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A curious and sporadically interesting piece by Melvyn Bragg in The Independent reminds me that it is 50 years since William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies appeared.

Golding is the writer I most regret never having met, and Bragg’s description of a long, drunken afternoon at Golding’s Salisbury home makes him sound even more convivial company than I had imagined.

I honestly can’t remember which of Golding’s novels I read first. It wasn’t The Lord of the Flies, it was a long time before I read that for the first time. It was probably Free Fall, a book which still has an extraordinary ability to shiver my emotions, partly because of that extraordinary first line about the covers of secondhand books in a street market bursting with purple hosannahs, and partly because the narrator’s childhood home always evokes very vivid images of my grandmother’s home, even though the two are very different. I do know that at the time – this would have been the late 60s – I read all of his novels to date in very short order (except for The Lord of the Flies which I didn’t get to for another decade or more).

Although Free Fall remains closest to me on a personal level, The Spire comes pretty close and is the better novel. I think it was the best thing Golding wrote, a book which feels convincingly like a slice of medieval life without ever going in for the long scene-setting descriptions of most historical novels. I suspect there is actually very little specific detail about the period – I know Golding has said that his descriptions of how the spire was built was based on what he knew of how sailors used block-and-tackle on tall masted ships – but though I’ve read it several times I’ve never been able to slow down enough to notice.

The Inheritors was another book that knocked me out when I first read it. I re-read it only a year or so back and was astonished to realise how narrow the focus was. It all takes place in a matter of a few days in a territory you could walk across in an hour or so at most, and involves no more characters than you could count on your fingers. Yet, when I read it, it felt vast, and it still feels vast. This was apparently Golding’s favourite among his books, and I can understand why, technically it’s an astounding achievement, though can’t help feeling he explored his religious themes better in Free Fall, The Spire and, of course, Pincher Martin.

I remember when Maureen first read The Affirmation by Christopher Priest she said there was a big black hole at the heart of him. That was the effect that Pincher Martin had on me when I first read it. Most of these books I first read from the school library, but then went out and bought my own copies as soon as could. But for a long time I would not buy Pincher Martin, just the thought of it touched a nerve and I didn’t want to go back to the book. Then, eventually, I did pick up a copy (completism has much to recommend it) and I’ve re-read the book a couple of times since then. It still has the power to disturb me, but at the same time I now recognise what a tremendous piece of work it is, absolutely one of the essential works of the last century.

Let’s see, I also read his essays in The Hot Gates, his three superb novellas in The Scorpion God, and The Pyramid, the early novel that tends to get forgotten. It’s a slight piece about suburban infidelity that really doesn’t work as well as his earlier novels. The Pyramid and The Scorpion God came out not long before I first discovered his work, and after that there was silence. It was like discovering a favourite group just at the point that they break up. Then, perhaps ten years after I first picked up Free Fall, there came Darkness Visible. I bought it in hardback the moment it came out – the first time I’d had a chance to do that – I even ended up reviewing the book for Vector (on rather dubious grounds, but it was that review which I sent out as a sample that got me a professional reviewing gig sometime later). Darkness Visible is, to be honest, a somewhat incoherent book full of awesome images and too much iconography for the story, but it signalled his return. We got his ‘To The Ends of the Earth’ Trilogy, which earned him his Booker and probably contributed to the Nobel; The Paper Men, a feeble comedy; and his posthumous novel, The Double Tongue, which might have been brilliant if it had ever been completed; not to mention his Egyptian travel book and another collection of essays, The Moving Target. There’s good stuff here, but they’re not books I go back to. Not the way I go back to those early novels.

The story goes that the first novel, The Lord of the Flies, was rejected 19 times before it was finally taken on by Charles Mentieth at Faber (Mentieth seems to have been responsible for many of my favourite books and authors from the 50s right through to the 70s). The book is wonderful, you wonder what might have been on the minds of those 19 publishers half a century ago. But it is most wonderful for the four novels that followed in a burst of extraordinary creative energy by one of the most significant British writers of the century. I am sure that I shall be going back to Free Fall and The Spire, The Inheritors and, yes, even Pincher Martin for as long as I live. And there aren’t that many books or novelists I feel that way about.

First published at Livejournal, 1 October 2004.

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