Superplot

Frank Kermode

  • The Paper Men by William Golding
    Faber, 191 pp, £7.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 571 13206 5
  • William Golding: A Critical Study by Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor
    Faber, 291 pp, £3.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 571 13259 6

Even in the days of what is now called ‘classical realism’ it was understood that plot, as a human contrivance meant to suggest intelligible causal relations between history-like events, could sometimes seem to be shadowed by other and larger plots, of uncertain and superhuman provenance. The relation between the two sorts of plot will vary – it is not the same in George Eliot and Hardy, but in both there is such a relation. Later, when to be modern meant to be inquisitive about technical refinement, one might have the story told by somebody unaware of its larger plot, which is what Ford Madox Ford arranged.

Ford was a Catholic of sorts, but it may be that it takes writers of more profound or more extreme religious conviction to express the relation of the human and the supernatural plots. Such writers were the subject, some thirty years ago, of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Maria Cross, and anybody who doubts that the relation between human and divine plotting can be rich to the point of scandal should look again at that splendid book, with special attention, perhaps, to Léon Bloy: the membrum virile as symbol of the Cross, male orgasm of the death of Christ (emisit spiritum) etc. Less amazing artists – Muriel Spark, for example – might accept the more temperate Christian realism of Auerbach: each event signifies ‘something other’ but ‘without prejudice to the power of its concrete reality here and now’.

William Golding is obviously in some sense a religious writer, though not Catholic, and the formula of Auerbach applies reasonably well to what he attempts. But he is concerned with the interpenetration of man-made and supernatural plotting rather from the point of view of one who sees the latter not insinuated but violently and imperiously intruded into the former. Such intrusions are part of what his latest hero calls asisness, or Istigkeit, part of the here and now, not really a matter of two-level plotting but a bizarre fusion that is simple and single. Anybody who has suffered as much sophomoric critical comment as Golding would be as fed up as he is with attempts to explain all this by taking it apart, and some of his disgust gets into the new book. Yet it cannot be true that such books invite no comment beyond ‘this is how, according to him, things are’; they invite and require the interpretative efforts he finds so tedious.

It is partly because of the nakedness of this invitation that some prefer to leave Golding to the academics. Another reason might be that something about his work stirs unhappy memories of fashions too recently discarded – of Mauriac, say, and his wish to ‘make perceptible, tangible, odorous, the Catholic universe of evil’, here repeated without even the sanction of orthodoxy, and a generation too late. Thus the remarkable intensity of The Spire may be called barren; the union of spiritual achievement and human corruption is not a topic that often comes up in our world, but if it had a more orthodox basis it might pass. Then we could relate it to a very long tradition of Christian conceits, with a secure foothold in European literary traditions. But the spirituality of The Spire can seem too hectic and even too literary to be treated thus, and the supernaturalism of Darkness Visible may be read as a forced manicheanism, a sort of going it alone outside the tradition – the kind of thing Arnold thought provincial.

Some such argument might be used in charitable explanation of certain reactions to Golding’s Nobel Prize, especially in the US, and especially among people who have read little of him since Lord of the Flies. For it seems that the perception of Golding’s quality does depend in some measure on acquaintance with his work as a whole. There is nothing very surprising about this. The need to understand particular works in terms of an artist’s whole oeuvre has been called a distinctive feature of 20th-century painting, for the older kind of dialogue with tradition broke down; the criticism of Leo Steinberg, so delicate in its way of relating a work to its context in the oeuvre, so subtle about the now very complex relation to tradition, is a model of the right sort of response. But in writing about fiction we experience some vulgar inhibition that may prevent our speaking of Golding as Steinberg speaks of Rauschenberg or Picasso. So we have to put up with critics, hired because they presumably know what’s what, appearing on television to call Golding a fraud, or talking about him as some kind of simpleton or holy roller. Possibly his rather long silence was in part a response to such expressions of distaste. If so, he has got over it; the later Golding is very confident, one feels, and his confidence rests on what he has done as well as on a resurgent power that in part derives from it. Anyway, the as-is still contains those supernatural intrusions; he is still studying the evidence that it encapsulates apocalypse.

It is important to him, and to us if we accept that he has made it important to us, that the commonplace will contain these intrusions (for such they ordinarily seem to be, though the point is to accept them as ordinary). The classification of them, the finding of words for them, comes second. This is called a manifestation of glory or good, that of darkness and evil. The point is very clear in Darkness Visible, where Sophy is an intelligent plot-maker whose communion with the supernatural is of the earthy sort we call evil, and Matty is a visionary of very limited intelligence to whom supernatural information is simply given, by imperious and radiant angels. Golding seems to look at them as a practising writer who needs both these ways, as Jocelyn did in The Spire. He needs to be cunning about the visionary moments which obviously can’t be excluded from his kind of novel. In his new book the narrator is an accomplished, rich, illusionless novelist, very flip in his manner, yet hounded – not by heaven but by an academic would-be biographer. Then, despite the refuges of drink and continual movement, he finds himself a part of a supernatural pattern he cannot resist and only partly discerns.

