William Golding: A Critical Study
The Art of William Golding
In Chapter 12 of William Golding’s Free Fall the hero, Sammy Mountjoy, describes a drawing he made of his girl, Beatrice Ifor:
In carelessness and luck I had put the girl on paper in a way that my laborious portraitures could never come at. The line leapt, it was joyous, free, authoritative. It achieved little miracles of implication so that the viewer’s eye created her small hands though my pencil had not touched them. That free line had raced past and created her face, had thinned and broken where no pencil could go, but only the imagination.
This passage is quoted in William Golding: A Critical Study as bearing also, however obliquely, upon the novelist’s art, “or what he would like it to be.” Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor make the point, but it is a marginal gloss, not part of their main argument. Indeed, the only limitation in their unfailingly perceptive book is that it does not pursue the implication of Sammy’s drawing. The book is a detailed study of Mr. Golding’s novels, Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall, and The Spire, followed by a chapter which raises certain important questions about his work as a whole. As critical analysis, the book is superb, easily the best study of Mr. Golding’s art, but it does not sufficiently consider Sammy’s careless drawing. To me, the drawing stands for a fundamental desire in Mr. Golding to write a Novel. Not a fable, a myth, a parable, a romance, or an allegory, but a novel, careless, free, joyous, authoritative. Since Lord of the Flies Mr. Golding’s fiction has been a remarkable labor of craft, the meanings carefully adjusted, word by word. This is not to imply that the books are propelled by sheer force of will in the absence of imagination. But the craft, so hard to learn, has been acquired at the cost of freedom and nonchalance. There is some evidence, especially in Free Fall and Pincher Martin, that Mr. Golding, fabulous artificer, would like nothing better than to write a loose baggy monster of a novel, possessed of life to the degree of irrelevance. Or at least to write a book, all carelessness and luck, which, given the first push, would leap its own way. The novelist would not have to put everything in to make sure that it was there. He would gamble recklessly on the “little miracles of implication,” like Beatrice’s small hands. In a discussion with Frank Kermode a few years ago Mr. Golding said of Pincher Martin:
I fell over backwards in making that novel explicit. I said to myself, “Now here is going to be a novel, it’s going to be a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe, which I think on the whole likely to be the right one, and I’m going to write it so vividly and accurately and with such an exact programme that nobody can possibly mistake exactly what I mean.”
The form of fiction which corresponds to “the ordinary universe” is obviously the novel, as distinct from the romance, the fable, and so forth. Novels manage well enough without an exact program, but they require, above all, a writer who revels in the vitality of the ordinary universe; the world which, as Stevens said in The Necessary Angel, does not under any pressure “wholly dissolve itself into the conceptions of our own minds.” It is my impression that in The Pyramid Mr. Golding has tried again to write a novel. The result is an embarrassment, a disaster.
THE BOOK is a sequence of three episodes in the life of a young man, Oliver. In the first he yearns for the inaccessible Imogen, consoling himself meanwhile with Evie the Stilbourne tart. This romp is written like a primitive draft of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, moved to the country. The second episode introduces a homosexual theater director (“Call me Evelyn, dear boy. Everybody does.”) and the Stilbourne Operatic Society playing King of Hearts. The third part has at least the interest of one substantial character, Miss Dawlish, and therefore the merit of diverting the light from Oliver. The only episode that deserves attention, it is still far below Mr. Golding’s best work.
