Thoughts on William Golding: Frank Kermode's & Mine
COMPARISONS AND CONTRASTS
During the last 16 years, my retirement from a half century of student-and-paid-employment life, 1949 to 1999, I have reinvented myself into several roles. Two of these roles are 'reader-and-scholar', and these two roles have enabled me to study some of the many fields I taught and read as a generalist over those five decades. Frank Kermode is just one of many writers and scholars I have come to appreciate in these retirement years freed, as I now am, from 60 to 80 hours a week engaged in the responsibilities of family and job, community and society.
Kermode died on 17 August 2010 at the age of 90. He was the author of many books, including Romantic Image(1957), The Sense of an Ending (1967) and Shakespeare’s Language (2000). He was the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, and the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. He inspired the founding of the London Review in 1979, and wrote more than 200 pieces for the paper many of which I have now read in recent years.
I discovered Kermode after he died, and after I had myself been on an old-age pension for two or three years. Today I read a review that Kermode wrote a few months before he died. It was in the London Review of Books. The review was entitled "Theophany", and it was a review of John Carey's biography of William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’, (Faber, 600 pages). I read Lord of the Flies while in high school or university. I have no recollection of just when I read this book which has taken over from Catcher in the Rye, as Kermode claims, as the bedside book for educated American youth and, he might have added, youth in our developed western world. After the passing of half a century or more since first reading Golding, with hundreds, indeed thousands, of books now under my belt, it is difficult to remember exactly when I read what.
Kermode informs us that "John Carey had access to voluminous archives stored in the Faber basement or in the keeping of William Golding’s family. No one else may see them; he alone can quote from unpublished novels, journals, memoirs, correspondence and conversations. He has made excellent use of these privileges, and the result is a full, friendly, and on proper occasions candid, account of a remarkable man, who took a long time to achieve an understanding of how truly remarkable he was, and then did so only fitfully." I have never had any trouble, fitfully or otherwise, understanding how remarkable I am or was. I've never been in the running to be remarkable.
At best, I've been a slightly higher achiever, but only in a very general sense for I am, if nothing else, a generalist by education and experience. I never had sufficient interest to become a specialist, nor were my marks high enough back in the 1960s to continue down the academic road toward a PhD. Later in life my marks were high enough but, by then, I did not have sufficient interest to learn more and more about less and less and transfer, as it is often said of dissertations and theses, dry bones from one graveyard to another.
Kermode writes that Golding was a man who not only wrote some remarkable books, but also had a life that turned out to be far more interesting than he could have predicted when he settled reluctantly into a career as a provincial grammar school master in 1939 at the age of 28. From the age of 23 to 28, during the years 1935 to 1939, Golding worked as a writer, actor, and producer with a small theater in an unfashionable part of London, paying his bills with a job as a social worker. My life, too, has certainly turned out to be far more interesting than I could have predicted when I settled into a career as a teacher from 1967 to 1972, also from the age of 23 to 28, first on Baffin Island among the Inuit, and then in Australia among another indigenous people.
The years 1935 to 1939 were the years when the Baha'is of North America were first putting together their systematic teaching plan for the extension and consolidation of the Baha'i Faith. It was a Plan whose extension in the following decades I have now been associated with for over 60 years. Golding continued teaching until 1961 when he could afford to resign thanks to his publishing successes beginning in 1954 with Lord of the Flies. Those same years, 1939 to 1961, were important ones in my own life: my parents met and married; I was born in 1944 while Golding was in the Royal Navy and helping the allies defeat the Nazis; my mother joined the Baha'i Faith in 1953, and I also joined this newest of the Abrahamic religions in 1959.
Golding, we are informed by Kermode, had no great skill as a teacher, though he was of independent intellect and had an enduring, endearing passion for Homeric Greek. He owed a great debt to the example of an ingenious schoolmaster father, and to a period of service in the navy that must later have been an important factor in the transformation of teacher into author.
My transformation of teacher into author came by sensible and insensible degrees in my 40s and 50s, as Golding's transformation did during the same years in his lifespan. My transformation took place in the 1980s and 1990s. I, too, owed a great debt to my hard-working and quite ingenious father, although it took me many years after his passing to appreciate that debt. I never had to fight in a war; I had no passion for Homer or for Greek, although I had some success with Latin, and with my role as a teacher and tutor, lecturer and adult educator. My intellect also had some independent reach, though it was not as fierce and certainly not as talented as Golding's. It was an intellect that brought him both fame and wealth, entities which will elude me even if I should live to be 100.
