On Writers

William Golding

William Golding,
The Sea Trilogy,Faber.

An Armada of One.

RITES OF PASSAGE began this voyage, then Close Quarters, so to Fire Down Below; and only now, when the final book is closed, the trilogy complete, do I understand what gifted and courageous madness the sea-passage was.

The captain, and here I mean Golding, is driven by a demon, by a monster. The journey is a fake. It began at Portsmouth (as I guess it was; see how Golding makes us work even for this detail, from sand and gravel under the anchor, so it wasn’t the muddy Thames or the Bristol Channel), in maybe 1814, if I’ve counted right, and a fake because it’s not bound only for Sydney Cove, but way beyond, for immortality. His vessel carries, as if they were Golding’s personal belongings, or in his duffle, nothing less than the traditions of his nation’s literature, its personality, its ambitions, and his stature within it.

And he sinks it. Malign, heroic, to cunning purpose, he puts it all to the flame. THE SHIP is not named. The imagination is at liberty. No single name-plate will suit her for long. She is a vessel with a reflection always somewhere about, on the waters alongside, or loomed against a mist, sometime Antrobus, Argo, Ark, Dutchman, and even an albatross shadows the wake. She tracks Coleridge all the way to the great southern ice. This is an easy course to follow so far but, for the death-defying frame of mind Golding is in presently, nowhere near far reaching enough.

He is known to flay inquisitive anaysts, critics, scholars:

I seem to have no connection with their William Golding.

In 1980 he told academics in Hamburg:

If there has been any coherent argument in what I have said, it leads to a proposition that could see the end of all literary criticism and analysis.

The essay A Moving Target carried this complaint:

I am the raw material of an academic light industry

And an address to Les Anglicistes in Lille began:

Ladies and gentlemen, you see before you a man, I will not say more sinned against than sinning, but a man more analysed than analysing.

So, one form of his vessel, or its ghosting, is the ship: Scholarship. The pun isn’t necessary to the exercise (although he makes plenty elsewhere), but I can’t dismiss it from mind. It is too beguiling a running joke, it so fits the tone, the complicated ambitions, the cleverness and sillyness together, the stunning risks Golding is determined on, in the mood. The trilogy is drawing scholars already, as it should (which Golding, perverse, well knows, so let’s not leave the Narcissus off this list), and some work can be dealt with early, clearing decks. Golding likes to write from a tradition, and to extend a book from there. Trollope’s city of Barchester was a point of origin for The Spire (see A Moving Target); Coral Island for Lord Of The Flies (ibid.); Camus’ The Fall for Free Fall (Helen Daniel). Now, scholarship (much in excess of mine) suggests that the form of Rites of Passage clearly begins a bildungsroman in the manner of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, following the passage of a young man to greater age (Christopher Leonard); the journey for Rites of Passage began in the year of Sense and Sensibility and landfall should coincide with Pride and Prejudice (Bernard Levin); and the tradition for the entire trilogy has genesis in 1494 when Das Narrenschiff was published in Swabian dialect (Maurice Dunlevy).

Golding says of literary imprisonment:

I am subject to rages… I seize those bars and shake them with a helpless fury.

I don’t believe him for a moment. He feels nothing like helplessness. Fury is here, but better words are defiance, reprisal, and the better clues are found in this passage from A Moving Target:

But the student’s true struggle through his parodies is toward that thing a writer must have more than a room of his own – though Jane Austen never had one – which is a voice of his own. Yet the student who is parodying other writers is likely to be your best student. He or she has fallen in love with a writer. His or her parody is passionate. He will think nothing as important as to have a book printed and so he will always look for a theme where other people have found it. I have to own to being one of those students and to have committed these necessary follies so often as to make me a prize example of the process.

Together with his fondness for these two quotations:

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me


Would that the ship Argo had never sailed

with one last, again from A Moving Target:

… the books that have been written about my books have made a statue of me … a po-faced image too earnest to live with

and we have something close to a likeness now; this consummate literary figure, goaded, cranky, ready to make wonderful trouble for just about everybody.

YOU WILL HAVE CAUGHT, by this, a sense of my unsteadiness, looking back on it all from here, and I won’t expunge it because, in the absence of learning enough to know precisely where I’ve been taken, unsteadiness is the most valuable sense of the voyage I can give you. I have the clear feeling of standing at dockside, still loose-kneed and groggy, needing to tell someone what it was like out there, how furious it was, how beautiful were the triumphs, how terrible the failures. I’ve seen things I don’t know whether to believe.

