SEPTEMBER 1, 2010
William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies
By John Carey
(Free Press, 573 pp., $32.50)
The publishing history of Lord of the Flies reads like a fairy tale. In 1953, more than half a century ago, a grubby, dog-eared manuscript that had made the rounds (and of which only the first twenty or so pages had received serious attention) arrived at the office of Faber & Faber, the most distinguished literary publisher in London. It was turned over to the professional reader, one Polly Perkins, who initially vetted the flow of fiction submissions not only for Faber but also for other publishers, as well as for a leading literary agency. Her brief report, in green ink on the covering letter, was witheringly dismissive: “Time: the Future. Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies. A group of children who land in jungle-country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” Not only she, but, more to the point, Faber’s sales director W.J. Crawley, whose verdict was regarded as infallible, pronounced the submission, then titled Strangers from Within, as quite unpublishable.At this point the dog-eared manuscript would have been dispatched on its travels again had it not been for a new editorial recruit to the firm named Charles Monteith, who saw its superficial flaws but, as he read on, was increasingly gripped by its fearfully vivid narrative, moral intensity, and merciless verdict on mankind. Against the reluctance of his seniors, young Monteith stubbornly, and heroically, persisted: it was lucky for him that the author, an unknown provincial schoolmaster named William Golding, proved editorially cooperative. Grudgingly, the book—revised, re-titled as Lord of the Flies, and furnished with a minimal advance of £60—was accepted by Faber’s Book Committee for publication.
No one supposed it would get anywhere. It was even regarded as over-strong meat for Faber’s literary adviser, T.S. Eliot, and so not shown to him—a revealing mistake. Told, at his club, that “Faber had published an unpleasant novel about small boys behaving unspeakably on a desert island,” Eliot at once, in some alarm, got hold of a copy, read it, and—as John Carey reports in his new life of Golding—“told Monteith next day that he had found it not only a splendid novel but morally and theologically impeccable.” Eliot, the High Anglican Christian of Four Quartets, had at once understood, and appreciated, what had repelled his more rational and socially meliorist colleagues.
Indeed, even Monteith (himself as rational a humanist, lawyer, and fellow of All Souls as one could hope to meet) gagged on a basic element in the text that he first read: the concept of one of the boys, Simon, as an unmistakable Christ figure, moving in a quasi-miraculous aura of sanctity. This was something quite different from the other editorial suggestions—mostly structural—that he offered, and that Golding cheerfully accepted. The miraculous, Monteith told his author, had to be “made ambivalent, eliminated, or ‘toned down’ in such a way as to make Simon explicable in purely rational terms.” Here Golding, though anxious to please, tried to hold out for at least some sort of theophany. Monteith was having none of it. The imaginative foundation may have been a theophany, but that was “to be concealed and built on.” Simon should be simply presented as “in some ways odd, different, withdrawn.” At this point Golding, with the prospect of publication at long last within his grasp, gave in, and removed Simon’s more obvious aura. A pattern had been set. For the next forty years Golding, who never left Faber, strove for the miraculous, and Monteith, his lifelong editor, tried to head him off at the pass with words of reason.
There is a vague general belief—the natural climax to a magical success story—thatLord of the Flies, published in September 1954, instantly turned everything around for Golding, critically and financially. This is far from true. The British reviews were indeed largely enthusiastic, but critical praise notwithstanding, sales remained comparatively modest (4,662 copies by the end of the first year), and initial efforts to market Lord of the Flies (and its immediate successors) in the United States ran into almost as many initial rejections as the manuscript had suffered in England. It was unlikely to sell, the refusals ran; it had no chance commercially, it just would not get off the ground: this of a book that was ultimately to generate at least twenty million copies in the English language alone.