As a boy Golding was, like his father, a talented musician. He played half a dozen instruments, with a preference for the piano, at which he thought he might have reached a high level but for his left-handedness. In any case his father put an end to thoughts of a musical career by forcing him to go to Oxford. Golding loathed Oxford with what seems an almost morbid intensity. I, too, was left-handed and my father was a talented pianist, as was my mother, but they did not force me into playing an instrument or into going to university. They let me pursue my own interests in sport, in studies of my own choice, and in that new, that latest, of the Abrahamic religions, the Baha'i Faith.
At university Golding played his piano, too loudly in the opinion of some dons; he stole some books, ran up debts to the college, nursed a hatred for privilege, got a second-class degree and, rather surprisingly, published a slender book of poems. My four years of university saw me playing a guitar, getting a third-class degree, a second-class teaching qualification, and not writing anything worthy of publication. Golding, we are told, was poor and lonely, sullen and unhappy at Oxford. I spent my four post-secondary school years, 1963 to 1967, also being somewhat poor, being the son of lower middle-class parents, and dealing with the rigours of a mood disorder that came to be called cyclothymia.
With the aid of one of Golding's memoirs, Carey has been able to comment on the author’s early sexual experiences, which included an assault on a 15-year-old girl; Golding thought of it as an attempted rape. But the girl in question took her crafty revenge by luring him into alfresco sex in a scene Golding’s father was able to observe through his binoculars. I, too, had sexual experiences I write about only in my journal, but readers will have to wait until my demise to read about them, but only if my executors decide to publish, a decision I have left to them.
Carey notes a certain desire on Golding’s part – in his books as well as in life – to compel women into submission, and there does seem to have been an element of violence in his sexual adventures, as there was, he admitted, in his personality more largely considered. I had no problems with violence and women. I might have desired, although I was not able to achieve, their submissiveness in my sexual adventures and misadventures. Nor did I have troubles with alcohol and drunkenness as Golding did, again, according to Carey. Sometimes it seems that Golding's novel Pincher Martin is a nightmare autobiography or ‘confession’. In fact that is what Golding himself called it. My autobiography exhibits, at most, a modest, a mild, confessionalism. It also deals with some degree of nightmare in the account of my bipolar disorder.
Golding had a special interest in saints and a strong desire, an aspiration, to possess that inexplicable but incontrovertible power to know people, to see clean through their outward personality and into their inner life. It could be said that the famous writers: Flaubert, George Eliot and Dostoevsky--shared that power. I had some of this desire, but it was certainly not as strong in me as it was in Golding or those other writers to whom I referred above. That aspiration of Golding's was already evident in an unpublished novel called Circle under the Sea, of which Carey is able to give an account.
In than novel Golding divides his own personality between two characters, one a yachtsman with ‘a capacity for supernatural experiences’, a peaceful, rather fat man with a spiritual insight into evil; the other an ineffective, underpaid schoolmaster with an interest in prehistory, a longing for fame and a drink problem. He was, of course, both these characters, but the first was the one he thought well of. I, too, could divide my personality into at least two characters due to my bipolar disorder. I have written a 350 page account of that personality in what I call my "chaos narrative." In my memoirs I have also written about several other of my personalities and roles, persona and character orientations which I have exhibited over my 72 year lifespan.
Golding acknowledged a belief in original sin as necessary to any explanation of the darkness of the human lot. Many episodes in his fiction as well as in his life called for both a supernaturalism remote from that offered by official religions, and a language to deal with dreadful and despairing aspects of life. In the decade after the publication in 1954 of Lord of the Flies he published: The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall and The Spire. These were four novels of extraordinary originality and power, which brought him fame and eventually the Nobel Prize. Lord of the Flies, despite its good reception and virtually unprecedented later success, encountered some hostile comment, perhaps because some read it as if it really should have been turned down as it was by Faber’s first reader. Thanks to Faber's first reader of his now famous novel, it stood a good chance of never being published at all. Had it been scrapped, it seems possible that it would have had no successors.
