‘Darkness Visible’ is William Golding’s first novel for twelve years

John Bayley thinks it is his best, and thinks of him as a magician

  • Darkness Visible by William Golding
    Faber, 256 pp, £4.95, January 1979, ISBN 0 571 11646 9

Borges has written (and it is certainly true of Borges) that the writer is like a member of a primitive tribe who suddenly starts making unfamiliar noises and waving his arms about in strange new rituals. The others gather round to look. Often they soon get bored and wander off, but sometimes they become hypnotised, remain spellbound until the rite comes to an end, adopt it as a part of tribal behaviour.

A simple analogy, but it does fit some novelists and tale-tellers, preoccupied in the midst of us with their homespun magic. They are not modish, not part of any literary establishment. Nor is there anything of the showman about them: Dickens was a magician in another sense, the sense that goes with the melodrama and music hall, and tribal magicians are not creators as Dickens and Hardy were. They do not invent a whole natural world of their own in which the client can lead a solitary life; their appeal has something communal, as the Borges image suggests, and the shareability of a cult. A largely Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, with a suggestion of Beowulf about it (another of the Borges admirations), and The Lord of the Rings as one of its longer, more popular texts. America lacks this type of magician – the shamans there are grander, more worldly, more pretentious – and the German-style version of Hesse or Grass is too instinctively metaphysical, not homespun enough. Richard Hughes was one of our most effective local magicians; John Fowles has become one; William Golding has had the status a long time.

His new novel confirms him as a master craftsman in his particular sort of magic. It is beautifully constructed, it grips the reader – so much so that its effectiveness gives it the air, a little disturbingly, of being closer to one of those rather different pieces of master-craft by Graham Greene or Le Carré than to its own progenitors. But this resemblance is no bad sign. It indicates change and maturity, a greater toughness and naturalness. In fact, this seems to me Golding’s best book yet, compounding and refining the virtues of The Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and Free Fall, and avoiding the weaknesses of The Spire – that all too Shavian exercise in the medieval picturesque – and the rather nervelessly genteel social reminiscence of The Pyramid, Golding’s last novel, now 12 years old.

The weakness of The Pyramid has been turned in some measure into the strength of Darkness Visible. Its meticulous, uneasy kinds of social questioning, seeming there consciously muted and damped down, have now found a new kind of certainty and force. The Pyramid was a depressing book: Darkness Visible is in a sense a hopeless one, but far from depressing.

          … yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell.

Milton’s lines were presumably very much in Mr Golding’s mind. His narrative begins in the Blitz, when the firemen manning a pump see a burnt child approaching them down a burning street. The creature is eventually reconstituted after long spells in hospital, sent to school, found a sort of job in a moribund hardware emporium. No one knows where he comes from; he fits in nowhere; he seems barely to belong to the human race. His scarred appearance is so repulsive that he is disliked all the more by those who show him charity, because their principles compel them not to turn their heads away. At school, a master who loves boys is accidentally exposed by him, which results in dismissal and imprisonment, while the boy the master loves is found dead after falling off the roof.

Matty, the name given the misfit, is deeply but confusedly troubled by these events. He discovers the Bible: he goes to Australia. After various jobs and difficulties he comes back, still trying to find out who he is, and what he is for. He keeps a diary, and becomes convinced that angels of a kind are giving him commands and leading him towards some event. He gets a menial job at a posh private school where the well-brought-up little boys take a polite but wholly natural interest in his disfigurements. This makes him love them. He still mourns for the fate of Mr Pedigree, who couldn’t bear him. He sees two angelically beautiful small girls looking into a bookseller’s window, and he prays for them also.

*

At this point Part I ends. Part II takes up the life of the little girls, twins: Toni, the odd dreamy one, and Sophy, with whose consciousness we are in touch. Their divorced father is vaguely distinguished and well-off, a chess and music critic; they live with grans, mistresses, au pairs. Golding’s brilliance at conveying the consciousness of the young has never been more exact, but to what purpose? We apprehend through a growing and repulsive sense of tedium, tedium conveyed (as it might be in Gogol, who ends a story with the words: ‘Things are tedious in this world, gentlemen’) through a narrative grip and persuasiveness which is the very reverse of tedious. Neither hell nor heaven lies about the infancy of these two, but something worse. What is it for? The reader’s first reaction is to feel that here is magic turned inside out; that, although wonderfully under control, the novel has joined the ranks of those numerous other more or less modern novels whose pride and purpose seems to consist in establishing the dullness of experience, its inherent squishiness, its nausée.

Not so, however. There is a reason why growth in this case is the growth of absence, non-feeling. At seventeen or so Toni leaves home and becomes, by easy stages – overland to Afghanistan, conferences in Cuba – a presumptive terrorist. Piqued into competition, Sophy joins the criminal classes via a series of hitch-hiking experiences, deliberately incurred. The twins, ‘everything to each other’, have felt too little for hatred or love. They come together again as the novel gathers itself carefully together and pours itself over the edge of an effective climax: the school, hostages, fire, and Matty, seeking to save, vanishing into it as he had emerged from it at the beginning. The end, which succeeds the climax and brings Mr Pedigree back, is extremely moving.

Reaction afterwards, though, may be disappointment at what seems the patness of the fable: terrorists, hostages, the emptiness of evil, all things running down into aimlessness. It is an odd thing, certainly, that any novel today which tries to make use of what seems the all-important topicality risks the slightly forlorn air of yesterday’s newspaper: what seems all-important has inevitably moved just a shade further on. But this is not a real disability, and Golding is right to stare it down. Novels have always had a time-lag between their sense of a subject and the present – Dostoevsky’s Devils were some way back, as was Dickens’s Circumlocution Office and Hardy’s ‘new woman’, Sue – and it is not the fault of the contemporary novel that the lag may look obvious if it is no more than a weekend.

A truer weakness could be the schematic contrasting of the characters: Golding has always been a little uncertain on the natural reality of the figures whom he manipulates for thoughtful, magical ends. How misfits grow up cannot easily be demonstrated convincingly by a novelist who has planned what is to happen (Elizabeth Bowen failed at the same technique in The Heat of the Day), but at the same time the childhood of those two is given a wonderfully creepy quality, which would not be retrospectively diminished had they settled down as blameless housewives in Gerrard’s Cross. Unfeelingness, like goodness, can take any way. But the real triumph of the book is Matty himself. Golding makes no attempt to suggest that someone like this would come out of that kind of early experience. Matty is just good, in his own laborious hopeless way, and to make that clear – and the place of his desperate, do-it-yourself religion in it – is a remarkable achievement.

For Golding, the magical and the moral are very closely allied, may even be the same thing. The source of his success, and his stature as a novelist, lies in the way in which he can persuade us that the novelist’s manipulation of his material – his magic power – is essentially a moral activity (which is not the case with those conventionalised moral formulae through which a Graham Greene or Le Carré operate). To succeed, such a novelist must work outside his convictions – if indeed he has any – and must allow the hypnotic concentration of his originality to do the job for him. Often Golding has failed in this: Piggy in The Lord of the Flies was too evidently pre-selected as the decent human norm. But Matty is a different matter. There is nothing normative about him at all, but virtue shines forth and the fire displays it, making other things than darkness visible. As well as hope, the novel casts out nostalgia, but Matty’s Bible is there, and the impulses that lead him to others; his nature is determined as much as that of Mr Pedigree, the lover of little boys. But what of the undetermined nature, the sort that like Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov is ‘nothing in particular’? It is into that gulf that the novel runs down, carrying our interest every inch of the way.