So Golding and his family remained strapped for money. Schoolmastering was now augmented by time-consuming literary journalism, but no real immediate breakthrough seemed in sight, even when, finally, Coward-McCann brought out Lord of the Flies in America. Confirming pessimistic predictions, its initial print run of five thousand sold only 2,383 copies, and Coward-McCann flatly rejected Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors. Harcourt, Brace took an option on his third, Pincher Martin, claiming that The Inheritors would get only “ivory-tower appreciation,” and offering to publish the latter only if and when any Golding book topped sales of 7,500. The offer was reluctantly accepted. Harcourt, Brace not only refused to bring out The Inheritors, it would not let anyone else do so either. Carey understandably describes this American record as “conservative and provincial,” though a more accurate summation might be “unswervingly profit-conscious.” The irony, of course, lies in the complete blindness of the bottomliners to the golden egg they held in their hands. To make things worse, Golding’s fourth novel, the difficult and much revised Free Fall, received such dismissive reviews that it took him at least four years to regain his creative confidence.
It was not until 1961-1962, more than seven years after that first publication, when he spent the academic year as writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia and also undertook a backbreaking lecture tour at colleges all across America, that the sales of Lord of the Flies really took off. Seldom can campus buzz have been more effective. A paperback had come out in 1959: it sold 4,300 that year, 15,000 in 1960, 75,000 in 1961, and an estimated half million by the end of 1962, after which the plates wore out and had to be replaced. At this point Golding, having turned fifty, resigned his teaching post, to his own huge relief, and became a full-time writer. Then, in 1963, Peter Brook’s brilliant film version of Lord of the Flies, dark and terrifying, premiered at Cannes. Though, as Carey says, the movie “introduced Golding’s fable to thousands who never had and never would read him,” it surely also added to the staggering (and never-ending) best-sellerdom that sent sales of Lord of the Flies into the literary stratosphere.
In high schools and on campuses nationwide, this unnerving fable of adolescent (and pre-adolescent) reversion to uninhibited savagery on an uninhabited Pacific island proceeded, as the Cold War got hotter, to oust The Catcher in the Rye as the new bible of the American teenager and college student. Self-pitying egotism was out; original sin—together with the mysticism that so bothered Charles Monteith—made a spectacular comeback. Educators took note: Lord of the Flies became, and remained, as Carey rightly reminds us, a standard item in literary survey courses and national examinations. When, in 1983, Golding went to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, King Carl XVI Gustaf greeted him, shook hands, and said: “It is a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Golding. I had to do Lord of the Flies at school.” Though no longer a schoolmaster, Golding found himself still involved, willy-nilly, in shaping the education of the young, and on a wider stage than he had ever known.
His first novel finally made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but always with a sense of unreality. When he spent his royalties, mostly on travel and entertainment, he would often (as I well remember) refer to such income, dismissively, as Monopoly money, and disparage the work that generated it as “boring and crude.” To thus belittle what was, in effect, a lifelong trust fund might seem to smack of ingratitude; but from Golding’s point of view, the goose that had laid him so unexpected a golden egg was to prove in the long term an unwelcome albatross, casting its malign shadow over all his later fiction. He was to write better novels—most notably The Inheritors and The Spire—but it was as “the man who wrote Lord of the Flies” that he would be remembered, not least during the inevitable slump in reputation that overtook him after his death. Carey chose his sub-title precisely in the hope that readers would discover how much more there was to Golding than his money-making incubus, and in this aim, to an unexpected degree, he has succeeded.
How was the magic worked? What kind of man could have produced so potent and hugely influential a parable as Lord of the Flies? Carey’s biography assembles the facts with thorough research and sympathetic insight, and makes a number of shrewd psychological guesses, but in the end he leaves this, the great enigma of Golding’s life, still hanging in the air. The mystery is only deepened by the fact—apparent to all who knew him wel—that Bill Golding simply did not give the impression of being the kind of fellow one might have deduced from a study of his books: a sage preoccupied with the Fall of Man, the problem of evil, the ramifications of original sin. Bluff, bearded, stocky, cheerful, a great social drinker, a dedicated small-boat sailor, he struck many (wrongly, in my opinion) as the epitome, almost the parody, of a hearty ex-naval officer. At their first meeting, when Golding was over seventy, Carey “could not believe that this was the man who had written the novels.” Monteith similarly, years earlier, had expected to meet an ascetic young clergyman, and was duly taken aback by his author’s tweediness. But on learning that Golding was a schoolmaster, he reflected sensibly that “only a schoolmaster could know, so intimately, how awful boys could be.”