Golding and I have, and have had, very different theologies not only in relation to original sin but also in relation to the concept of theophany. To expatiate in detail on our varied theologies and apologetics would lead this prose-poem into a prolixity far beyond what I have already produced. I had no success at writing novels, and so I have never had to deal with the kind of critical comment Golding received in relation to his literary works, at least not to the extent that Golding's writings have elicited. I have become a small time, minor, player in the vast internet commentariat and bloggosphere with criticisms received and measured in nanoseconds.
Eventually, and thanks mostly to the mad success of Lord of the Flies, Golding became so rich that his problem was what to do with money that refused to be burned even by lavish expenditure on boats, cars and travel. His way of life was transformed. He even joined the chorus of the rich in protesting about the level of income tax. His rate of production slowed; after Free Fall there was a two-year gap in which he did nothing in the way of fiction, and he sometimes feared there was no more to say. It doesn’t appear that he enjoyed his years of intermission, his ‘gap'.
He took pleasure, though not to excess, in his celebrity; he was uneasy with ideas of fame that were not natural to him, or which attributed to him powers he did not claim. He wrote novels about very large and important subjects but insisted he was not a sage, not a guru, not a prophet. Golding allowed himself to be treated as the sort of sage he had no ambition to be. As he wrote in one of the pieces in A Moving Target he was, when all was said and done, ‘an ageing novelist, a mere story-teller, floundering in all the complexities of 20th-century living, all the muddle of part beliefs.' Better still, he was just an artist; that was his job.
I knew, too, that I was no sage, guru or prophet, and I certainly had no ambition to be any of these increasingly ubiquitous characters on society's stage. I did not have to deal with the problems of celebrity although, like Golding, the complexities of the 20th century kept me busy. Money has always been sufficient for my needs and those of my family, but the problems of being rich, or famous, have never concerned me, although I have nothing personally against either fame or wealth.
Carey thinks Golding was inspired by fear. Kermode agrees. It was not simply a fear of God or the devil or even of the supernatural as he had experienced it, says Kermode who goes on to state that Golding knew fear in a simpler and perhaps more urgent form, a variety more familiar to people of his age who went through WW2. Golding knew the war at sea, the long ordeal of the Atlantic convoys; he became an efficient officer and commanded a warship, and a rocket-ship, small but very powerfully armed and dangerous to friend as well as enemy. Golding played an active part in the Normandy landings and again in the important action at Walcheren, of which Carey provides a skilfully reconstructed account.
Things went awry there, and there were heavy casualties. ‘Memories of Walcheren haunted him for the rest of his life.’ He had to live, like many of his contemporaries, with memories of dead friends and the knowledge that he had probably killed a number of people. His courage was an essential part of the terror with which he contemplated the beauty of his private world. When one looks at the list of his novels, including the remarkable late trilogy beginning with Rites of Passage, one is again struck by the originality and power of his mind, the variety of his invention. That he was a profoundly religious man may now be held against him, writes Kermode, but it remains a cause of wonder that modern English literature has been so diffident about establishing him among the greatest.1
I, too, have had my fears and I write about them in great detail in what I call 'my chaos narrative'. This narrative is the personal account of my bipolar disorder over more than seven decades. The war that has been my life has been so very different than Golding's. His life has provided for me a useful comparison and contrast, a source of some sense of just who I am, and have been in life. Comparisons may be odious, as it is often said, but they are, it seems to me, inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of our life at this climacteric in history which we are all living through and have lived through, perhaps, for more than 100 years since that war to end wars. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Frank Kermode, "Theophany," London Review of Books, 5/11/'09.
You've made millions, William,
before you died in '93 just when
I was beginning to eye my years
of retirement from employment,
an intense engagement in family
and community life; years that
had kept me busy for half of a
century, from 1949 to 1999, &
yes, and, now I am free, thank
God Almighty I'm free at last
to reinvent myself as a writer
and author, poet & publisher,
editor & researcher, an online
blogger & journalist, a reader
and scholar. I won't make any
millions, William; it's indeed
a delight, though, to have the
millions of readers now that
I am going through my 70s &,
thanks to my medications I'm
also free to enjoy life far away
from those rigours of bipolar I
disorder, and the cyclothymia
that hit me for six back in my
late teens and early 20s while
I was at university: '63 to '67.
married for 48 years, a teacher for 32, a student for 18, a writer & editor for 16, and a Baha'i for 56(in 2015).