Tag Archives: William Golding

Good Habits

Alan Bennett’s new play explores the art of creating art…

The recent news of the death of the reclusive man but enduringly great and globally famous writer JD Salinger, coupled with having just put down Carey’s biography of William Golding and finished AS Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book, meant that the themes running through Alan Bennett’s hugely enjoyable new play at the Lyttleton, The Habit of Art, could not have seemed more relevant when I went to see it the other night. N.B. It’s sold out but you can get £10 tickets in an area called the ‘slips’ – pretty good view and lots of legroom.

The action takes the form of a play within a play, the play within centering on an imagined meeting, twenty-five years after they irrevocably fell out, between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in the former’s disgracefully messy Oxford rooms where he is wiling away his later years. Entitled Caliban’s Day it portrays the unlikely reunion of the two men and their discussion about creativity, art and the self.

But before you groan at this potentially hackneyed format, wait. Here it is the perfect device and is beautifully used to enliven, illustrate and add comedic value to the play’s central concern: what is the relationship between great art and its creator?

The setting is a rehearsal for Caliban’s Day, dangerously close to its opening night. The actors are getting nervous and difficult, the director – the most powerful figure in any rehearsal room – is conspicuously absent, away on business, and has left instructions to just ‘run it’. The smug but insecure writer of the play, however, is present, much to everyone’s annoyance. The producer, brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour, is the only one keeping the show on track by masterfully keeping all the ‘creative’ and ridiculous male egos in the room in check.

The interplay between realised drama and the rehearsal room is enjoyable and playful. It’s all here: the illusion of theatre; the friction between a writer and the release of his work into the world; the egos of actors and writers, and yet their slavish devotion to their craft; the powerful desire for success and yet disdain and fear of it once it has arrived.

The cast is magnificent featuring the aforementioned de la Tour, Richard Griffiths not overdoing it as the actor who is Auden, and Alex Jennings as the actor playing the uptight Britten.

Ironically in a direct inversion of the historical characters, Bennett makes Griffiths’s actor more conservative, less camp, constantly asking for the more lewd references to be removed, whilst Jennings’s actor character switches effortlessly from his excellent portrayal of the uptight and precise Britten, to camp comments, advising that the rent boy who in the play is visiting the openly lascivious Auden in his rooms should be carrying a shoulder bag for lube, etc, and telling a suspiciously autobiographical story about ‘a friend’ at drama college who became a rent boy to pay the bills.

Bennett purposefully interrupts the flow of the play ‘within’ just at moments when he knows the audience will just be totally absorbed in the conversation between Auden and Britten  – which is most enjoyable. Suddenly you’re snapped back to the rehearsal space as someone forgets what’s next, tells a rude joke or complains about a line. The illusion of art is before us. We may be moved to tears by a actor’s performance, but the chances are they’ll be thinking how badly the thing is written and wondering how the talentless queen, stage left, ever the got the lead role.

The power politics within this theatrical company provides a microcosm of those found in art, and Bennett uses the inter-textual quality of his work to discourse and explore the nature and desire for control and power in art – and, by its very nature, the impossibility of this.

In the play, Auden discusses how he cannot break ‘the habit of art’: he writes every day, but no one wants to read it now; whereas his earlier poems are so well-loved that when he wants to tinker with them he upsets people greatly, as if they own those poems, as if they are no longer his. The narrator in Caliban’s Day is both men’s future biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, who further emphasises this, telling Britten and Auden that they – the public – are all just waiting for you to die so that they can draw a line under you. (For further comedic effect the actor playing the assured pompous narratorial voice of Humphrey, in the rehearsal is comically neurotic, bemoaning the fact that as the narrator, he is just a device, and trying to make the part psychologically convincing… much to everyone’s despair.)

But his presence as the narrator is important: it is natural for the critic and the reader to compartmentalise in order to understand and essentially to control the meaning of a work within their own experience; the author/creator can never be satisfied with this. It is the unresolved struggle between art and audience.

It reminds me of Golding complaining endlessly about Lord of the Flies as the only work he was known for, even though it brought him the fame and money he so wanted, his despair over criticism for his work, the autobiographical themes running so strongly through his work and yet his irritation that anyone should pick up on these; of Salinger: an iconic author locking himself away in New Hampshire apparently driven mad by his own success and the lack of perceived distance available in the world between work and its creator; and Byatt’s eventually heartbreaking story of a son who ultimately becomes a victim of art – used and destroyed by it.

There is a fascinating exchange between Auden and Britten in the play within, adding a further dimension to this idea, where Britten expresses his concern over his planned operatic work of Death in Venice, which, would you believe, is causing a few raised eyebrows amongst the devoted ladies of Snape Maltings back in Suffolk. The conversation gives rise to an even more complex multi-layering – two actors playing two actors playing Auden and Britten discuss a work that is considered an autobiographic account portrayed as fiction in a scene entirely imagined by Bennett.

The divide between self and art is certainly not a simple one – just as everything in The Habit of Art can swerve from the sublime to the ridiculous in an instant. As they argue, Britten is insistent that Mann is the victim of the Apollo-like boy and plans a scene in the opera where Apollo appears … An idea Auden swiftly mocks, saying simply and directly to Britten the man, ‘You just like young boys’ [sic]. But Britten cannot deal with this.

Perhaps it is a comment about the dangers of hiding behind art, however unsubtly, as a way of not coming to terms with oneself by raising desire to a higher echelon of meaning, or perhaps it is suggested as a good way of communicating that desire. I’m not sure.

But the message of both plays is clear: Auden, garrulous, honest, and didactic rambles on to the tightly taciturn Britten – fine, fine, forget what I said, use Apollo, do whatever you have to, but you must go on, you must do whatever it takes to make the opera happen…. You must go on! He shouts it to him down the stairs.

As it happens the imaginary Auden needn’t have worried – the opera opened in Suffolk in June 1973, the same year that Caliban’s Day is set. The habit of art, however painful, is a hard one to break.

The Golding Rush

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.