Begin at the beginning, then. Golding’s father Alec, who, as Carey emphasizes, “influenced him more strongly than any other human being,” and is the model for Nick Shales in Free Fall, was a science teacher. He admired H.G. Wells, reckoned Darwin’s theory of evolution “one of the most sublime conceptions of the human mind,” was a devotee of great music and literature, a teetotaler, uncomfortable with sex and rowdiness, a socialist, an atheist, a pacifist, an egalitarian on women’s rights. His wife Mildred, six years older than him, was also a musician, also a teetotaler (though, or perhaps because, born in a pub), also a socialist, and at least an agnostic if not an atheist. Plenty for any offspring to rebel against there. In 1905, Alec got a job teaching physics, chemistry, drawing, and botany at Marlborough Grammar School. He and Mildred lived in Marlborough for the rest of their lives. They had two sons, of whom the second, known then as Billy, was born in 1911. For whatever reason, Alec never became a headmaster, and middle-class competitive disdain (so well captured later by Golding in The Pyramid) may have been what made him come to regard himself as a professional and social failure.
The house in which Billy grew up, and Marlborough College, the great public (that is, private) school at the other end of the High Street—very much not, in the minutely calibrated British social scale, the grammar school where his father taught—each, in their different ways, influenced him till the end of his life. No. 29 The Green was ancient: it certainly went back to the eighteenth century, and in part, Golding was convinced, as far as the fourteenth. Its dark cellars seemed haunted (he had recurrent nightmares about them), and its garden almost certainly had once formed part of the nearby church’s burial grounds. The atmosphere of the place filled him with horror, augmented by the scarily persuasive ghost stories that his mother, a Cornish native, took pleasure in telling him. When he left home, he recalled, it was “like being let out of prison.”
His animus against Marlborough College, though equally intense, was socially based. Both boys and masters there “radiated exclusiveness.” The social gap between them and his family was “as real as a wound.” From dreams he came to see that his ambition as a writer was bound up with a determination “to show Marlborough, and then piddle on them.” As Carey says, “the sense of social inadequacy that dogged him all his life took root here.” His late-in-life zealous (and successful) pursuit of a knighthood, which has elicited patronizing sneers from English reviewers, was still part of the business of “showing them,” just as his drinking and his youthful sexual escapades were in large part a reaction against his teetotaling and physically undemonstrative parents. “We were not a touching family,” he recalled. His mother never hugged him or held him; and to make up for this she would throw things at him (including a metal pot full of hot tea) when she lost her temper.
He told Carey of several early experiences that highlight that uncertain area between an ultra-vivid creative imagination and visions of an otherworldly reality. When less than two, in his crib, he claimed to have seen what looked like a small white cockerel strutting along the curtain-pole, head bobbing, emanating “utter friendliness.” Then it vanished, and the friendliness went with it. A year or two later, in Savernake Forest (later to provide much of the landscape for The Inheritors) with his parents, he lagged behind, they hid for a joke, and alone in the growing dusk he suddenly saw a stag’s head, with antlers, radiating “stillness and terrible indifference.” His parents swore there had been no stag: he knew better, and knew too that this was not “an ordinary kind of seeing.” Was there a difference between these visions and the vividly detailed waking dream he had when about ten—subsequently proved imaginary—of helping a museum curator unbandage a mummy? Impossible to tell, though he firmly believed so. All his life the conflict between mystical experience and scientific evidence nagged at his psyche.
