Happy New Year to all Pen Pushers… twenty-one days late, but someone told me last night that it is permitted to give a new year greeting until the end of the month, so I immediately took this as fact.
Much of my holiday and the weeks since have been spent in reading books, which has been an enjoyable indulgence: James M Cain, Chandler, William Trevor, Edward St Aubyn (which I had to put down very close to the end due to irritation), Erle Stanley Gardner (of course)… and most recently, in fact, now, John Carey’s comprehensive biography of William Golding, which I am reading in anticipation of an event I am due to attend at the Savile Club (of which Golding was a member) where Carey will discuss the book.
I’m very interested to hear him speak about Golding. The book is excellently written giving great insights into Golding’s writing processes… and unusually for a literary biography one that is oddly encouraging to aspiring writers: Golding’s experiences as an author are defined by early rejection and obscurity until middle age, continuing self-doubt, an openness to editorial suggestions, and Golding’s own changing, unfixed and at times contradictory opinions on his own work. The idea of the ‘author-god’, so endlessly promoted in literary writing, interviews and essays, that omnipresent greater intelligence constantly in control and in understanding of what he/she has written, is writing, will write has no place here… Rather at times Golding hardly seems to know how he has written what he has and what he really meant by it. Surely a good sign when taken in context… ie, that he wrote great novels.
All this is fascinating stuff – not least in the intimate and productive relationship between the writer and his publisher Monteith – and yet despite all this information, to me at least, no clear sense of the man himself seems possible to gain. I don’t know if this is because Carey wisely seeks to use his researched material only – documents, discussions with family and friends, publishing facts – and not to spin his own opinions into his detailed researches, or if Golding was very difficult to pin down as a ‘character’, or even just that Golding had a lack of concern about presenting a coherent picture of himself – perhaps all contribute.
He reads both as a standard character – all the press about the ‘rape’ admission amounts to nothing more than the usual appalling fumblings of the repressed, guilty and sexually unknowledgeable, such as almost any young man of his generation might have experienced, and with this background he is also a misogynist although not one worth worrying in terms of biography – and also as a complex man, an oblique and changeable character. Although his novels are, as Carey makes absolutely clear, often based on autobiographical experiences, it is somehow hard to marry the man he presents with his work despite the clarity of Carey’s writing.
The book has also brought to my attention the large number of books Golding wrote that are not, as far as I know, much read these days. Perhaps this will change. I certainly intend to look up a few and get acquainted with more than my school-time knowledge of Lord of Flies.
Satisfyingly, in retrospect only and certainly not at the time for the struggling, unhappy schoolmaster, this extraordinary first novel was turned down by publisher after publisher, until picked up out of the ‘R’, that is rejects, pile by the bright young publisher, Charles Monteith, who had just been appointed at Faber, and who was to remain Golding’s publisher and friend for the rest of his life.
It’s easy to be blessed with hindsight, but then again it’s so fun to enjoy the comments of the professional reader who rejected the manuscript from this obscure and unpopular school teacher in Salisbury: one Polly Perkins dubbed it an, ‘Absurd and uninteresting fantasy […] A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.’
Carey’s book is fairly strictly chronological as it discusses each of Golding’s works and how it was written/the collaborative editorial processes in turn and in order, set against his correspondence with Monteith and others, and details of what was happening in his life – his travels, his drinking, family problems and other gossip and notes.
For example, the account of Golding’s war years in the navy, especially when captaining a LCTR as part of the D-Day landings and the lesser-known Battle of Walcheren are brilliant to read, and at the same time give us a sense that he could put on a show – his crew remarked that in dangerous situations he used to grin slightly fixedly but show no fear, whilst he admitted to feeling shamefully petrified.
Shame was an emotion Golding was not a stranger to, and came perhaps from his upbringing by his atheist father Alec – a believer who didn’t believe – and who was very morally upright and a rationalist, yet not a contented one. As Golding’s own personal struggles, and his fictional works attest, and as Carey notes in his introduction and constantly refers to, ‘The spiritual and the miraculous, and their collision with science and rationality, were the centre of his creative life’, and had been ever since he was a child.
Also carefully logged in Carey’s account is the divisions Golding created amongst critics: Frank Kermode was an early champion, but almost all struggled with his work initially and the reviews were normally divided with those against quite virulently so. His books with their themes of the darkness of human nature, the breakdown of societies and his tackling of universal themes, uncomfortable ideas and a willingness to experiment always succeeded in upsetting people and perhaps did not seem very English. The bad reviews hurt him much too much, the good ones inflating his ego the opposite way.
Golding’s humble beginnings as the son of a schoolteacher always haunted him, made him feel ashamed, and he hated the class system, actively resenting its social hierarchy – he wrote a review of one book in which he suggested Eton should be by demolished by using TNT. I haven’t got to the end of the book yet (!) but don’t think that Golding ever felt accepted, quite, even when famous and successful – something that many writers profess. He had the quality, most needed by the writer, of feeling himself a permanent outsider, at once enabling him to cast his keen eye upon the world, critically, ruthlessly; and at the same providing endless supplies of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence to keep the creative engine humming, to keep the brain constantly asking questions. He seemed to have that sense of never being comfortable, always questioning himself, structures of society, and belief as absolute or redemptive, yet he wants to believe in something… and he is constantly unsatisfied with what he finds.