Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Golding condition

It is 20 years since the death of William Golding, the great British writer, author of Lord of the Flies. A large literary archive containing two decades’ worth of daily diary entries remains privately held by his family, and only snippets have been made public thanks to a biography by John Carey. However, Carey has claimed that Golding’s diary is unique ‘as an author’s systematic exploration of his unconscious and examination of his conscious life’. What a shame, then, that none of Golding’s diaries have yet been edited for publication, not only for what he has to say about the human condition, but what they have to say about the Golding condition.

Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911, but grew up at his family home in Marlborough, Wiltshire. He studied at Marlborough Grammar School, where his father was a science teacher, and at Oxford University, transferring, after two years, from natural sciences to English literature. He published a first book of poems in 1934, the same year he graduated; and he married Ann Brookfield in 1939 with whom he had two children. He served with the Royal Navy during the war, and, after it, he returned to teaching at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury, and to writing.

In 1953, Golding sent a manuscript to Faber & Faber of London, which was reportedly rescued from the trash by a new editor, Charles Monteith. Lord of the Flies was published the following year, and was soon followed by other novels, including The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and Free Fall. In 1958, he and Ann moved to live in Bowerchalke, Wiltshire, where they would remain for nearly 30 years. In 1961-1962, he went to the US as a writer-in residence. The trip brought him some fame and wealth, prompting him to give up teaching on his return. His next novel The Spire was published in 1964, and The Pyramid in 1967, but these books were followed by a fallow and difficult writing period, one which would last until the second half of the 1970s.

From the late 1970s, though, Golding’s literary reputation began to sore, first with Darkness Visible, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, then with Rites of Passage which won the booker, and then with the Nobel Literary Prize in 1983. In 1985, the Goldings moved to a house called Tullimaar in Cornwall. Also that year, Faber and Faber published Golding’s An Egyptian Journal, and thereafter it published two sequels to Rites of Passage. Golding died on 19 June 1993, and was buried in Bowerchalke. A little further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, at Faber and Faber, the Nobel Prize website, and at a Golding website run by his family.

In 2009, there was a resurgence of media interest in Golding when Faber and Faber published a first biography of the writer, by John Carey, professor of literature at Oxford University. Initial publicity for the book focused on a revelation, found in the archive, that Golding considered he had attempted, as an undergraduate, to rape a 15-year-old girlfriend - see The Guardian, or The Independent. The biography, though, has been much acclaimed. William Boyd, reviewing the book for The New York Times says: ‘Carey [. . .] writes with great wit and lucidity as well as authority and compassionate insight. Perhaps because he has had the opportunity of reading the mass of Golding’s unpublished intimate journals, he brings unusual understanding to the complex and deeply troubled man who lies behind the intriguing but undeniably idiosyncratic novels.’ He concludes by calling the biography ‘superb’. Much of it can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Golding’s diaries - 5,000 pages of them written every day for over 20 years - are part of the Golding archive, which is still kept privately by the family. Carey was the first researcher to be given access to this archive. Of the diaries, he says this: ‘Besides being an intimate account of his private life, and a treasure-house of memories of his childhood and youth, the journal is a behind-the-scenes revelation of the writer’s craft, reporting each day on the progress of whatever novel he is at work on, tracing its origins, trying out alternative plot-lines, and criticizing, often violently, what he has written so far. Further, he began the journal as a dream diary, and though his waking life gradually came to dominate, he continued to record dreams almost to the end, together with his interpretations and identification of the incidents they recalled. As an author’s systematic exploration of his unconscious and examination of his conscious life, Golding’s journal is, I think, unique.’ Carey’s other main source was the correspondence between Golding and his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith.

Although the biography relies so heavily on Golding’s diaries (and there is a long list of diary dates at the back of the book provided as information sources), Carey rarely uses significant verbatim extracts: here and there, one can find phrases quoted to illustrate a point, but there are less than a handful of longer extracts. There are, however, further insights into the journal. From 1971, Carey says, when Golding found himself unable to work on a new book, he occupied himself with various displacement activities, and one of these was keeping a journal, ‘which he wrote up every day, usually before 10am, recording everything from metaphysical speculations to the weekly trip to Salisbury for Ann to get her hair done’.