For the most part Golding’s schooldays at Marlborough Grammar School were successful and unremarkable. His early taste in books, conveniently forgotten later, ran to Ian Hay and Edgar Wallace. He was good at games, captain of cricket, and an outstanding sprinter; he also won a prize for drawing. Nagged at by Alec, he settled down to Latin and biology. He developed a lifelong passion for chess. He had inherited the musical genes from both parents, and fancied himself (all flash and little practice) a pianist.
Two young women, Dora Spencer and Mollie Evans, seem to have left an indelible mark on him. Dora was a Catholic, the daughter of a sergeant-majorish local redneck. Golding first met her as a violinist in a musical group, pursued her awkwardly but with determination, and got what he wanted while she was still only fifteen. Though ashamed of the urge, she enjoyed being whipped (by a local games master), and forced Golding to acknowledge, reluctantly, his own latent streak of sadism. His encounter with Dora is presented, only minimally fictionalized, in The Pyramid, where she figures as the promiscuous but miserable Evie Babbacombe.
With Mollie Evans he had a very different relationship. Unlike Dora, she was shy, delicate, idealistic, and shared his passion for literature. They became engaged. Both families approved. Eventually Golding’s persistence triumphed, and they slept together. Mollie proved nervously frigid: sex was not a success. But they remained a couple through Golding’s years at Oxford and his eventual drift into teaching at Maidstone Grammar School in 1938: increasingly used to each other, yet always too poor (and perhaps too uncertain) to marry.
Then, just before the outbreak of war, Golding met Ann Brookfield, from a large, raucous, left-wing Welsh family: beautiful, rebellious, a mathematician and a county hockey player. She and Golding took one look at each other and ended up, very enjoyably, in bed. They summarily broke off their existing engagements, and on September 30, 1939, poor or not, had a registry office wedding. Golding, who had found his spouse for life, was nevertheless haunted till his dying day by guilt for his precipitate betrayal and abandonment of Mollie. Desperately hurt, Mollie never married, and possibly suffered mental collapse. Golding drew her as Mary in Pincher Martin, and, unforgettably, as Beatrice Ifor in Free Fall. Another huge part of his creative world was now in place.
World War II, Carey rightly says, “changed the lives of everyone who lived through it.” This was certainly true of Golding. In 1940, he joined the Royal Navy. As a rating in the cruiser Galatea he saw action in the pursuit of the Bismarck (and on watch, embarrassingly, mistook the spouting of a whale for shell fire). Commissioned from the ranks, he served with distinction as the commander of a rocket ship on D-Day and during the Walcheren landings, an experience of death and destruction that he never forgot. As part of the first draft of an essay for Holiday magazine, “Through the Dutch Waterways,” in an impressionistic memory of the battle excised from the final text, he recalled “ships mined, ships blowing up into a Christmas tree of exploding ammunition, ships burning, sinking—and smoke everywhere slashed by sudden spats of tracer over the shell fountains and the broken, drowning men.” One valuable lesson he learned from all this, as he candidly admitted, was that he found he could think clearly and act courageously even when terrified.
But the war in fact had a far more deep-seated effect on him. Carey was given access to a private memoir titled “Men, Women & Now,” never printed or even typed, written in 1965 at Ann’s suggestion as a piece of self-analysis and an answer to critics who claimed that Golding could not write about relations between men and women or “deal with adults deeply.” In this memoir Golding put it on record that the war triggered “a sort of religious convulsion which is not uncommon among people of a passionate and morbid habit,” that it gave him for the first time “a kind of framework of principles which I still hold mainly, even when I am untrue to them,” and that it made him see—also, one suspects, for the first time—what he describes as the “viciousness” and “cruelty” of his own youth.
