• Email
  • Print

The Case for William Golding

The Spire

by William Golding
Harcourt, Brace and World, 215 pp., $3.95

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has sold over a million copies in the American paperback edition alone. It has, by all accounts, succeeded The Catcher in the Rye as the livre de chevet of educated American youth. I doubt if anybody is really qualified to say why this should be so: books make their way inexplicably. This one was published in 1954, and certainly it was noticed; E. M. Forster commended it and “everybody” talked about it, but with a sense that it was caviar rather than chowder—a book to tempt an intellectual into believing he had discovered a classic at its birth, but hardly a best seller. In the years that followed Golding did much to confirm this belief, but very little towards making himself a popular novelist. The Inheritors is a technically uncompromising, fiercely odd, even old-fashioned book about the overthrow of Neanderthal man, wonderfully distinguished but inconceivable as a big seller; Pincher Martin is as difficult as it is masterly; and Free Fall is complex, original, and in many ways reader-repellent. Golding’s fifth and latest novel, coming five years after Free Fall, is unsurprising in one way at least: it is fire-new, magnificently written in what, despite its novelty, we can identify as a style bearing the impress of Golding’s peculiar presence; but difficult, inviting only slow and submissive readers.

And yet Lord of the Flies has the vast readership. One can’t help guessing at the reasons. For one thing, it is a horribly comforting book; it assures us that evil is natural to men, and not something that we have recently invented. It is absolutely free of desperately “forward” thinking—no Zen, no diagnosis of modern civilization, only of civilization. Yet is is spare and diagrammatic, and lends itself to techniques of sophisticated reading now widely taught in American colleges. Ultimately it derives from, or, as the word is, displaces, a familiar myth, that of the Earthly Paradise, which it handles ironically. And as it develops the myth with intricate passion, it alludes implicitly (as Golding, I think, could never do explicitly) to Freud and to all other conceivable systematic explanations of the phenomena. One might say cautiously that the book has a kind of innocence, thinking of two things: the later novels, which are more occult; and Golding’s own view, since abandoned, that there is only one true way of reading a novel, and that the author alone can know it, so that he takes upon him the responsibility of ensuring that a good reader can read it in that way.

This is a bad doctrine, and it does not distinguish between a novel and a riddle. It cannot be maintained in respect of Lord of the Flies, but Golding thought it could; and oddly enough the error had beneficial results. The novel has an extreme sharpness of outline, an exactness of invention, which come from its closeness to diagram, and which make it unusually susceptible to the techniques of reading now propagated. Thus Lord of the Flies (aided, no doubt by the snowball law of popular acclaim) made its way by not being like Kafka, or like Death in Venice, by not being psychologically occult; the plot explains its own profundities. Furthermore, it has closed form, whereas the more brilliant contemporary American novelists have reverted to open form. You live along the lines of the book and feel, in its pattern a total explanation. It belongs, to use a distinction of Iris Murdoch’s, to the crystalline rather than to the journalistic pole of fiction. The virtuosity of (say) Philip Roth, belongs near the journalistic pole; the needs of Golding involve him in experimentation of a virtuoso order, but this is a matter of structure and hardly at all of drawing—the quick accuracy of a Roth conversation or interior. His complexities are not ways of rendering nature or society, but new shapes produced by the pressure of a theme. And there perhaps lies the principal explanation of the success of Lord of the Flies: it is a sharply imagined account, a new clear outline, of what one vaguely knew, and many readers are sufficiently skilled to see this outline and to be shocked by it.

And yet not everybody sees the same outlines; and Golding saw that however closed the form and limited the intention people could not be prevented from walking round the books and validly seeing not the shape he thought he made, but others, which were there and which were good. His change of opinion was later than Free Fall; but even before that book there were signs that he was aware of the power of his fictions to support interpretations he himself had not foreseen. Perhaps the very contrivances of his stories persuaded him better than the remonstrances of critics; thus the great scene in The Inheritors—where the Neanderthal man watches his new enemies as they act out their strangeness in the clearing below him—required an imaginative feat of such intensity that its result is, self-evidently, a properly mysterious poetry and not simply a diagram of corruption as it might be observed by the different senses of such an animal.

In Pincher Martin there is, as it happens, something like an allegory of the situation Golding was in; for Pincher is all egotistic assertion; making plausible and familiar structures out of memories and his knowledge of his own body, indisputably, he thinks, master of his rock, defying, with growing terror, all other interpretations of his plight. But he is wrong, merely a dead man whose interpretation are fairly, for all his resistance, destroyed. In Free Fall there is a slightly less proprietary attitude to the theme, which consequently grows more intensely obscure. The book opens, as Golding’s books always do, with an absolutely crucial thematic passage about free will, the state preceding the free fall; but the course of Sammy Mount-joy’s life is not diagrammatic, like that of the boys on the island, and the assertions of the last page (always equally crucial) are more ambiguous, less prescriptive than before. Golding has changed his attitude to his fictions. And there is also a change of manner; more than before, the force of the book is generated by the pressure of casual figures as they gain power in the turbulance of language. The later books have a linguistic density absent from Lord of the Flies, a quality of vision smokier, less accessible.

Although Free Fall disappointed me, I must say that I could not imagine a literary event more interesting to me than the publication of the next Golding novel; and here it is, a most remarkable book, as unforeseeable as one foresaw, an entire original, yet marked throughout by that peculiar presence. Golding shares with Conrad the habit of writing each new novel as if he had written no other, and certainly no book that had sold a million copies. With the other novels in our head we can of course see how it fits in the sequence: it is “late” it is less assertive as to its possible meaning than Lord of the Flies; it has the later density, indeed fierceness, of language, and the power to generate meanings internally—meanings that grow out of the fiction and are not imposed from without. Consequently its themes are occult, as in Free Fall.

The Spire tells the story of Jocelin, Dean of some cathedral, and his efforts to realize a vision and a vow by building on to his church a 400-foot spire. That is all. And we see the entire action not so much through the eyes as over the shoulder of Jocelin; such facts as where the money came from, and what other interested parties think about the crazy dean, we gather by using the corners of our eyes. It is sometimes, for Golding’s other books, both easy and useful to know his point of departure; nobody is the worse for understanding how Lord of the Flies is related to Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, or for taking note of the epigraph of The Inheritors, which is from H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and congratulates homo sapiens on his successful campaign against the Neanderthals. Here we are not told of any similar starting point; but Mr. Golding must have got up the subject of how to build a spire, and the one he has in mind is Salisbury. He makes the spire 400 feet high—Salisbury is a little over that—and the highest in England as Jocelin wants it to be. It is surmounted by a capstone and a cross, as Salisbury spire is. It is octagonal, with a skin of diminishing thickness, and has no orthodox foundation, like Salisbury, of which it has been said that the dangers and difficulties of adding the spire were enough to frighten any man in his senses from trying it. Iron bands strengthen the structure. The four columns over which the spire was raised settled or bent in Salisbury, as in the book, and the spire at once slipped out of its true perpendicular, as here. In short, this is basically the spire at Salisbury. There was even a twelfth-century bishop called Jocelin. Despite some topographical mystification, the scene is consistent with this, and especially the Hanging Stones, which must be Stonehenge. And although it is no business of ours, Mr. Golding lives near Salisbury. I don’t know exactly where he got the facts about the mason’s craft, however, and I should like to.

In outline the story tells how the making good of the vision entails endlessly disagreeable and unforeseeable discoveries. It seemed simple enough; yet it has sordid material causes, unsuspected sexual motives; and it can be realized only in the teeth of technical obstacles which a sane man would regard as prohibitive. The cathedral being a bible in stone, the spire will be the Apocalypse; but it is also a human body and the spire its erect phallus. It all depends upon how your attention is focused. As Dean Jocelin himself observes, “the mind touches all things with law, yet deceives itself as easily as a child.” The opening paragraph shows us Jocelin laughing, shaking his head so that a glory consumes and exalts Abraham, Isaac and God; his ways of looking, the moods of his mind, make and unmake vision and sacrifice. At this point Jocelin controls a manageable glory. But there is the question of the foundations, the palpitating human substratum that must maintain this glorious erection. And to its splendor the church is sacrificed, defiled by pagan workmen. Obscenely superstitious, they work as if taking part in some pagan rite. When they pry up the slabs at the crossways, it is clear that there are no foundations.

Against the will of the other principal Persons, against the skilled advice of the master builder, Jocelin forces the business on; whatever the foundations of the spire—whether you take them to be mud, or the corrupt money of his aunt—he will have his four hundred feet and his cross with its Holy Nail, a diagram of prayer. Rain water in the excavations finds the corpses and makes the church foul; the master builder seduces the wife of a church servant; the spire seems founded on human filth, the earth “a huddle of noseless men grinning upward.” The workmen fool about with the model spire obscenely between their legs; but the vision persists, even in the crossways, above the pit itself: “Here, where the pit stinks. I received what I received.” The four slender pillars are not divine but human lovers, founded precariously on filth; they sing in agony under the growing weight. The church servant disappears, and Jocelin finds pagan mistletoe in the crossways—a typical Golding narrative device, to issue in a revelation as horrible as the recognition of Beatrice in the madhouse of Frce Fall. Jocelin fares forward: “the folly isn’t mine. It’s God’s Folly…Out of some deep place comes the command to do what makes no sense at all—to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore.”

Whereas Jocelin thinks of each new foot of the building as a godsent challenge to his strength personally to uphold the structure, the master builder has material problems; he devises a steel band to hold the outward thrust of the spire Each is clear about the cost, in life and lust and increase of foulness, of this “unruly member.” The mason’s mistress dies for it—a violent death in childbirth, Golding’s recurrent figure for violence and creation. “This have I done for my true love,” thinks Jocelin with terrible but perhaps only apparent inconsequence. The workmen desert for pagan midsummer fire festivals, and Jocelin’s own unruly member is tormented by the memory of the dead woman. Reporting to the Visitor from Rome, he presents himself—filthy, crazy—as “Dean of the cathedral church of Our Lady,” the church he has desecrated, deprived of services, made the scene of deadly lust. His spire is finished, the Nail driven in; it is at once half-destroyed in a storm. And yet, though built imperfectly, in folly and anguish, it is (he thinks in hubris) a spire of prayer. Then the angel strikes him. He has brought ruin and loathing on himself and on the master builder and the church; he can see only the hopeless conflict between the kind of love he thought he had, and the kind that really made the vision, so that the red hair of the dead woman hangs between him and heaven, preventing prayer. On his deathbed he finds a formula for this: “a tangle of hair, blazing among the stars; and the great club of his spire lifted towards it…that’s the explanation if I had time…Berenice.” The antinomies of love are reconciled there; Jocelin’s final gesture of assent is not to the priests around his deathbed, but to the beautiful maimed spire.

So much of the story one can tell without giving anything important away; such is the nature of Golding’s power. It derives from patterns assumed by the language of the book from certain figures I haven’t even mentioned: a tent, a net, a tree, as well as the mistletoe berry. Like Lord of the Flies it could be called a fable; but it is not a diagram. We are not to think of a prayer-spire and a phallus-spire, of Christian and pagan, devotion and lust, vision and graft. All these antinomies swirl together in the tormented mind of Jocelin, and in ours. We are even allowed to see how a deaf-mute carver understands Jocelin, and how the sacrist, a jealous, embittered, even venal man, is properly shocked by the pagan outrages on the holy vessels in his care; but Golding eschews the deliberate double vision which constitutes the plot of his first three books. Scholarly enquirers will have to look hard for a scenario here. Or, indeed, for a simple issue. Jocelin’s dying thought is this: “There is no innocent work. God only knows where God may be.” But that is not quite the point; nor is the suicide failure of the master builder (who, having gained weight by drinking, miscalculates at last the breaking strain of a rafter). Whether the vision was innocent or not, the technique sound or not, the spire is still there at the end, damaged but beautiful.

Briefly then, this is a book about vision and its cost. It has to do with the motives of art and prayer, the phallus turned spire; with the deceit, as painful to man as to God, involved in structures which are human but have to be divine, such as churches and spires. But because the whole work is a dance of figurative language such an account of it can only be misleading. It requires to be read with unremitting attention, and, first time perhaps, very little pleasure. It is second-period Golding; the voice is authoritative but under strain. The style might have been devised by some severe recluse for translating the Old Testament; it is entirely modern, without the slightest trace of god-wottery, yet it is almost unnaturally free of any hint of slang—a modern colloquial English but spoken only by one man.

Trying to characterize the dry hot urgency of this prose, I found myself unexpectedly thinking of a musician: of Vaughan Williams in the mood of Job. The parallel has some use, I feel. The ballet for which this music was written was based on the Blake engravings—the Old Testament in an extremely heterodox interpretation. The music is in the full voice of Vaughan Williams’s already slightly archaic but fully idiomatic, mere English, pentatonic manner; it goes directly to the large statement about good and evil: Satan falling, Elihu beautiful, the sons of the morning at their sarabande. Vaughan Williams had some of the sensitive bluffness, much of the true privacy, of Golding; and he was another late starter who continually experimented but stayed out of touch with the contemporary avantgarde. There is a squareness, a clumsiness; but in some works—in Job especially, and in the later music which remembers Job—we hear the clear strange tones of the visionary whose idiom we can learn (a saxophone for the comforters) and who speaks as directly as may be of good and evil.

Golding writes rather like that. Look at this passage, chosen quite at random:

The evening turned green over the rim of the cup. Then the rim went black and shadows filled it silently so that before he was well aware of it, night had fallen and the faint stars come out. He saw a fire on the rim and guessed it was a haystack burning; but as he moved round the rim of the cone, he saw more and more fires round the rim of the world. Then a terrible dread fell on him, for he knew these were the fires of Midsummer Night, lighted by the devil-worshippers out on the hills. Over there, in the valley of the Hanging Stones, a vast fire shuddered brightly. All at once he cried out, not in terror but in grief. For he remembered his crew of good men, and he knew why they had knocked off work and where they were gone.

The “cone” is the unfinished spire; we note how unashamedly the sentence passes from its rim to the easy grandeur of “the rim of the world.” We might regret “terrible dread,” and yet it is somehow purged by the absolute plainness of reference elsewhere, by “knocked off work,” for instance. The last sentence might seem altogether too artless were it not that on this very page the whole strange plot is undergoing a subtle change of movement, modulating into violence.

It is a prose for violence. All Golding’s books are violent; as I say, his basic figure for terror, violence, and bloody creation is childbirth. As such it is used in this book, and it breaks out of the language into the plot. This is part of a private vision; and one might hazardously conjecture that this novel, like some of its predecessors, is as much about Golding writing a novel as about anything else. But one need not believe that to agree that it is deeply personal. It gives one some idea of the nature of this writer’s gift that he has written a book about an expressly phallic symbol to which Freudian glosses seem entirely irrelevant. It is remote from the mainstream, potent, severe, even forbidding. And in its way it is, quite simply, a marvel.

  • Email
  • Print