GOLDING SOUNDS WARNINGS early, most often in asides of quite mischievous intent and, if I’d got the first when I should have, I might have been too timid to go on. His narrator, the young Edmund Talbot, muses on the very first page of Book 1:

We have paid more attention to sentimental Goldsmith and Richardson than lively old Fielding and Smollett!

After the voyage is over, the opposite view:

I have always been embarrassed for such authors as Fielding and Smollett, to say nothing of the moderns, Miss Austen for example…

These are navigational statements, in this sea-story, they fix Golding’s position, and he completes the triangulation this way:

“Beat that, Goldsmith! Emulate me, Miss Austen, if you are able!”

These are the fires below, the terrifying fires of ambition, burning from the beginning, from Rites of Passage.

AMBITION, and the sequence of gratification for Golding, is worth keeping in mind. Rites of Passage was published in 1980 won the Booker Prize, and thereafter came A Moving Target, in 1982 (but the last of its essays was written in 1980), he won the Nobel in 1983, published The Paper Man in 1984, Egyptian Journal in 1985, and Close Quarters in 1987. The effects of the Nobel worried him, we know. Was the trilogy so important that he needed to steady his breathing awhile?

THE JOURNAL of Edmund Talbot is for the gratification of his godfather, who is high enough in ruling circles to arrange a keen post with the Governor of New South Wales, and to promise a Rotten Borough later at home. The tone is at once eager, questing, sometime honours-English perhaps, fair to Golding’s best student early self, who lacks yet a voice of his own, who wittily reaches for the voices of others, and crafts the plausible way for Golding to use the same device (I’ve only just seen where this extension leads, would Golding pull a reversal like this one?), so the character is able to craft the writer in his own image. The young of the old, as in truth.

The company aboard comprises soldiery, emigrants, mariners and crewmen, and a classy passenger-list, all of which is Arkadian and archival, these navigators, these vying officers, clergy, a marine lithographer, a philosopher in Huxley mold, a suffragette, all of equal use to Golding and to the new colony, if this ship ever gets that far. And it is a mark of the telling that, although the reader quickly becomes a passenger on this creaky hulk, we are never confident we will make it. Golding takes a care that throughout the voyage the reader stays all at sea (not merely a pun, I think, but the writer’s proper allusion) and no possibility is closed off until the moment is meet. He is proud of his reliability. Whatever he promises, by way of some wily clue here or there, he delivers. The balance for this is an uncertainty principle.

The method of suspense is very fine. It is a way of getting around the Nabokovian principle: The I in the book must not die in the book. The journals the narrator is writing, and which we’re reading now, are dealt with so they will survive any disaster. Rites of Passage is bound up in calico, and sewn tight. Close Quarters is stuffed into a firkin, and sealed. Anything could happen to the ship, the journals can make it through. But flagged events like these are most often called on to perform other work as well, his images are in this sense multi-skilled. I don’t believe I’m reading too much into this. The trilogy itself is a package which must be uncovered. We are being told, I think, not to take the box for the bundle. Box within box, and here is a delight, for with each unwrapping the boxes get bigger: sea-story to literary collage, to ambition and endeavour, to the nature of failings in humankind.

And I think there’s more to the firkin and the calico yet. It has to do with immortality. The books will survive young Talbot; they will survive Golding; they will survive us. These words are again from the 1976 essay A Moving Target (prose, but because the young Golding’s first book was of poetry, published 1934, I present the lines thus, and you’ll see why):

When I have tried all ways and found them shut,
I can think of one last thing to do.
I shall take my manuscripts aboard a ship …..

and thence to bury them, awaiting posterity, ready for archaeological excavation five hundred years later. Immorality? Yes? Maybe? I don’t know, perhaps I’m rattled. So canny an allegorist is Golding that shadows move. But one thing I’m certain about: When allusions are apt, all trails are true.

THE PROMISE of Close Quarters was made in Book 1, and on the evidence of the calendar was fulfilled seven years later. It shouldn’t surprise a Golding reader, by now, that he might effect the thing backwards. Narrator Talbot, grown up a good deal after a third of his voyage, closes Rites of Passage with this:

The book is filled all but a finger’s breath. I shall lock it, wrap it and sew it unhandily in sailcloth and thrust it away in the locked drawer. With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.