He thought himself a monster; he looked into his heart and saw universal evil there. In a much-quoted phrase, he declared that “I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature,” and added that Lord of the Flies was generated, at least in part, by “that sad self-knowledge.” Golding’s surrogate Christopher in Pincher Martin, actor and layabout, is famously described by an acquaintance: “This painted bastard here takes anything he can lay his hands on.... He was born with his mouth and his flies open and both hands out to grab. He’s a cosmic case of the bugger who gets his penny and someone else’s bun.” How far was any of this true? It all sounds like a case of what a Catholic priest with long experience of the confessional once described to me as “self-flattering sinfulness.” The evidence from his actual life that Carey has so painstakingly pieced together strongly suggests that both here and in his memoir Golding decidedly exaggerates his record (if not his dreams) of wrongdoing: he comes across as not really much worse than the average self-centered adolescent.
But he did—as Dora Spencer perceived and I well recall—have a streak of cruelty about him when dealing with the weak and vulnerable: these, women in particular, he often wanted (as he himself admitted) not only to dominate but also to break down. He was, in fact, a classic tail-twister, something those as tough as him tended not to notice. Both his children, at one time and another, suffered nervous collapses. This is unlikely to have been coincidental. Thus he faced the postwar world saddled not only with horrific war memories, but also with a crushing (if exaggerated) burden of guilt at what he took to be his own ineradicably cruel, vicious, and generally evil nature. Despite the limited factual basis for such a severe judgment, the belief itself was to permeate his attitude to life and everything he wrote.
In 1945, Golding returned to the teaching post at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury Grammar School that he had briefly occupied in 1940—after being sacked from Maidstone Grammar School for what he described, ambiguously, as “an unacademic combination of drink, women and politics.” His politics, like Ann’s, were radical, his relations with women could be dangerous, and his drinking had started early, though this is the first recorded occasion-but by no means the last—on which it had embarrassing consequences. He clearly stepped up his intake in order to cope both with his wartime memories and his nagging sense of guilty self-hatred. He also claims that he disliked teaching (though some of his pupils remembered him with real affection and admiration). What he wanted to be was a writer, but with a wife and a growing family he needed a job, and he was unqualified for anything else. This was the life he led for the next sixteen years, until Lord of the Fliesfinally came to his rescue.
It was not that Golding wrote nothing before then. He produced at least three unsuccessful novels, scribbled during breaks, lunch hours, or even in class when his pupils were answering quizzes or writing essays. Two of these were adventure stories centered on small-boat sailing, one of them described by its author as “Arthur Ransome for grownups.” The third, predictably, was a school novel, Short Measure, set in a thinly disguised Bishop Wordsworth’s, about which Carey tells us just enough to whet our curiosity (that is, it contained a fictionalized version of what life might have been like had Golding married Mollie, and an account of the repressed pederastic devotion, cast in religious terms, of one master to a beautiful blond blue-eyed schoolboy). All three submissions were turned down by publishers, though Short Measure made Jonathan Cape ask to see more of Golding’s work. And then, one winter evening in 1951, after the children had been read to in bed from R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, Golding had a brainwave. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea,” he mused to Ann, “if I wrote a book about children on an island, children who behave in the way children really would behave?”
I first met Bill Golding when Tony Godwin picked both of us for the selection committee of the Book Society in 1959; but for several years before that we had carried on an illuminating correspondence about his work. He came across as witty, ironical, surprisingly pragmatic, and more than willing to discuss his creative ideas with a complete stranger. These letters laid the foundations for what was to prove perhaps the closest, and certainly the most enduring, friendship of my life. They also furnished me with essential material for an evaluation of the first four novels, Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, and Free Fall, delivered as a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in 1960, and published in the Society’s annual three years later. The conclusions I reached then I still, for the most part, maintain today. Each of these novels has an isolated setting—a small uninhabited island, a prehistoric wilderness, a lonely Atlantic rock, a prison cell—used, like a petri dish, for experiment without external influence. Equally important, the characters of the first two—young schoolboys, inarticulate Neanderthals—preclude the study of full adult relationships. It is only with the first-person narratives of Pincher Martin and Free Fall that we see the beginnings of a fierce struggle to break loose from this selfimposed isolation.
