573 pp. Free Press $32.50

Review by William Boyd

William Boyd’s latest novel Ordinary Thunderstorms (Harper) was published earlier this year.

In 1967, some thirteen years after the publication of The Lord of the Flies, William Golding confessed to a friend (p 320) that he resented his first novel because it meant that he owed his reputation to what he considered a ‘minor book’, a book that had made him a classic in his lifetime, which was a joke, and the money he had gained from it was ‘Monopoly money’ because he hadn’t really earned it.  Golding was drinking heavily at the time (he had a life-long struggle with alcoholism) and one may have to take his bitterness advisedly but these remarks reveal an interesting artistic dilemma.  What is it like to owe virtually your entire reputation as a writer to a single book?  One thinks of J.D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller – to cite only the 20th century American exemplars – but such one-book writers are legion in all literatures.  John Carey seems to allude to the syndrome in this biography’s sub-title (even though Carey eventually disputes the implication). However, if anyone thinks of William Golding today it is almost certain that his name will be conjoined with his extraordinary first novel.

A blessing and then a curse of some sort – though by the time the book finally appeared Golding wouldn’t have cared about any down-side. He was a 43-year old provincial school teacher desperate merely to have a novel published (it was the fourth he had written, incidentally) – renown and wealth were not even remotely considered.  In fact, even The Lord of the Flies was rejected by many publishers before an alert junior editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Montieth, saw its potential and encouraged Golding to make changes. By 1980 sales in the USA alone had passed the 7 million mark (p404). Golding, to other writers, is a model of the late starter (along with Anthony Burgess and Muriel Spark, as other 40-plus examples).  You don’t need to be young to make your name, so Golding’s career asserts, and once Golding had achieved that first success it never really left him. The Lord of the Flies was followed swiftly by The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956) all to great acclaim – a new and extraordinary voice seemed to have arrived in contemporary British literature.  The critical reception was not always so favourable for subsequent novels (Free Fall (1959) suffered a near unanimous pasting) but it is fair to say that Golding’s life as a writer was forever financially secure thanks to the rock-solid, never-ending sales of The Lord of the Flies.

Golding was born in 1911. He was only five years younger than Evelyn Waugh and is effectively part of that generation of English novelists (such as Graham Green, Anthony Powell and Aldous Huxley) who had reached their maturity by the time of World War II.  But we never think of Golding in their company because his success as a writer was entirely post-war – he seems in some way more modern and contemporary. 
Golding joined the navy when war broke out (he was already married with a child) and at D-Day in 1944 and the Battle of Walcheren some months later was in command of a rocket-firing landing craft – a vessel designed to deliver a terrifying ‘shock and awe’ style blanket-barrage of thousands of small deadly rockets.  Golding, operating the firing mechanism on the bridge of his ship, clearly saw the indiscriminate, devastating effect of the wall of fire and destruction that was unleashed as his myriad rockets erupted on beachheads and coastal villages.  

He survived the war unharmed and with some reluctance went back to the tedium of school mastering in Wiltshire. Carey makes the valid point that his war in the navy was profoundly destabilising for him in many ways (both personally and artistically) and many of the key themes in his work can be traced to these formative and disturbing experiences.

Carey summarizes the abiding obsession in the novels as the collision of the ‘spiritual and miraculous’ with ‘science and rationality’ (p2) and it is this persistent hyper-sensitivity to the numinous and immaterial aspects of the world and the human condition that sets Golding apart from the broad river of social realism that so defines the 20th century English novel.  He is a kind of maverick in the way D.H.Lawrence was, or Laurence Durrell, or John Fowles – to name but three — and I think this ‘strangeness’ explains how throughout his life, after his initial success, the critical responses to his work were so violently divided. You either loved William Golding, it seemed, or you hated him.

Golding himself was abnormally thin-skinned when it came to criticism of his work.  He simply could not read even the mildest reservation and frequently left the country when his books were published.  What is fascinating about Carey’s biography is the portrait that emerges of a man of almost absurdly dramatic contrasts. Golding fought with commendable bravery at D-Day yet in life was the most timid arachnaphobe.  He was married for over 40 years yet was probably a repressed homosexual.  He was an accomplished classical musician and excellent chess player and an embarrassing, infantile drunk.  He loathed and detested the stilted conventions of the British class system (particular scorn was directed at the Bloomsbury Group) and yet when already a Nobel laureate and a member of the elite ten to whom the Queen grants the title Companion of Honour he still frenetically lobbied his important friends to secure him a knighthood – successfully — and was a proud member of two of London’s stuffiest gentlemen’s clubs.  Time and again the impression is of a man in a form of omnipresent torment of one kind or another – sometimes it would be mild and possibly amusing; at other moments debilitating and damagingly neurotic.

John Carey has had unprecedented access to the Golding archive and it is unlikely that this biography will ever be bettered or superseded.  Moreover, Carey – a former professor of English Literature at Oxford and the leading literary critic in Britain — writes with great wit and lucidity as well as authority and compassionate insight. Perhaps because he has had the opportunity of reading the mass of Golding’s unpublished intimate journals he brings unusual understanding to the complex and deeply troubled man that lies behind the intriguing but undeniably idiosyncratic novels.

And the work is highly unusual and uneven, right up to the end of Golding’s energetic working life – his last novel, Fire down Below, was published in his 78th year – emblematic of the warring forces in Golding’s imagination, of a writer more interested in ‘ideas rather than people and in seeing mankind in a cosmic perspective rather than an everyday social setting’ (p259).  Anthony Burgess described his talent as ‘deep and narrow’ (p295) and Golding’s own demons often drove him to analyse the extent and limits of his achievement.  After the publication of The Inheritors in 1955, as the acclaim flowed in, Golding remarked: ‘I see myself spiralling upwards to being a… novelist, universally admired, but unread.’ (p 186).  This is horribly prescient and, with the exception of The Lord of the Flies, Golding’s strange, haunting, difficult novels have few readers these days and his posthumous reputation is neglected and in decline.  At the very least John Carey’s superb biography should take us back to the work again and allow us to make up our own minds, anew.