Monday, August 23, 2010
William Golding by John Carey
Nowadays mention of Lord of the Flies sparks instant recognition in a way that William Golding's own name does not. This seems unjust, both to Golding and to readers, because it means that they remain unaware of the protean variety and inventiveness of his work. My subtitle is chosen with this in mind; I like to think that it will catch the the eye of people who remember reading Lord of the Flies at school, or who maybe just saw the film, and whose curiosity will be sufficiently aroused for them to discover how much more Golding was than 'the man who wrote Lord of the Flies'.
What would he have thought about his private journal being made public, as it is in this book? I do not think he would have been surprised nor displeased. In the journal itself he anticipates its possible publication. Once or twice he considers burning it, but dismisses the idea because it is a 'treasure', 'closely written like coins in a chest', and because, at the deepest level, he knows that he has written it for an audience.
When I first met Golding I could not believe that this was the man who had written the novels. He seemed like a nautical caricature, and the opinions that issued from behind the beard were things that he had said many times before – a kind of gramophone record put on for an interviewer. When I came to know him better - never very well - I sensed that this was all a shield with which he kept the world at bay. When I read the journal I discovered that I was right.
The emotion that Golding felt most vividly and often behind his disguise was, I think, fear, on a scale varying from mild anxiety to terror He had been a sensitive, frightened child, and grew into a sensitive, frightened man. Of course, his war record shows that he was also extremely courageous, and his courage was all the greater because, as he admits, he was terrified much of the time. But the journal reveals that there was quite enough in ordinary peacetime life to bring on panic attacks.
Some of his phobias were fairly common. He went rigid with fear if he had to have an injection. He was scared of heights. He was afraid of crustaceans, insects and other creeping things. The unseen world was still more frightening. He was scared of being alone at night, 'even if I am in bright electric light'. The mere thought that he was alone, and that 'something' might appear, would send him scurrying to bed, where he could lie down beside his wife Anne, hear her breathing and feel safe. Entering empty rooms at night was an ordeal. He would throw the door open loudly to give a 'warning' to whatever spectral beings might be lurking inside, in case he might 'see what I should not'. He felt 'sheepish' about admitting this, but fear of the supernatural had been with him since 'before I can remember'. Whatever his rational mind told him, his 'natural and irrational mind' was convinced that the dead were always present.
Among the real Golding's terrors, terror of writing was perhaps the greatest, not uncommon among writers. Writing is a stressful occupation. It is not like living over a shop, or even living in the shop. It is being the shop. It means making your livelihood out of nothing. To control the fear Golding tried various remedies. He drank. He wrote several drafts, so that he could tell himself he was not writing the frightening final one. He believed, or half-believed, that he did not actually do the writing – it was some other being inside him that did it. This removed the fearful responsibility, though it brought with it the new dread that the other being might decide not to write any more, leaving him barren.
He feared critics almost as much as he feared writing. The origin of this fear was partly social. He did not think of himself as belonging to the class that set critical standards in art and literature, and his natural self-distrust had been intensified by long years of having his work rejected. So the kind of adverse review that a less insecure writer would have simply shrugged off left him feeling hurt, ashamed and exposed to ridicule. His family learned to keep reviews away from him. But even that was no answer, for it encouraged the bitter suspicion that the critics were defaming him behind his back. His prolonged writer''s block in the 1970s was directly traceable to the reviews Free Fall received.
Although Golding's fears and phobias could impede his writing, or sometimes stop it altogether, they were indispensable to it, because they were integral to his imagination, and he lived in his imagination to an unusual degree. What most people regard as the real world was secondary to him. This showed itself in a number of ways, some of them trivial. When traveling, for example, he tended not to bother with road maps or guidebooks, preferring to trust his intuition, with the result that he frequently got lost. He did not do research for his novels. Even when they were set in historical periods not wholly familiar to him, he relied on his imagination rather than consult authorities. He was really not interested in intellectual debate or engaging with other minds, because he was too intent on his own imaginative life. He discounted logic, and contended that, though it was an internally self-consistent system, it amounted to no more, as a means of reaching truth, than 'a loftier game of chess'.
Golding expressed his own position most clearly in 'Belief and Creativity', the concluding essay in A Moving Target. The 'glum intellect of man' , he argued , has constructed iron cages for the human spirit – the main culprits being Marx, Darwin and Freud, 'the three most crashing bores of the Western world. ' It seems unlikely that he ever read these writers first hand. He never mentions having read Marx, and he told Jack Biles he never read any Freud. The only book by Darwin he certainly read was his treatise on the pollination of orchids – a subject in which he had a practical interest. In condemning them he had in mind, rather, the general vague notion of their ideas that had become part of the modern Western mindset. Truth, he asserted, is to be found not in such reductive theories, but in art. The novelist – or the painter, or poet – reaches down into 'the magical area of his own intuitions' and comes up with something new, and this, he believed, proves that 'beyond the transient horrors and beauties of our hell [and 'the long nightmare which is the bedrock of being human'] there is a Good which is ultimate and absolute. Further, there 'must be' infinite universes and infinite hells, because it would deny the nature of our own creativity, let alone the infinitude of God's creativity' if there were not.
Golding insisted that he was just a story-teller, not a thinker. In a letter to a French academic he stated: 'I claim the right not of the philosopher or psychologist but of the story-teller – that is, to be impenetrable, inconsistent and anything else he likes provided he holds the attention of his audience. That I appear to do and it is enough for me.'