Sunday, April 4, 2010

John Carey : William Golding, “The Man who wrote Lord of the Flies”.

I was scanning titles and authors at the FNAC bookshop in Ghent, where I was looking for some books scribbled on my TBR list, when my attention was caught by John Carey’s brand-new biography of William Golding. (Faber & Faber 2009)

Was it the massive presence of its 573 pages which made me pick Golding’s biography out of a row of slimmer volumes? Or was it the front-page picture of the bearded writer (half Captain Horn-Blower, half Saint Augustine) lost in tought in a whirl of cigarette smoke as if he was thinking up another enigmatic Delphic prophecy?
No, it was that strange superfluous affirmation in the subtitle “the man who wrote Lord of Flies” that caught my attention and puzzled me.
Was this obvious statement needed because no one remembered who was the writer of that cult book or was Golding, slipping under the radar of the modern reader’s attention, in need of undusting?

In his postscript John Carey indeed affirms that the subtitle is meant to be ironic and that his prime intention is to show “how much more Golding was than just “The Man who wrote Lord of the Flies” and that most readers “…remain unaware of the protean variety and inventiveness of his work...” Despite huge public acclaim during his lifetime – the Nobel, the Booker, a knighthood and millions of copies sold – Golding is still chiefly remembered for just one book.

John Carey, emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, is a long-time admirer of Golding, He is the first one to have been given access to the author’s family archive, containing several unpublished novels, two autobiographies, and a 5,000-page private journal. Enlightened with this vast amount of hitherto unpublished information, Carey takes upon himself the task of setting the record straight.
As such the book seems to be directly aimed at readers like me. What did I know about Golding? Like everybody else, I read and appreciated "Lord of the Flies". I even tried another of Golding’s books: The Spire (La Nef in French) but the book was too difficult for me at that time and I dropped it half-read. It was thanks to a recommendation by a friend of an impressively good “Pincher Martin”, that Golding came back to my attention.

Carey deals sensitively with William Golding's private life and introduces us to a writer who was shunning all publicity and living quietly with his family in south-west England. There is a lot likeable in Golding. He admits to have “four enthusiasms”: He loves Greece and is passionate about Classicism. He is a keen sailor and a lover of music and archeology.
Very interesting is Golding’s relationship with his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, who helped him editing his first work and getting him published.
Carey, known for his anti-elitist tone and iconoclastic views on Culture paints a man in flesh and blood in all his greatness and his weakness, writing masterpiece after masterpiece, while fighting off his demons.

And Demon’s there are.

Golding surprisingly describes himself as "a monster in deed, word and thought". What is there to discover? Quiet a lot it seems: Sexual violence, alcoholic excess, shame, depression and vanity are all part of Golding’s story.

Incredibly so, Golding, a war hero in the British Navy and a published and acclaimed writer remains "revoltingly" dependent on what people thought of his work. Despite his proven talent and the public acclaim we see the author constantly battling off a nasty inferiority complex and self-depreciating attitude. Carey implies that it might have found its origin in Golding bumping into the glass ceiling off British social classes while studying at Oxford.
Sadly, alcohol abuse, violence and flight are Golding’s only options to cope with his issues.

Besides gathering information about the writer, Carey helps us to fill up the gaps in our understanding of the authors works. Understandably he does not dwell too much on “Lord of the Flies”. Enough is said about that book.

Carey spends more time on the other books of Golding. There is for instance a whole analysis of “Darkness visible”, structurally one of Golding’s most difficult works.

More interesting for me was the “analysis of Pincher Martin” that showed that evil Pincher was largely inspired on Golding himself or at least on the way Golding saw himself. Pincher is very much Golding when an officer in the Navy, his attempts to become an actor and in his cruelty towards others. We learn for instance that Golding, like the fictional Pincher attempted rape. In a bizarre episode, Golding admitted to have made an unwelcome pass at a 15 year –old girlfriend when he was home from Oxford. British press have mostly dwelled on this confession since the biography appeared.

If nothing else, a good biography must motivate the reader to explore other works from the writers "oeuvre". Carey is very efficient in nudging us on to read more Golding. The pages are really littered with praises for the different works and you honestly feel ashamed that you have not read all the others! See for yourself!
“In search of my father” … is magnificent…told in Golding’s most spectacular prose…(p171). The Inheritors…[Golding] thought it his best book, and many critics would agree (p 173). Pincher Martin… one of the most profound and original novels of the twentieth century. ( p192). The Spire…brilliantly…masterly…(p282).The pyramid [Golding’s] finest…unstrained throwaway brilliance…The scorpion god … the finished story is a masterpiece…. Its style is flawless… its revelation beautifully subtle…(p327). Darkness visible… apart from the power of its writing, it is a technical marvel….Golding’s greatest piece of religious writing…( p367) it’s best novel to date (p385). I stopped at the chapter which was going to dwell on the book “Rites of passage” because I didn’t want to spoil my upcoming reading of it!

Carey has done his tribute. Mission accomplished ! He has written a very readable and interesting book. Golding, we understand now, is much more than just the writer of “Lord of the flies”. The author might have been an engaging albeit difficult man but a great writer he was. At least 4 or 5 masterpieces within his legacy deserve to be read and studied. And if after this review, or even better, after reading Carey’s biography, you are yearning for more, don’t reread “lord of the flies”. Do the genius posthumously a favor and read anything, – the Inheritors – Pincher Martin – the Scorpion King – Rites of passage-, anything, but “Lord of the flies”