Book review: ‘William Golding: The Man Who Wrote “Lord of the Flies” ’


William Golding

The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’: A Life

John Carey

Free Press: 574 pp., $32.50

William Golding, the writer, has been a subject for study: reviews and critical essays, a bibliography and more than 100 books about the books. William Golding, the man, has been the subject of none.

This was how he wanted it. During his lifetime (1911-93), Golding stayed resolutely private and in public clad himself within the harsh armor of drink. He traveled widely and gave lectures often but never got over — or so it would seem — a sense of schoolboy inadequacy. Raised in the shadow of upper-crust Marlborough College, he spent his life defying and yet, in some sense, deferring to the privileged toffs up the street. His first biographer, John Carey, has had access to a trove of texts that have not seen the light of day and that tell us much:

“The Golding archive, which is still in the keeping of his family and has not previously been made accessible to anyone outside it, is remarkably — and sometimes bewilderingly — rich. It far exceeds in bulk all his published works, and it comprises unpublished novels, both complete and fragmentary, early drafts of published novels, numerous projects and plans, two autobiographical works, one of them concentrating on his relationships with women, and a 5,000-page journal which he kept every day for twenty-two years.”

As the subtitle of Carey’s book declares, its titular figure remains identified as “The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies.’ That book has been translated into more than 30 languages and has become standard reading in schools: a kind of darker companion piece to “The Catcher in the Rye.” In later life, its author came to resent (again, perhaps, like Salinger) his fame for what he thought of as a minor early book. In a postscript, Carey declares: “My subtitle is chosen with this in mind, and is both ironic and purposeful. I like to think that it will catch the eye of people who remember reading ‘Lord of the Flies’ at school, or who maybe just saw the film, and whose curiosity will be sufficiently aroused for them to discover, through these pages, how much more Golding was than ‘the man who wrote Lord of the Flies.’”

It’s risky to make a subtitle “ironic” — or to reduce a writer to a tag line, tongue-in-cheek. Golding did, after all, receive the Booker Prize (for “Rites of Passage”), a clutch of honorary degrees (from, among others, Oxford and the Sorbonne), a knighthood and, in 1983, the Nobel Prize in literature. He was scarcely ignored or dismissed. But on balance his biographer delivers on the promise of discovery, making of Golding the man a subject at least as compelling as that of his books.

Golding was many things: a war hero who was scared of heights; an expert sailor who, after a near-fatal accident, eschewed the helm; a self-taught student of Latin, French and Greek; a man devoted to his wife, Ann, but whose journal refers yearningly to other women and who thought himself a “monster” for, at 15, having tried to force himself upon a girl (the attempt failed). He was a teacher tormented by poverty who, when royalty-rich, hated to pay taxes; a man who refused to do research yet wrote of Neanderthal man, ancient Egypt and Gothic cathedrals with scholarly precision; a student of science and archeology who subscribed to the hypothesis of earth-goddess Gaia and a religious quasi-mystic who questioned the idea of God. This mass of contradictions makes for a fascinating portrait from first to final page. We get Golding warts and all. Here’s a less-than-flattering description of his behavior while on holiday in Greece:

“Ice-cold bottles of the Greek beer known as Fix would appear … and the empties would soon be lining up on the table in front of him….The lunchtime Bierfest was followed in the evening by ouzo and cheap Greek brandy, and Golding would start to hallucinate.… Drink occasionally sparked altercation.”

Yet there were periods of sobriety — mostly at home — and he was a faithful friend to those who had befriended him: most notably the editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, who rescued the manuscript of “Flies” from the refuse pile and championed him thereafter. Golding’s first three novels went unpublished—and “Flies” was nearly a miss until Monteith reversed the decision of a professional reader (hired by Faber and Faber) who pronounced this verdict: “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.”

All his long life the writer played a first-rate piano and a more-than-amateurish game of chess; once he could afford them, he loved orchids and fast cars. On the night before his death, he lay in his bathtub, fully clothed and entirely drunk. Take a figure such as Thomas Hardy, add a dash of Fowles and Conrad, season him with Malcolm Lowry and you have “The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies.’”

Golding wrote a great deal more, and some of it a good deal more ambitious. “The Inheritors,” “Pincher Martin,” “The Spire” and “Darkness Visible” are, for this reader, magisterial books. His nonfiction too has depth and imaginative reach. Early on he was a poet, and here are four moving lines about the nervous breakdown of his son:

I do not know how deep it is

Nor where it is from

This thing that lies under my house

Like a rusting bomb.

Carey admits to an equivalent uncertainty; the source of Golding’s self-loathing remains unexplained if not unexplored. Yet Carey writes throughout with compassion and wit. Of a cruise ship on the Nile, Carey observes: “She began to reveal her extensive repertoire of mechanical defects within hours of casting off.” And of that trip, describing Golding’s reportage, he says, “‘An Egyptian Journal’ was commotion recollected in tranquility.” Clearly, he admires his subject but is clear-eyed about Golding’s limitations: his self-pity and constant fear of bad reviews, his not-so-intermittent cruelty to others, his ponderous pronouncements as to the fate of the Earth.

A book this long does have its longueurs, and I at least felt no need to be treated to a continual summary of critical reactions; each published book, we’re told, received the praise of A, B and C and was dismissed by X, Y and Z. And Carey waxes rhapsodic about texts that Golding left unfinished or believed unprintable. Of an abandoned fragment, for example, he writes: “But it is 20,000 words long, it has its own shapeliness, ending, as it began, with the finding of a starving boy, and it is a masterpiece crying out for publication.” Perhaps the biographer of Golding will have his wish fulfilled and what was darkness will prove visible; meantime we can rest content with how much he here brings to light.

Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age.”