Since we’ve just finished a book, then, of a sea passage in which the Captain’s rule is merciless, officers hate and mistrust each other, the chaplain is buggered by many of the below-decks crew after fellating another, and makes for the sanctuary of his cabin so to die, blubbering and alone, of shame, we well know what sort of territory is monstrous now, what is too close.So the promise was fulfilled before it was made. We might expect Close Quarters to deal with a different manner of propinquity altogether.

THE SHIP HAS MOVED, by Book 2, only so far as to clear the doldrums, and now drags with it a vile Sargasso of weed which flays every time the hull rolls. The narrator casts about for some direction in which to write (the author too, since a Booker, a Nobel, and seven years of such growth has slowed progress). Talbot cries:

Wanted! A hero for my new journal, a new heroine, a new villain, and some comic relief to ameliorate my deep, deep boredom.

Is this to be the truth of Close Quarters? Not a chance. Even better to look elsewhere, and the elsewhere now is the final page of Rites of Passage, disguised as Golding’s own critique,

Why—it has become, perhaps, some kind of sea-story but a sea-story with never a tempest, no shipwreck, no sinking, no rescue at sea, no sight nor sound of an enemy, no thundering broadsides, heroism, prizes, gallant defence sand heroic attacks!

Together these paragraphs are index enough of the happenings in Close Quarters, but let’s add this, from the 1980-essay ‘Belief and Creativity’:

I have always felt that a writer’s books should be as different from each other as possible. Though I envy those writers who can go on writing the same book over and over again it is not something I can do myself. I do not see myself writing a book about a group of girls on an island. Yes, I have moved on.

We’d be daft not to take warning.

COMIC RELIEF, I should say now, is the one component he doesn’t deliver for me, in great measure anyway. Humour doesn’t often travel well, over the horizontal or through the vertical. In his Nobel acceptance, Golding spoke of the perils of intercontinental English, and the hazards of its travel:

Personally I cannot tell whether those many dialects are being rendered mutually incomprehensible by distance faster than they are being unified by television and satellites; but at the moment the English writer faces immediate comprehension or partial comprehension by a good part of a billion people.

The vertical I mean is time. Golding is locked into his chosen time. It follows, I’d guess, that the humour available to him is not the re-wrought, not the amended humour acceptable to the non-British world, to the post-colonial world. Golding’s is nowhere the humour of an underclass. None of it is sharpened by ghetto or gay, or of Jew, or of black. This was long a failing of the ruling English, of a certain foppishness, this reliance on a traditional humour of deprecation, delivered with princely negligence, despicable and tyrannous, tolerable only where the deprecation is of self, and tricky even then, for the faint hint of a conceit will sicken it. When a self-satisfied handshake after battle, say, carries tones of ‘stout fellow’ and ‘jolly fine’, I know this is Forester, but I’m not so much moved as is an Englishman. And when young Talbot’s landfall soliloquy runs:

the deepest note of my heart-strings sounds now as it will to my dying day –England for ever!

or he advises his lady to avert her path from aborigines because

their appearance is not to be borne, the women in particular

this reader smiles a good deal less than did the writer. Englishness does not carry its own forgiveness, in my part of the Pacific anyway. I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone. But look: a storm we’ve been warned about, and the one we get lasts almost half the book. We are grandly abroad, vividly in peril, even the ship has begun to flex underfoot and is twitched together with cables, much like the story itself, and by now we have begun to enjoy, ahead of time, any unlikely way the story might fulfill its other promises. A sea-battle is to come, so we’ve been told, and it is fought, shot for shot, cutlass in hand, beside the breathless guns. It’s over before it begins. The stealthy foe in the mist turns out to be English, the war with Napoleon already done.

The writer’s cry for a heroine had us scanning the cabins below. Instead, she walks aboard from this new ship, bathed in the delicate light of the Romantic novel from which she seems to step. She sails off on it again, after they’ve danced the night away, and we’re not sure how much of this vision is attributable to the love-struck narrator’s fever, how much to the flotilla of ghostly ships sailing on and on. The sea is unfathomable, the vessel of life skittish and unsafe, the journey is never over, who knows where the current will take us?

I’m not sure where else you’d find the artistic structure of a novel so hidden in an aside, but it’s in Close Quarters all right. To simpering Talbot, in a saloon-cabin conversation between dances, his Miss Chumley says:

Do you know sir, I once had to compose an essay on the subject of Art and Nature? Now would you believe it? Though I fear young persons are sadly docile – or should I say dutiful? Yet while the others were positively eloquent in their defence or advocacy of Nature – for it is fashionable nowadays to believe in Nature, you know – I discovered to my astonishment that I preferred Art!It was the moment at which I became an adult.

