Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“Fire down below” by William Golding

JMW Turner
Snow Storm - 1842

By the time Edmund Talbot arrives at the end of his story, he is a changed man. And so is William Golding, the writer of “Fire down below”, the last part of that marvelous sea-story.

There is after all a time span of thirteen years (1976-1989) between the conception of “Right of passage”, the first part of the trilogy and the publication of “Fire down below.

“Rite of Passage”, which set off with the assertion that “man could die of shame” was still that typical dark book, written by a Golding fighting of his demons, an author the readers knew from his previous works.

The next book, “Close Quarters”, has already a lighter tone, with a hero earning, fumbling and stumbling, his badge of courage and falling madly in love. Still written by the same author, but now a different man, winner of the Booker and the Noble prize, Golding is by now enjoying national and international appraisal and recognition.

But with “Fire down below”, the final and third part, it is play – time! Golding has nothing more to prove and passionately and clearly with joy, he unleashes his creative forces on a subject close to his hart and challenges with this maritime masterpiece no one less than Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Alan Poe.

“Knuckle biting” says John Carey and indeed, “Fire down below” has all the excitement and trepidation of a genuine adventure story. As said, Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym and the “Ancient Mariner” are not far away when the old battle ship is surfing the huge following seas of the “roaring forties” towards a “blink” at the horizon which might as well be their happy destination as their inevitable doom.

Crammed with salty “tarpaulin” terminology, awash with sea-topics, sea-issues, seafaring problems and seafaring solutions, the words urge the reader forwards as if we too are thundering down these liquid mounts. There are the fascinating descriptions of the monster waves. There is a bad and nearly fatal broach. There is the issue of fixing of the foremast, the technique of the frapping, the installation of life lines, the use of sea anchors, and the use of dragging oil to calm the waves. You learn to construct makeshift fenders, alternative ways to estimate longitude. You dodge freak waves, cope with storms, read clouds and finally encounter that mother of all horrors: an ice-walled lee shore!

“Fire down below” is of course much more than just a sea-yarn. During the long voyage, two major storylines are developed by the writer. First there is the increasing competition between Benet, the young innovative risk-taking and creative second lieutenant and the more conservative, careful first lieutenant Charles Summers. Captain Anderson apparently sides more towards Benét but Edmund Talbot for once sides openly and aggressively with his friend Charles Summers.

The competition and the factions separate on their opinion of the complex technique needed to secure the moving foremast with an iron hoop reshaped with open fire (inside that wooden boat!) and then cooled down. This is the fire down below of the title and a cause for great worries for it might be too dangerous to do at sea. I will not give away if the technique works or not, but Golding gives it, be assured a very unexpected and ironic twist.

A second storyline is the one of the couple Prettiman. Prettiman is a social philosopher, disciple of Voltaire (and keen advocate of Candide) who wants to recreate a utopian colony, based on the principles of the Enlightment, in the Australian outback. Prettiman asks Talbot, who has befriended him, to join his noble utopian enterprise but Edmund does not answer. Social responsibility and Equality are too new and strange to Edmund to take an immediate decision. Carey states in his biography that the Prettiman’s would loosely be based on Golding’s idealistic parents. Ideals the writer did not share or did not publicly defend. According to Carey, Edmund feels ashamed of his cowardly failure to support Prettiman’s altruism and Hopes for Mankind”. But I think that this should not necessarily be so. Talbot could also refuse his participation (although he does not refuse, he simply does not respond) because he feels that, even if it is noble aim, their enterprise is by definition utopian and not realistic. For thus he not remark in his dream “…they were going to some great festival of joy, though where in the desert around them it might be found there was no telling.” It sounds to me that in the eyes of Talbot, who is more realistic, they are doomed already.

I herewith come to the end of the reading of Golding’s sea trilogy. And a most diverting and interesting sea yarn it was. I leave it open if Talbot and his co-passengers will ultimately reach Australia, as I do not want to spoil the fun.

The one year travel with young Edmund Talbot has endeared him to me nearly quite as much as that other “Life child”, Mann’s Hans Castorp.

Rites of passage, Close quarters and Fire down below, will get an honorary place in my library, three great works which will invite rereading time and again.

So dear reader, grab your foul weather gear, wash down your sea-sick pills with a dash of “Navy Rum” and do read Golding’s masterly written trilogy “To the end of the earth”.