Carey continues: ‘He realized that the journal was “little but an effort to relieve the sorrow, the grief, the pain” of not being able to write a book, and its pointlessness often dismayed him. “I don’t seem to do anything else”, he fretted. He invented comic nicknames (“Pewter” and “Bolonius”) for the “ridiculous and wearisome” everyday self who filled its pages with reams of mundane detail. But at least his daily stint made him feel he was still, in some some sense, a writer. At the present rate, he worked out in April 1972, he would clock up 182,500 words in just half a year, “the equivalent, more or less, of all the books I’ve written”. Eventually, the journal stretched to two and a half million words.’

Golding published one so-called journal in his lifetime - An Egyptian Journal - but as Carey notes this was not actually a diary text at all: ‘It is natural to imagine that An Egyptian Journal is the journal he kept while in Egypt. But that is not so. The journal he kept day by day on the Hani is cursory, consisting of disjointed notes with occasional outbursts of impatience (“One feels really more and more like giving up”; “My God. The silly sods have run out of fuel.”) An Egyptian Journal was commotion recollected in tranquility. Turning his notes into a book took months. He talked it over with Ann, and decided that what was needed was “a sort of complex sewing-job”, amplifying his jottings, and interspersing new material to “make it vivid”.’

Here though are two extracts from Golding’s diary taken from Carey’s biography. The first, dated 10 April 1972 I think, consists of some recollections about the poet and Faber man, T. S. Eliot; and the second is an extract included by Carey in his postscript, though I cannot work out its date.

‘Eliot was fairly impressive in a Donnish sort of way, but not excessively so. Charles [Monreith] led Ann and me to see him as to a god. We sat fairly mum while he talked of umbrellas and rubber trees. Later he informed me that Simon in Lord of the Flies must be cut to the bone. ‘We cannot portray a saint, Mr Ah. But for evil we need only to look into our own hearts’. The silly old twit. As if I hadn’t known that. Another time at a Faber cocktail party Frazer [G. S. Fraser] the Anthologist cannoned into my back so that I bowed forward and spilt champagne down Mr Eliot’s trousers while he was saying, “No, no, no” to Arthur Koestler. Thus I not only worshipped at the god’s shrine but poured a libation, not to say an anointment. He leapt back with an agility startling in one so mummified, striking out at his salt and pepper Edwardian trousers. I cannot say that we were intimate friends.’

‘One day, if my literary reputation holds up, people will examine my life, and they will come to the conclusion that I am a monster and possibly they will finally say tout comprendre and all that. They will think they know all but they won’t. No matter how deep they dig they won’t reach the root that has made me a monster in deed, word and thought. No one but I knows that, or suffers it. This is not guilt, it is self knowledge.’

‘What would,’ Carey asks in the postscript to his biography, ‘[Golding] have thought about his private journals being made public, as it is in this book?’ He answers his own question by suggesting that Golding knew at the deepest level that he was writing for an audience, and that he knew some parts would cause pain and embarrassment. Carey also tries to give a sense of the Golding he found in the diary: ‘How, then, would I characterize him as he comes across in the journal? The emotion he felt most vividly and often behind his disguise was, I think, fear, on a scale varying from mild anxiety to terror. He had been a sensitive, frightened child, and he grew into a sensitive, frightened man.’

But, all we really have in the public domain of Golding’s vast diary is the information and sparse quotes as filtered through Carey. And these few actual snippets only serve to whet one’s appetite for more. It seems a shame, a great loss indeed, that there is no project - as far as I am aware of - to edit or publish his diaries. While I can understand the family’s wish for privacy, and, perhaps, to control the world’s image of Golding, there are several excellent reasons, surely, why his diaries ought to be published. Firstly, and foremostly, he was an acknowledged, world class, great writer and so in all likelihood there is a lot of great writing in them.

Secondly, the diaries contain far more of Golding’s thoughts about the world and the human condition than he polished and crafted for the novels. Thirdly, there must be many an insight about literary creativity in general, and, more specifically, about the creativity behind his novels (though, admittedly, Carey has mined this vein fairly thoroughly).

Fourthly - most fascinating of all - is that, like the most interesting of all diaries, Golding’s are personal, intimate, and self-analytical, not written (at least directly) for publication, which means they are likely to give a fascinating and deeper insight into the man. They may not give us all of the root that made him ‘a monster in deed, word and thought’, indeed the reverse is likely to be true, but they will tell us far more than we already know about the Golding condition.

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