Dazed and Confused

William Golding: The Man who wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey

Books Literature
William Golding: Words of gibberish or genius?

Much fuss has been made of the revelation that William Golding raped, or at least attempted to rape, a 15-year-old girl when he was 18. John Carey, whose engrossing new biography breaks the news, jauntily dismisses it as a “wrestling match,” and further points out that Golding and the rapee afterwards had an affair, that she enjoyed being whipped (by another man) and got her kicks (or was it her revenge?) by allowing Golding’s voyeur father to watch her screwing his son in the distance through a pair of binoculars. In this context Golding’s new-found infamy is less shocking than the actions of other writer-rapists —  Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Malory, Jack London, Casanova or the Marquis de Sade — all of whom, with the possible exception of de Sade, have long been forgiven by the public at large. 

Carey found out about the “rape” through an unpublished confessional memoir called Men, Women & Now in which Golding also revealed that he had learned how to masturbate by climbing a flagpole, that he was excited by the idea of dressing as a woman and that he considered himself a repressed Nazi sadist. Elsewhere Golding is shown to be often drunk (once throwing a plate of chips over his head in a pub), abusive (calling his friends “whores” and “bores”), chippy (mainly in relation to class, the literary establishment and public schools), prone to bouts of paranoia and depression, a poor husband and a rotten father — none of which makes the story of his life any the less interesting. It is unlikely that many readers will finish this book with feelings of admiration for Golding the man, but what of Golding the writer? 

Literary opinion has always been sharply divided on the question of his literary merits. Even his Nobel Prize was contentious — one of the judges afterwards spoke virulently against him. Carey concedes that Golding’s novels, after his first (Lord of the Flies), were mostly greeted with dismay, bewilderment or outright hostility by the critics, but he  staunchly clings to his personal view that he was a genius. Full of allegory, morality and symbolism, these works are rewarding to teach, and have consequently found favour in academic circles, particularly in America — the influential critic Frank Kermode was an early fan — but in Britain, while supporters hail him as a deep thinker, a brilliant prose stylist and a fascinating spinner of yarn, his detractors continue to insist that his work is ponderous, inarticulate, impenetrable and pretentious.

Of course John Carey is impatient with those who fail to see the point. He accuses Anthony Burgess of professional jealousy, Auberon Waugh of being “a young Turk eager to make a splash” and the critic C. A. Lejeune of not reading properly. Reviewing Pincher Martin for the radio, Lejeune said that Golding wrote “deplorable English”, to which Carey responds with a passage about eating chocolate. “Can Lejeune have read this?” he asks: 

He unfolded the paper with great care; but there was nothing left inside. He put his face to the glittering paper and squinted at it. In one crease there was a single brown grain. He put out his tongue and took the grain. The chocolate stung with a piercing sweetness, momentary and agonizing, and was gone. 

If this seriously second-rate and silly passage is really the very best that Carey can come up with, I think he should swallow the bitter pill and lay down his arms to Lejeune. 

There is much about this book that is masterly and everything in it is fascinating. Carey writes with refreshing clarity and Golding’s peculiar life story is told with an attractive energy and relish, but for all the intensity of detail the narrative is spoiled by noticeable omissions. The author’s date of birth is not given and there is no explanation as to why he joined the war as a navy cadet in December 1940 but applied for a job as a teacher in April of that same year. More importantly, there is no serious discussion of Golding’s writing methods or the sources of his inspiration. Odd clues are dotted here and there. We learn, for instance, that Golding submitted the typescript of Lord of the Flies to his publisher, Faber, saying that he “thought” the plot was original. Later he admitted that he was “anxious not to be discovered, uncovered, detected, rumbled.” Carey describes Lord of the Flies as both a “black” and a “reversed” version of R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island. Another theory accuses Golding of stealing the plot and some of the characters from W. L. George’s 1926 novel, Children of the Morning. But Golding apparently said he had never read that book.

Later, displeased by accusations that he had snitched material from Taffrail’s 1916 novel Pincher Martin O.D and copied them into his own Pincher Martin (1956), Golding said that he “vaguely remembered” reading Taffrail in the Twenties. Carey again calls Golding’s book a “reversal” of Taffrail’s “though Golding may not have realised when he wrote it.” Elsewhere we are told that The Inheritors is “a reversal” of a book by H. G. Wells; that one story from The Scorpion God seems to retell Wells’s Country of the Blind; that The Spire is startlingly similar to a play by Dorothy Sayers; the short story Clonk Clonk comes from Euripides’ The Bacchae; Darkness Visible is drawn from Patrick White. So what is going on here? Golding admits to nothing and Carey refuses to draw all these examples together or try to explain this bizarre plurality of borrowings. 

My own conclusion, drawn from but not stated in Carey’s book, is that Golding, although not a conscious plagiarist, wrote his novels in some kind of trance or daze. The words simply spilled out of him — sometimes as many as 60,000 in a fortnight. Carey notes that he was an ecstatic visionary, who hallucinated and talked on occasion like a foaming prophet. “The devil smote me out of Sakkara, He came up, higher than the sky, and pelted me in the back,” Golding once declared in all seriousness to the writer Andrew Sinclair. Golding believed that he could not think logically but “only dream in pictures.” Like Moses, Muhammad or Joseph Smith, he was a kind of idiot savant whose works contain flashes of brilliance, a great deal of nonsense and large amounts of material subconsciously drawn from buried memories of a lifetime’s reading. 

Like these prophets, Golding, too, heard voices and took them down from dictation. Of the pig’s head in Lord of the Flies he said, “It spoke. I know because I heard it.” So it was perhaps a very perceptive young Turk who, reviewing “the purest gibberish” (The Scorpion God) in the Spectator in October 1971, wrote regretfully that Golding seemed to have reached the stage in life when writers “start to mistake themselves for St John.”