Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 04 Jan 2018

William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey

I love literary biographies and those I most enjoy are often about writers I have either read little by or haven’t read for many years. I think it is because these biographies more than any others send me hurrying to discover or rediscover the work – and that, surely, is the greatest service the good literary biographer can perform.

One such biography that I read again over the Christmas period is John Carey’s magnificent William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, published in 2009, and the first full-length biography of the Nobel laureate Golding.

Golding was – and continues to be – best known for his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Never out-of-print, a school set text for decades, this novel has sold millions and millions of copies and during Golding’s lifetime was his greatest source of income. It is fair to say that he grew dependent on the wealth it brought him, while also resenting the fact that it was his most acclaimed novel. He thought his later books were better.

Golding was never a technically adroit novelist, nor a confident one. Every book he wrote was accompanied by lacerating self-doubt, their writing a gradual discovery, an excavation, a drawing aside of the veil that hung between himself and the imagery he sought deep in his subconscious mind. Carey masterfully illuminates this but also manages to preserve that sense of mystery and we discover Golding the writer much as Golding himself did – book by book by book.

What now seems most extraordinary to my mind is the fact that Golding the novelist ever existed at all. Born in 1911, his early life seems directionless, drifting, unmotivated. It is perhaps something of an over-simplification – but not much of one – to say that it was the war that changed this. Golding served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, in command of a newly modified landing craft, ‘repurposed’ like many others to function as a rocket assault ship specifically for the D-Day landings. What he saw and did during the war haunted him for the rest of his life and certainly formed his essentially dark and pessimistic vision of human nature.

I think it’s true to say that in the 1980s Golding’s reputation took a nose-dive. Darkness Visible (1979) ended an almost decade-long fallow period during which Golding himself certainly suffered a crisis of self-confidence, made worse by concerns about the physical and mental health of his son, David. But far from being a return to form, that and his next novel, The Paper Men (1984), were seen by many reviewers as deeply flawed. His fortunes rose – eventually – with the final completion of what some now see as his crowning achievement, the three books published between 1980 and 1989 that make up the sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth.

Even on rereading, I was struck again by the almost superhuman labour that Golding was capable of.  His first five novels were published in exactly a decade, from 1954 to 1964, and all were written while he was teaching full-time. During this period he also managed to fit in two long lecturing tours of the US. Even in his late-70s he continued to undertake mammoth speaking and lecturing tours, usually under the auspices of the British Council, and it was not unusual for both Golding and his wife to return home ill and exhausted.

What forced him to undertake such Stakhanovite workloads remains unclear. Certainly as far as the British Council is concerned Golding did have a sense of duty: he believed that a writer such as himself could – and should – find a way to serve his country. But to some degree money was also a major motivation. Even in his later years when he was by any reckoning wealthy he seemed convinced that impoverishment was just around the corner. Perhaps this is the occupational hazard of the novelist whose ability to earn an income must be reinvented anew with every book.

There are substantial chunks of Golding’s life that do not make for pleasant reading. His destructive drinking filled him with self-disgust. He was not an easily likeable figure and in his later years, when he began to believe to some degree in his own grandeur – he was rich; he had won the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize; he was a Sir; he had a lovely Georgian house in Cornwall and was courted by the upper-crust neighbours for miles around – this was even more the case. But Carey’s account of the life is a masterpiece – an exemplary biography that manages to be revealing but respectful, and insightful but not intrusive. It is difficult to imagine it being bettered. It should also be said that anyone with an interest in post-war British publishing will find the account of Golding’s fifty-year relationship with Faber absolutely fascinating.

For all his flaws Golding surely remains one of the most enigmatic and most ambitious of Britain’s post-war novelists. Carey goes a long way in helping us understand the mysterious process that turned an unknown school teacher into William Golding the novelist – and yet, the real enigma lies in the novels themselves, and it’s time to revisit them.


Alun Severn

January 2018

(note: a review of William Golding's novel  Pincher Martin has been published on The Letterpress Project webite and can be accessed on this link)