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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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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 realizing we have done so. And I suspect that that is why the best of Golding also has that crucial quality of infinite depth, the sense in which each time you reread, you find something that you had not noticed before. For me, The Inheritors is the novel that most does this. The Golding voice is somewhat at one remove, giving us the entire dismaying story of the end of innocence through the eyes of the Neanderthalers who are going to be destroyed by Homo sapiens. You look over their shoulders, and understand what it is that they are seeing, while they do not. And, in that understanding, you come to feel a shaming complicity with the savagery to come. The Inheritors followed on the heels of Lord of the Flies, and pursues much the same theme, but the two novels are otherwise a world apart – the first crisp, clear, deliberate, its successor much more opaque and elusive. But, with that, it serves up each time some new insight: you read a familiar passage and see suddenly a significance that you had missed, that had been cunningly sheltered and which becomes abruptly clear: the story acquires a new dimension. This layered effect is apparent elsewhere. A relationship with a book is like that with a friend: on first acquaintance one quality hogs the attention; with familiarity you find new aspects of personality. I remember being resistant to Free Fall in the past, finding it too episodic and occasionally baffling. Today, I see that episodic method as a trial run for the subtly effective fitful progress of The Pyramid, a way of giving the reader what is needed and not a page more. In Free Fall, an entire life is compressed into an assembly of climactic moments – not a sequence but an assortment outside chronology that reflects the processes of memory itself, never linear but apparently random, illogical: ‘My yesterdays walk with me, they keep step, they are grey faces that peer over my shoulder.’ Most of the book is about the childhood of the protagonist, the artist Sammy Mountjoy. Golding is supremely good at childhood. He gives you the child’s eye view – the ‘trees’ who bend down to speak to you at infant school, the bewildering violence and irrationality of adult reactions – but he allows the wisdoms of adult hindsight to infiltrate: the reader is well aware of what is going on. And Sammy, like most of us, pursues an internal scrutiny of his childhood experience – he reruns, examines, and wonders when he lost the power of choice. Another impassioned vision of the loss of innocence. A concentrated rereading throws up interesting resonances. In The Spire, there is mention of a ship built of unseasoned timber, in which a twig puts out a green leaf. The same image crops up in the Rites of Passage trilogy, that majestic work of Golding’s last years, when Charles Talbot, the narrator, sees, or imagines, something similar in the unseaworthy ship that is forging its way across the world. The image must have haunted Golding for decades, and in the same way his involvement and indeed obsession with Salisbury Cathedral from which The Spire grew is treated quite differently in an essay for Holiday magazine (the lucky recipient of several of Golding’s travel articles in the 1960s), part of which is a diatribe against Wyatt’s eighteenth- century desecration (in Golding’s view) of the interior, and which calls the erection of the spire ‘a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child’s play’. The great canon of Golding exegesis and criticism must be full of such connections, but for the common reader the enjoyment lies in the recognition of these authorial signals that flash up from time to time through the entire works – a reminder of whose mind is in charge, and what sort of mind it is. It was the mind of an ex-naval man, amongst much else. From Pincher Martin to the trilogy, that Second World War experience is woven into both the stories and the language. In the trilogy, Golding has the aristocratic and initially supercilious Charles Talbot mock the incomprehensible ‘Tarpaulin’ that is talked by the sailors, but in fact Golding talks a good deal of tarpaulin himself, and would have been nothing but proud of it. The trilogy is steeped in an understanding of the most arcane aspects of early shipbuilding and navigation; much of its power and authenticity stems from that. You may never have wondered before how a stricken mainmast could be repaired at sea by means of a shoe of red-hot metal, but, immersed in Talbot’s first-hand account, you are gripped. For me, though, the supreme pleasure in Golding’s seaman mentality comes from An Egyptian Journal, that sublimely irritable account of the trip up the Nile undertaken by him and his wife, both in their seventies, in an attempt to satisfy his lifelong absorption in the culture of ancient Egypt. The craft they hire is barely riverworthy, the crew are laconic, inefficient and prone to illness, Golding is driven to distraction by ill-functioning ‘heads’, absence of any contingency arrangements, fuel crises, engine failure – ‘Tell them to use that bloody grapnel!’ He was a superb essayist – one wants more of the non-fiction. Fortunate the audience at the University of Kent at Canterbury who heard his sly, erudite and provocative lecture on the craft of novel writing, let alone the readers of the travel magazines who had the first taste of his account of going into the Great Pyramid or to Delphi. That distinctive voice is loud and clear in such pieces, whether he is pondering the operation of the oracle at Delphi (thoughts that would bear fruit many years later in the unfinished novel about the Pythia, The Double Tongue) or recounting a piece of schoolboy make-believe in which he assists a curator at the British Museum with the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy. Most of all, you see his prodigious curiosity at work – the appreciation of an Egyptian guide’s method of illuminating tomb carvings by reflecting sunlight on to them with mirrors, the snapping up of unconsidered trifles that will eventually fuel some book. My admiration for Golding stops little short of idolatry, but I have to admit to major difficulty with Darkness Visible. I do not understand who, or what, the central figure is – the burning child who walks out of the London Blitz and becomes Matty, a mysterious apocalyptic creature. A Christ figure? An angel? An idiot savant? Evil is once more the theme – evil and intolerance – but this is the most tantalizing and obscure of the novels. And then there is The Paper Men, that savage but somehow hollow piece of fictional revenge on those who intrude on the privacy of a grand old man of letters. I pass on this one; it seems to have been written by some other Golding, led astray by sound and fury. But not for long, because after that came the Rites of Passage trilogy, and what more amazing burst of late-in-life creative energy could there be than that inspired, meticulous, fiery recreation of early nineteenth-century society in all its perversity and complexity, aboard a vessel bound for Australia, packed with humanity and in imminent danger of sinking.  Every Golding strength is on show here: compelling narrative, vibrant characters, and perhaps above all the exhilarating shifts between abstract consideration of ideas – democracy, privilege – in exchanges between Talbot and his fellow voyagers, and the exact and evocative vision of the ship and the sea, this creaking, complicated bundle of timber dancing upon the roaring ocean. When I consider the unassuming pile of Golding titles from which I have surfaced, I see them suddenly as shape-shifters. They are books – battered old paperbacks, a handful of first editions, a proof copy – but in the mind’s eye they expand, they have grown wider and deeper with each reading, the pages that I read today are not the ones that I read ten years ago, the people within step out and assert themselves differently. And, in the last resort, this is the ultimate test of a writer: not just that a book stands up to a new reading, but that it is renewed in the process.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Penelope Lively 2005


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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