beginning with Rites of Passage, one is again struck by the originality and power of his mind, the variety of his invention. That he was a profoundly religious man may now be held against him, but it remains a cause of wonder that modern English literature has been so diffident about establishing him among the greatest.