Here we have it for this volume, I think, a devious rivalry set up between the two. Art (the way we see it played out during a pavanne on the deck, or over an undulating dinner-table) is gracious, inconsequential, decorative. Nature (hull-rolling, storm-blasting nature, the nature of death where a man blows his sloppy brains over a bulkhead with a lily-shaped blunderbuss) is the intervening power, the show-stopping reality. But, and we see it must be so, nature was made with swaggering art.

TERRIFIED, BY NOW, that this famed laureate, this commanding intelligence, is making a mess of things in the territories of humour and love, where his new needs most are (his po-faced image too earnest to live with), the heart sinks at Talbot’s postscript to Book 2:I will go further. Who has every written extensively without finding himself lured little by little into the desire to captivate an audience?

There is in me, as in all writers, what Milton called ‘that last infirmity of noble mind’, the desire for a name more widely known, admiration more generously given, for a greater measure of interest in the author’s character and person ……

This is another joke, of course, delivered by the young English acolyte, Golding’s prototype, a joke made a conceit by the passage of time and laurels, a chronotrick. And Golding didn’t seem to be taking the advice of his own earlier essays, A Moving Target, for one,

… and I think how good the idea might have been for someone else; for I know now, you see, it was never for me, not my métier, I couldn’t do it. And, Men do not write the books they should, they write the books they can.

Heedless of his Maker’s proscriptions, young Talbot presses on:

Failings? I admit to ambitions.

OF NAVAL ARCHITECTS it is said that the design of the next ship can be seen in some line of the craft before, and it’s not too different in this trilogy. The line for the third volume was laid early in the second, in an exchange between Talbot’s Captain Anderson and the master of the visiting Alcyone, while the ships were rafted together, becalmed. Their conversation turned to steam tugs. (Never knowing what Golding might be up to, I did check this out: By 1815, five small paddle steamers were in commission on the Thames, more on the Clyde.)

“It is an extraordinary invention, Mr Talbot” said Sir Henry, “and I swear nothing but the inventive genius of our country could have brought it forth!

(A joke, for the invention was Scots, with a side pun on the Forth, I think.)

“It is a craft with a steam boiler, the force from which makes great paddle wheels rotate on either beam. It would throw up fountains of water were the wheels not cased.” “There is too much fire below,” said Anderson “I cannot like the things. If they should explode they might touch off a fleet like tinder.”

Golding will deliver on these warnings, but not until the magnitude of the task seems absurd. The ship is, by now, overloaded with perils. The emigrants are diseased, officers at the point of violence with each other, the crew has twitched the vessel together with cables, the soldiers have been set to the pumps for days, no one aboard knows where on the globe the ship is, the chronometers have failed, and the forward mast has split the heel, that cage which prevents it from plunging a gulf through the hull large enough to take its rigging to the seabed, and with it all souls.

Containing the mast to the writhing deck is the task of the two lieutenants, becomes their arena of fresh battle, the well-born and beautiful Benet, Frenchman and poet, against Talbot’s now friend Summers, the Englishman who came to this rank through the fo’castle, so our hearts are with him. But setting up our prejudices, and, having them topple, is familiar work for Golding. The entire voyage has been full of it. Benet’s is the solution which wins out. The smithies fix the sea-rotten timbers through with blazing iron rods, a bright spin, furnace white. They quench the heat, so far as they can reach, with water. The metal shrinks; the ship draws tight. The risky architecture Golding has attributed to the ship’s poet, a bard’s gifted vision of the natural world (nothing is possible without art, a resonate message from Book Two), and now we have ardent fire smoldering forever below, waiting on breath.

HE SEARCH for philosophical symmetry, from which Golding never, never resiles, makes toward a balance between the Absolute, the celestial above, and these ‘sparks of God’ beneath, en route to new lives, should they live. He said, in Belief and Creativity

Of man and God. We have come to it, have we not? I believe in God.

And, confessing to being an anti-utopian:

I would call myself a universal pessimist ,but a cosmic optimist.

His (circa 1960) essay ‘Copernicus’ contains this:

The intuition of Copernicus was the intuition common to all great poets and all great scientists; the need to simplify and deepen ,until what seems diverse is seen to lie in the hollow of one hand.

