Smiles in the Dark

Darkness Visible

by William Golding
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 265 pp., $10.95

We are shown a provincial hardware store of the type every Briton loves. Founded early in the nineteenth century, with nooks and crannies showing “notches, cuts, grooves” in their beams from medieval days, and sprawling through the “lofts and attics, galleries, corridors” of one-time private houses and shops, the store is by now a vast warehouse in which the inquisitive perambulator may find delightful rarities—carriage lamps (for the stage coaches that once halted in the town), a sawyer’s frame, a set of jacks for an open fireplace, “even a deformed packet of the first snuffless candles.” Stained old wooden pigeonholes show amazing collections of “pins or tacks or iron or brass screws and bolts” surrounded by a clutter of “broomsticks,…galvanized iron buckets,…rows of wooden-hafted tools” and more rows of “identical paraffin lamps.” There are many strange objects (apart from the ancient employees in stiff collars) which were once “sold at the rate of perhaps one out of every half a dozen ordered, while the other five rusted.”

All in all, what Britons call “a fine old establishment,” whose total inability to pay its way has been recognized at last by the management. They have decided that a showroom dedicated wholly to plastic flowers, plastic buckets, plastic screens, and plastic trellises might put the old place on its feet again and even win the custom of the younger generation of British blacks and Pakistanis.

This delicious description, which runs to six pages with a minimum of paragraphing, represents the history of dear old England from the Industrial Revolution to the present day. It is about as perfect as perfect can be and shows William Golding at his very best in his new novel. It also serves as part of the background to a horrifying set of characters in whom we can see plainly enough the collapse into decadence that has been the ruin of the old hardware store. They range from a pathetic old pederast who spends most of his life in jail but enjoys, as his sole consolation, the progressive conviction that he “can’t help it,” to a young female whose body refuses to give of its best if she is not poking her partner with a knife, and whose twin sister gets much the same elation out of joining a terrorist group and becoming a killer.

By far the most distressing thing about these characters is that one does not question their existence. They are as much part of everyday life in Britain now as characters whose decadence consists merely in being helpless and effete; this second class of types is also carefully delineated by Mr. Golding—in a village bookseller and a teacher drawn to mysticism he can suggest all those men and women with empty faces, empty lives, and vices which they may have had once but have put down and can’t remember where.

Enter the Evangelist. But only in Mr. Golding’s story. In real life today, as Samuel Beckett told us long ago, the Evangelist never…

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