Grubbing in the novelist’s dustbin at dawn, Professor Rick L. Tucker of Astrakhan University, Nebraska, retrieves a scrap of compromising correspondence, a piece of a letter from a long-discarded mistress. It is the beginning of the end of Wilfred Barclay’s marriage, but also the beginning of a union with Tucker. Throughout the book Barclay is in flight, at home only on some motorway in a hired car, his luggage a credit card: but his fugue, wild as it is, cannot altogether shake off Tucker, who is felt to be around, as an abhorred inescapable presence, even when he is miles away. Barclay falls for Tucker’s young wife, a thin transparent beauty; it seems that Tucker, an extremely hairy man (Barclay is a smooth one) actually offers his bride to the novelist in return for an appointment as literary executor.

Having discovered from reading the work of Tucker and other academics determined to found a career on him that there was no need to engage in the struggle of real writing, Barclay produces potboilers, and thinks that at sixty he has reduced himself ‘to what would think and feel least’. His persecution and his trials seem trivial and random, but a ‘universal pattern’ seems to be forming. He begins to partake of the nature of his hairy persecutor, another paper man. Paper, the record of a life, pursues him round the world. Paranoid, he is persecuted. Acrophobe, he is exposed to heights. Suggestible, he recalls a hypnotic experience of his youth and an encounter with an Italian stigmatic.

He talks about ‘the adamantine chain that binds the lesser crime to the greater’, a moral position that might have found the same formula in Romola. But that sentence offers only a rather weak ethical version of Barclay’s superplot. Near the end of the book, and of his life, he writes that his story has not been an account of his travels but ‘mainly about me and the Tuckers, man and wife. It’s about more than that, though I can’t really say what, the words are too weak, even mine...’ This invitation to the reader to do some work is almost suspiciously candid, but it has to be accepted. The Tuckers, man and wife, have in fact long since separated – she sacrificed to the billionaire girl-collector who funds Tucker’s research: but Barclay calls them man and wife. His own marriage, though lacking love and anyway long since dissolved, proves somehow indissoluble. Neither he nor his critic understands such things: ‘We knew nothing about people or not enough. We knew about paper, that was all.’ Married without understanding marriage, he suffers without knowing what suffering is. But an ambiguous statue in a Sicilian church (Christ, but looking like Pluto) provides him with an insight into ‘the universal intolerance’, and henceforth he knows he believes in God and is predestined to damnation.

Barclay’s understanding of the intrusive superplot is founded on this acceptance of predestination. ‘It is not what we do that will help, it is what we are that matters and what we are is not in our hands.’ But Golding has now to take his usual risk: it is not enough for Barclay merely to hold such an opinion – the intrusion must be fused with the action. ‘It isn’t a vision the way they get painted here and there, say in Italy, it’s real like a rock and you know it’s for ever like diamonds.’ Thereafter Barclay feels the stigmata in his hands and feet. Compelled back to his wife, he finds her dying of liver cancer. He sees that he has played a part in a witty theological game – he is awarded the stigmata for cowardice and absurdity – but since he supposes that he lacks the fifth wound, the one in the side, he has not really seen the joke. Finally he imagines he can make a bonfire of the vast pile of paper which is his life, and which Tucker so much yearns for: but it is not so easily done, and we have another of those famous trick endings.

Euripides said it cost little to believe that the divine, whatever it is, has power: but now it costs plenty, at any rate if you’re Barclay or Golding’s ordinary reader, and not the Euripidean Golding. His is a world in which capable and cynical persons – writers, for instance – experience uncontrollable epiphanies, not easily classifiable as good or evil but changing the meaning of everything in the human plot. Barclay’s understanding of this new sense is limited, and ours depends on what we choose to make of it, and of course on whether we are willing to pay the price of believing it. Before paying, we may cavil a bit. Tucker was a terrible risk: however much we may attribute to the caricaturing skill of Barclay, he is not, on the level of as-is-ness, a credible American professor, rather a sort of blown-up version of Jake Balokowsky in Philip Larkin’s worst poem, ‘Posterity’. And this failure has its effect on the whole, including the superplot. It costs a little more to believe it.

Of course the whole book takes risks, introducing the divine into the meditations of a witty ruined immoral old writer, having to accommodate it to his sense of farce and his egotistic solitude and his coarseness. In Darkness Visible there was, so to speak, a mighty organ available, the full diapason when needed. Here is a related piece, but on a smaller scale, a concerto for piccolo. An extraordinary composition, certainly, but not among the masterpieces.

Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor have revised their Golding book, first published in 1967. It used to end with The Spire, now twenty years old. That novel was followed after a longish interval by The Pyramid and The Scorpion God, but these works, it seems, were not thought to justify a revision. However, the double success of Darkness Visible and Rites of Passage made it necessary to think about Later Golding, hence the new chapter. His new novel keeps Golding ahead of Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor, but they are very un-Tuckerish pursuers, quiet, useful, just and helpful. Justice and help are of course needed. Not everything meets even the best reader’s eye, especially in books of the kind Barclay but not Golding has given up writing – books requiring their author ‘to invent, to dive, suffer, endure that obscurely necessary anguish in pursuit of the – unreadable’. And anybody who finds Golding boring or fraudulent needs special help. Meanwhile, justice, though some muttered against it, has been served by a committee of Swedes: a nice sort of superplot intrusion, and to the rectified vision good, though doubtless evil to him who evil thinks.