Indeed, the only real interest of the book is that it helps us to define Mr. Golding’s art by marking one of its limitations. The ordinary universe is beyond him, or beneath him; in any event he cannot deal with it. He writes of ordinary things with extraordinary awkwardness. After a while it begins to appear that he is unable to acknowledge in matter, body, or history more spirit than the little he is willing to risk. His imagination cannot cope with the dualism of matter and spirit, has no sense of “the world’s body.” There is a passage in Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy where the philosopher says that the impulse to abstraction arises from “a greater inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world.” In this unrest “life as such is felt to be a disturbance of the aesthetic enjoyment.” There is something of this unrest, barely acknowledged, in Mr. Golding’s art. The result is that he lives, imaginatively, as if nothing on earth were real but myths, fables, and emblems. Custodian of spirit, he cannot bear to consign it to the free range of matter. Or he fears that spirit, soul, and mind can only be kept alive by protecting them from the contamination of matter. Despite this fear, he hankers after the fleshpots of the novel, its cakes and ale. So we fancy Mr. Golding complaining of man that he is not sufficiently spirit; and of time and history, that they are merely, as in Lord of the Flies, a dead parachutist. The evidence suggests that, intermittently, he tries to acknowledge people in their density and plenitude, but in fact he sees them, after great labor, as figures, outlines, emblems. The seriousness of his vocation has the effect of turning every human action into a Morality play; as Pincher Martin plays Greed. At the end of A Vision Yeats, recalling the impurities of argument and debate, tries to resolve his worldly experience in symbol, “Then I draw myself up into the symbol,” he says, “and it seems as if I should know all if I could but banish such memories and find everything in the symbol.” But Ezra Pound was right: “Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel.” If we hear Yeats’s misgivings in the rhythm of those last pages, we know that his greatest poems are animated by the acknowledged rivalry of symbol and memory, the two great Ways.
I AM IMPLYING that in Mr. Golding the two ways do not dance together. Perhaps we have to say that his imagination is alien to memory. Certainly his most achieved books are those in which his imagination, released from the drag of the ordinary world, is given over to symbol and, in Worringer’s sense, abstraction. So I am not convinced that Mr. Kinkead-Weekes and Mr. Gregor are right in fixing upon the word “incarnation” to carry the weight of meaning in Mr. Golding’s books. To take a famous example: when the conch is destroyed in Lord of the Flies, what is lost is a structure of human possibilities for which the shell is merely Mr. Golding’s chosen name. The possibilities are hinted in several chapters, and the hints are the novelist’s addition to what has never seemed enough. In Mr. Golding’s fiction, whenever things are invoked in the ordinary universe, they never seem enough to bear his grand meaning. The direction of his books is from something divined within to a corresponding shape or gesture without, but the correspondence is rarely enough, the inner sense being what it is. The poor finite thing upon which his imagination settles tries hard, but it fails to live up to the asserted significance. The Inheritors seems to me Mr. Golding’s most completely realized book, a classic work, because the meaning does not depend upon the engagement of his imagination with the ordinary universe. His imagination is happiest with things, ideally few and vacant, which have not yet received the mark of human relation and human need. Faced with riches of relation in a world of people and their need, his imagination is embarrassed, resentful.
So he is not thrilled to find footprints in the sand. Perhaps his imagination cannot welcome the notion, implicit in the recognition of an ordinary universe, that most of the meaning is already there, after thousands of years of human history, waiting to be seen, heard, and felt. If this is true, it goes some distance to explain why that imagination, confronted with apparently rival claims, finds in favor of pattern, fable, abstraction, and sends the grain of sand away. Mr.Golding excels other contemporary novelists in a sense of grand destiny, gestures of omen, large- scale intimation, the figure in the carpet straining to be released. Stevens says that the measure of a poet is “the measure of his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of truth insist.” The sentence is useful as marking the intention of Mr.Golding’s art. The trouble is that his grasp of the reality upon which the lovers of truth insist is insecure, although I suggest that there are moments in which no other achievement is real or dear to him. Stevens also said that “unreal things have a reality of their own, in poetry as elsewhere.” To cite this is to admit a sufficient qualification in the account of Mr.Golding’s imagination, especially if we take unreality to mean everything in that extra- ordinary universe for which the imagination is solely or primarily responsible. That is to point us back, in Mr.Golding, toward the aboriginal and the fabulous.
IT is the distinguishing merit of William Golding: A Critical Study that it is not at all refuted or undermined by the arrival of a bad novel by Mr.Golding. The book defines a remarkable sequence of fictions in terms congenial to the nature of Mr.Golding’s art. It is therefore bound to become a standard work on the subject. The Art of William Golding is a different kind of book, a rudimentary affair, useful on Mr.Golding’s sources but critically naive.