Golding revealed, in his work and in his letters to me, a passion for the crucial importance of individual self-knowledge, which he saw as the only hope for modern humanity. All his characters, he insisted to Ann, must have some kind of cosmic connection with the universe, and through the universe (as he made clear) to a less-than-clearly-conceived notion of God. I began to see him as a kind of spiritual cosmologist: from the start he seems to have been battling his father’s world of scientific reason. Both Lord of the Fliesand The Inheritors took a popular modern notion—the happy upper-class colonialism of Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, the evolutionary rationalism of H.G. Wells’s The Grisly Folk—and stood it on its head. In both we are brought face-to-face with the loss of primal innocence, and in The Inheritors we glimpse an unfamiliar version of the Fall, with a Neanderthal couple as the prelapsarian Adam and Eve.
Pincher Martin, using both Aeschylus and Dante, shows us a recalcitrant dead man creating his own Promethean purgatory: his final cry, impenitent and defiant as the black lightning plays around him, is “I shit on your heaven!” Sammy Mountjoy, the narrator ofFree Fall, who shows himself capable of the kind of heightened mystical vision shared by creators as different as Traherne and van Gogh, cries for help and does win through in the end to a perception of the truth; but the truth for Golding was still that all terror and despair are born of the human mind, and all evil too, while Sammy remains hopelessly crippled (Golding once told me) by the scientific rationalism of his “confused cosmos.” We are back with original sin. Wasn’t good equally an exclusively human concept? “Good can take care of itself,” he replied. “Evil is the problem.” Carey’s biography lets us see how closely he based this belief on his own early life.
So—like Monteith, like Carey—I was more than a little surprised by Bill Golding in the flesh: cheerful, solid, well-spoken, quick-witted, twinkly-eyed, blond and bearded, excellent company, with no sign of the tortured soul so apparent in his fiction, and no obvious evidence of any upward social anguish. We hit it off from the start, and after our panel meetings had a series of long enjoyable lunches at which we discussed everything from Euripides (his favorite ancient writer) to current British politics, but somehow said nothing about original sin. That, along with evil, had been dealt with in our correspondence. Face-to-face, British reticence took over. Literary critics who insisted on separating person from authorial persona ought to have been pleased. In fact, on learning that Bill was excellent, and at times uproarious, company, they tended to be either incredulous or irritated.
The turning point in our relationship was brought about by my emigration in the spring of 1963, with my family, to a small Greek island village, from which we cheerfully invited the Goldings to come visit. They did: a habit that persisted over the years, and at all seasons. Most of my best memories of Bill have a Mediterranean background. There were walls of English reticence on both sides that perhaps only the relentless clarity of the Aegean, together with the suspension of those equally relentless social pressures against which we both kept up a kind of odi et amo running battle, could have combined to bring down. I vividly recall Bill’s unofficial midday taverna discussions, over beer and meze, with a fascinated circle of expats, all of whom he coaxed into being wonderfully articulate and confrontational: he must have been a far more inspiring teacher than Carey’s sources were prepared to admit.
I also remember one March when we drove to Delphi in a snowstorm (which made the place look like an eighteenth-century steel engraving) and Bill and I engaged in a riveting over-the-retsina argument about the nature of the Pythia’s utterances. A quarter of a century later his extraordinary posthumous novel, The Double Tongue, showed how deeply the discussion had lodged itself in his creative psyche. The mystical element in that psyche responded strongly to the Hellenic atmosphere. But how to express the mystical vision that is beyond words? How to defy ineffability? Free Fall had been moving in that direction. The Spire—published in 1964: I remember Bill correcting proofs in our Greek island house—faced the challenge head-on.
