Penelope Lively on William Golding, Slightly Foxed Issue 7, Caroline Forbes

Infinite Depths . . .

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William Golding’s is not a large oeuvre: fifteen books, a play, an unfinished novel. Rereading everything, I am struck by the modesty of the pile through which I have worked, and the brevity of the books. He pared fiction down to bony essentials: an entire universe in the 223 pages of Lord of the Flies, or the 233 of The Inheritors. I wanted to try to identify what it is that sets him apart – on a pedestal, as far as I am concerned.

Voice, essentially. A couple of books in, and that voice is in your head: urgent, passionate, crafty, innovative, startling – seizing your ear with the unexpected perfect word (‘mutinous’ daisies on a lawn), the crackle of dialogue, the impetuous, precise and lavish accumulation of language that summons up the physical world of a tropical island, a rock in the Atlantic, a nineteenth-century ship, the Dordogne valley in prehistory.

It is voice as opposed to style – related, but different. Voice is that authorial tone which is unmistakable; some writers hardly have it at all, others have it in spades – Henry James, P. G. Wodehouse, Dickens, Updike. Golding’s voice seems to stem simultaneously from the heart of the page – embedded within each sentence, each twist of narrative – and also from somewhere suspended above, a wise, rueful, amused observer and manipulator. In The Pyramid, it is subsumed into that of the adolescent narrator, but hovers also at a tangent, recording and subtly taking stock; and thus, in sparse, stripped and breathtaking prose, he evokes not only the awful furnace of adolescent sexuality, but also the hilarious rigidities of early twentieth-century provincial society, and, as a kick in the tail, a grim revelation of child abuse. How does the man do that within a couple of hundred pages of fitful narrative?

The fitfulness is part of the trick. He knows how to leave out everything except the significant eighth of the iceberg; the rest we infer, without reali

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About the contributor

Penelope Lively writes novels with occasional excursions into non-fiction. She once went to Paris with William Golding – but in the service of the British Council along with about ten other writers, so she cannot claim more than a passing acquaintance.

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