Imaginary Friends, Alison Lurie’s third novel, tells of a group of Truth Seekers in Sophis, upstate New York, a sibyl named Verena Roberts who claims to receive messages from the spirit Ro in the planet Varna, and two sociologists, Tom McMann and Roger Zimmern, who are professionally interested in the effects of internal opposition on a small group. The sociologists join the Seekers to pursue the Project. After several adventures, Verena lights out for Albuquerque and McMann comes to the conclusion that he is Ro of Varna. Some of the adventures are funny, in a way, like the scene in which the Ur-Ro tells the Seekers to rid themselves of all organic material; but this is not a comic novel. Nor is it a serious social study, Miss Lurie takes it for granted that the Seekers are bogus and Verena’s communications merely the result of sexual frustration. We are unlikely to waste much spirit on characters who are deemed to be adequately explained by suburban boredom. We are not concerned, because Miss Lurie is not concerned. When Henry James wrote The Altar of the Dead he was deeply engaged with George Stransom’s belief in the presence of the dead. He did not assume that the belief was bogus, so he did not station Roger Zimmern to tell us that it was. Offered as a character, Verena suffers from the disability that Miss Lurie has starved her to death. She is nothing. In fact, Miss Lurie has gone out of her way to insist upon the restriction of interest. Inventing bogus characters, she entrusts them to Zimmern, who is good enough up to the point at which his intelligence fails and his conscience recedes. Everything that might have been interesting in the situation is blocked off, as if Miss Lurie, hesitating between seriousness and farce, settled for the trivial. Occasionally we are given an idea with a semblance of gravity: that sociologists get the data they deserve, that scholars love to play God, that research is mostly brain-washing. But these, however limited in their possibilities, are not given a chance, because Miss Lurie has already concluded that they are not worth the candle.
This is a matter of some moment, because Miss Lurie is an unusually gifted writer. There is a scene near the beginning of her second novel, The Nowhere City, a row between Glory Green, a Hollywood starlet, and her husband, the psychiatrist Isidore Einsam. This scene is brilliantly done, the dialogue impeccably accurate while it lasts. It does not go very far or very deep: Miss Lurie has a way of preventing development, lest we should begin to care. Her writing suggests that she herself is terrified of caring, and determined to find something to make caring archaic. It seems to be a condition of her powers that they are allowed to revel, provided they revel in triviality. If, reading her books, on insisted upon caring, the insistence would constitute a gaffe, like serious talk at a silly party, breaking decorum. So in reading The Nowhere City we are discouraged from caring what Paul Cattleman does to Ceci O’Connor, or how Katherine cures her sinus ailment. Similarly, it is ludicrous to think of that novel as a serious confrontation of East and West, Boston and L.A.Miss Lurie sets up an ostensible opposition precisely because it is nothing; or at least to ensure that, after her book, its nullity will be complete. The only established difference between Cambridge, Mass. and Westwood Village, as far as the novel is concerned, is that in the East women wear respectable clothes, in California sea-green velvet pants, ropes of beads, and high-heeled satin pumps. The action of the novel, such as it is, is to get Katherine into Capri pants, bright yellow. This is achieved by first putting her to bed with Dr.Einsam.
What is remarkable in Miss Lurie’s books is the evidence of high talent devoted to carefully prepared insignificance. She disowns gravity without voting for anything else. Indeed, in Imaginary Friends, she seems to have made a pact with the ordinary universe; she will take from its store anything she chooses, but on condition that everything, once chosen, is deemed to be trash. Choice makes it trash. The only difference between things chosen and things neglected is that the latter are trash already. “You’re suffering from material clingings, that’s your trouble,” McMann says to the old-fashioned Zimmern. We easily fancy Miss Lurie saying this to the Art of the Novel. Her recourse is also McMann’s: make Zimmern throw away his good clothes and don, instead, the shoddiest things he can find in J.C.Penney’s. McMann knows they are shoddy. So does Zimmern. So does Miss Lurie.