Once again, the inspiration was local. Salisbury Cathedral boasts the tallest surviving pre-fifteenth-century spire in the world: 404 feet high, miraculously unfallen (aided by buttresses, bracing arches, and iron ties) above a building with only four feet or so of poor brushwood and rubble foundations, so that when some 6,500 tons of extra weight were put on them, the massive corner pillars reportedly “sang,” and to this day can still be seen bending inward under the unimaginable stress. From his classroom Bill could see repairs to the spire going on; he knew the story well. The Spire does not name the cathedral, but the spire’s making in the novel, described with striking technical expertise and relish, is true in every detail. What we have here is a historical fable of immense subtlety and ambition, confronting a priest striving upward for the greater glory of God (and believing in miracles) with a pragmatic master builder who calculates stress empirically by weight and knows, to a yard or two, when the spire will-inevitably, as he believes—collapse.
That against all the odds it did not do so, that it still stands today, is a truth outside the fiction. We know it, in a way that the fictional characters, mired in the interplay of saintliness and human brutishness, cannot. What The Spire shows, in detail, is the welter of lust, hatred, even murder that is inextricably bound up with Dean Jocelin’s transcendent vision and Roger Mason’s heroic stonework. But the dying Jocelin can still only catch a fleeting glimpse of his vision, and all he can find to describe it is the sunlit glory of an apple tree, the flash of a vanishing kingfisher. Throughout his career Golding pursued the manifestation of that vision, and to the very end it remained elusive. Evil, by comparison, was easily depictable.
With assured success, too, the tight and painful creative knot of guilt and mysticism began to loosen. Darkness Visible (which appeared in 1979, after a long decade of desperate re-writing and revision) was the last of the great cosmic novels, and it is significant that it was the book that Golding always flatly refused to discuss, largely because (as he privately admitted) he had not the faintest idea what it was really about. The hell this time was burning London (and could have been Dresden, or Hiroshima), with Matty a new Simon refined and purged in the flames; but this near-supernatural element never quite melds with the second theme of the twins Toni and Sophy, nascent terrorist and nasty psychological basket case, both very much of this world, guilt and all. Once more the conclusion is left open-ended, but this time, I suspect, not for metaphysical reasons, but because Golding could not find a way to tie it up convincingly.
Matty, in fact, represents Golding’s farewell to the quasi-mystical protagonist and cosmic—but vivid and immediate—world that were the disconcerting moral inventions of his early novels, and which so amply justified the award to him in 1983 of the Nobel Prize in Literature. With Rites of Passage and its two successors in the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, his fiction enters the traditional mainstream: no accident that it was Rites of Passage that won him the Booker Prize. It is only with The Double Tongue, that uncanny and unfinished investigation of the nature of creative utterance, pitting (literally) divine inspiration against rational intelligence, that we sense an exciting return to the old questing originality. Golding’s Euripidean anti-clericalism helped him to draw a marvelous portrait of the rational, cynical, well-read, and carefully profit-conscious Delphic high priest Ionides. This charming ironist finds himself landed with a new Pythia, called Arieka, who may—disconcertingly, because he does not really believe in it—be the real thing, Apollo’s true mouthpiece. She, reminiscing in her eighties (like Golding when he created her), recalls a devastating, mindless possession and rape of her by the god during her first mantic session as a young girl, amid mad laughter, her mouth torn and bloody. “One mouth or the other!” the voice cries in her head. But which one?
That puzzle, as always with Golding, remains unsolved. Had he lived longer, would he have come nearer to the answer? Is there a vox Dei beyond the reach of scientific explanation? Are the two (as Golding, through Arieka, sometimes seems to hint) irremediably confused? We cannot tell. So let Arieka herself have the last word. The final event she records in her memoir (supposedly written late in the first century B.C.E.) is the offer of a statue by the Athenians to honor her long career as Pythia. What they should rather do, she suggests, is erect a simple altar with a dedicatory inscription: “To the Unknown God.” I can almost hear Bill’s sly chuckle as he wrote those closing words. Not everyone has the privilege of giving themselves so appropriate, and so ambiguous, an exit line.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics and the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph.