William Golding (1911-1993)

Few British writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the period since the Second World War. These include Winston Churchill, probably from sentiment about other achievements rather than actual literary excellence. His various histories, though well written, are not especially ground breaking, certainly not like those of Theodore Mommsen, the other historian to win the Prize. If I recollect right, the only other non-creative writer to win was Bertrand Russel, in his more anarchic phase, so he refused to accept it.

Perhaps the least controversial English winner was Willam Golding, who received it towards the end of a career of half a century. He came to prominence with what is still his best known work, Lord of the Flies, which turns traditional schoolboy adventure stories on their head. The plot involves a group of schoolboys cast ashore on an island after a plane crash, a situation that leads the reader to expect a tale of resourcefulness as they use their intelligence and their skills to survive – as happened in Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and most notably, without adults, in Coral Island. However what happens here is much more realistic, as the boys degenerate into savagery.

A few boys manage to cling to civilized values, two of them being punished for this by death at the hands of the herd. The sole surviving proponent of decency, the original leader Ralph, who had been deposed, was being ruthlessly hunted when rescue finally arrives, to restore civilization in a fairy tale ending that is nevertheless appropriate since it helps to set things in perspective – the naval officer who finds the group sees a host of little boys with their faces painted, and assumes they have been having a game with the fugitive.

Two others retained some sort of integrity even when forced to join the rest principally because, being identical twins, they had a distinct sense of self to cling to. Association with each other gave them the capacity to hold out when the leaders of the herd used ritual to strip the others of individuality.Golding’s narrative is full of such forceful insights into the psychology of personality, and the forces that erode it. Fear plays a large part in stripping the boys of civilized values, while ironically the leaders of savagery are the members of a school choir. They are used to mindlessly following a lead, and their uniforms are the first of the cloaks used to deny individual responsibility during engagement in group activity. Interestingly, when I used to teach the book, and found students appalled at how easily people could lose their inhibitions when joining together to oppress others, I would draw their attention to what happened during ragging at universities. Most recognized how they too could easily degenerate under peer pressure, though I am not sure that all of them welcomed the comparison.The little boys who make up the cast of the novel are astonishingly memorable. Jack, the leader of the choir, thwarted in his initial ambition to lead the group, skillfully uses the leadership of the hunters, given him as consolation, to develop a herd which he can command. For this purpose he knows instinctively to use rhythm and repetitive movement and masks, to quell fear and to ensure bonding. Alarmingly, he also knows to use the sadistic Roger, who comes out of a very odd shell when he sees an opportunity to inflict pain.Conversely we have the saintly Simon, withdrawn in a more ethereal way, who can understand what the Beast they fear is, both in fact and in conception, but is slaughtered in unthinking mass hysteria when he comes down from the mountain with his revelation. Finally there is the wise Piggy, despised throughout for his size and his class, different as he is from the prep school villains of the choir as well as Ralph. He emerges as the sustained voice of reason and normality, to be killed deliberately by Roger, leaving Ralph isolated for the final hunt.Golding’s work was always relentlessly moral in outlook and message. Though the celebration of individuality in this book obviously appealed to my liberal sentiments, he could also be harsh about individuality taken to excess, as in The Spire, about the building of a cathedral. The towering spire, supposed to be to the glory of god, also becomes a vehicle for obsessional individual pride.Just when it seemed that a considerable writer of the post-war decades was a figure of the past, Golding produced in the seventies Darkness Visible, another startling study of evil in the context now of political terrorism. This emphatically contemporaneous work was followed by the trilogy that elevated him finally to iconic status, with first the Booker Prize, and then the Nobel.The trilogy is set at sea, a century or so back, and written in prose of the period. This conceit, which might have been irritating, succeeds through its foundation in the character of the narrator, a young officer maturing to his captaincy. He achieves this at the end, and how he strives to live up to his responsibilities, in dealing with both anticipated and extraordinary dangers at sea, as well as the problems of personality clashes in a consigned space, provides a fascinating bildungsroman, a novel of growing up and character development, in a special context in which actions and reactions must be unusually intense.The problem he is faced with in Rites of Passage, the first work in the trilogy, and the most memorable, has however little to do with seafaring, or with ordinary experience, and was an astonishing departure for the by now venerable Golding. It rests on the action of the ship’s chaplain which suddenly made him an object of derision to the men on the ship. In trying to establish what actually occurred, we are slowed down by reticence on the part of all concerned, as well as the antiquated language. But we find out at the end that the novel is in fact, as one reviewer memorably put it, all about a blow job.

The chaplain had had what amounted to a divine revelation in his mind about the sanctity of God made flesh, personified for him in his exalted state by an attractive seaman. This led to fellatio in public, justified, or indeed sanctified, by allusions to Christian ritual, concepts of communion and transubstantiation floating around in the unhinged chaplain’s mind. Restoring equilibrium in such a situation was not easy but, with the help of more serious threats to life and limb, the voyage is safely concluded.The book was a tour de force, gripping throughout, despite the language and a plot that in itself seemed truly preposterous. It showed once again Golding’s capacity to understand the strange springs of human action, and the manner in which the reactions of individuals differ from those they would evince in a crowd.The book was published in 1981, the only year when just two novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the most prestigious award in Britain for fiction. The other was Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, also extremely memorable. But there is little doubt that Golding was the right choice, for an extraordinary work that showed yet again how close the civilized world is to anarchy, and how the virtues of tolerance and recognition of and respect for individuality are so vital if we are not to destroy each other.