So navigation, mostly in its celestial discipline, is made to work hard on this voyage, made to look to the sky and into the soul. The Almanac and the Tables are the navigator’s Old and New Testaments, their poesies every bit as graceful and true. Young Talbot, who is after all an Englishman journeying to New South Wales in order to rule it, is admitted to much of this craft, but not by a seamanly officer under a starry sky, instead in a stinking cabin with the old philosopher now rotten to near death: Prettiman and his suffragette wife Latitia, the Utopians, the liberal thinkers of this foundering ark. And it is here, with Golding on navigation, on the navigation of all human endeavour, that he puts on magnificent show his capacity for courageous allusions, for parallel thought, for kinship of ideas (which we’ll understand, never mind, now or later), and it is here too he puts on show his disdain for risk, for failure.

One scene will do to display some of this. It happens in the cabin, young Talbot the eager, Prettiman the sage. The chronometers have seized, so no one can plot the longitude unless one could use, Prettiman wonders

“… the passage of a satellite as a check.”

Can the master do anything with his miraculous pen? Invite a plausible satellite ahead of it age? This is not the moon, the planets. It is not a timely maritime term, then. But (a memory does tug from somewhere) Satellite / Saturn? Saturn was also Kronos (Time) which devours all its children except Neptune (Water) and Jupiter (Air) and Pluto (the Grave). Is this part of his game? The unsettling word arrives in this story together with failed chronometers, so the world here is out-of-all-time, and anachronism pursues the joke. But it is arch, awful. And yet, and yet, you can guess the loftiness of ambition in a space-age idea like this. The ship is a capsule, sealed. Its trajectory will land it at the ends of the earth, on a continent its passengers will call Stone Age. It passes by Africa, and under the long Asian archipelagos, so it misses God knows how many intricate cultures, and on to effect British government of another land in absolute ignorance of its region.

Is this where he points? Then where does it lead? Does it follow, here, that colonization might have been different, had European expansion made along the land routes, forced to make contact with its peoples? Is it that British maritime success also brought inevitable colonial failures?

I’m not confident, but I think so. Does it make a difference to know that, in Utopias and Anti-utopias, he speaks of utopianism as kin to science-fiction? Prettiman is a Utopian. This manner of link is Golding’s seised demesne, and he works it hard. No one thinks an idea through further than Golding. His accords of thought, his consonances, run up a sweat. Many of these sorties take a long a trail out, and here’s another I can’t pass up without offer. Throughout this voyage, Edmund Talbot falls in and out of factions, is warned about factions and their dangerous fires. But there is no resolution, no payoff, for this obsession within the narrative. The point of it lies beyond the final volume, beyond the end-papers, and even then only for readers who will recognize the welcoming Governor in New South Wales, for readers who will know (from elsewhere) that Macquarie is the vary Governor who will lose in the struggle between Emancipists and Exclusionists, lose the faction-fight which will ruin egalitarian movement in the colony.

THE FIRE BELOW does burn the ship, I must tell you. It consumes the ship and it consumes its Master. Golding burns his boats, standing there, legs astride, claiming to have out-written the heroes and heroines of his own tradition (but in robust love with all). He leaps ashore to this New Land, to this strand of Aborigines,who lost interest in us, as they do after a whileand of convicts

who have found this shore in no way fatal to them

so felling Robert Hughes at a stroke, all the while chest-beating enough to out-thunder, across oceans, the braggy writers of Death In The Afternoon and The Armies Of The Night, and all at a time when freshest in our minds are his failings, his weaknesses, with comedy, with love, and (God forgive his attempt) with feminism.

He had prepared us, we’ll recall, in the ‘Post-scriptum’ to Close Quarters:

Failings? I admit to ambitions.

These terrifying fires explode, the ship burns to the waterline, destroys its Master, and threatens to take the nearby fleet with it. Is he also showing us his funeral barge? Has the Grand Old Man chanced his afterlife on this sea-venture, this Armada of One, leading to its heroine waving away flies with her parasol,

“One should live in a city after all. This craze for Nature must pass and society come to its senses!”

in accents to my ear of perfect Gwendolen Fairfax, ending with the silliest of romantic curtains, this circumnavigation of stupendous cunning finally done, his entire voyage now over?This is what has set me ashiver. His own failings are made compatible, maybe necessary, to his expedition. He has put them to use. Golding’s reason for being is to deal in human failing. He deals in the disgust of self-knowledge, deals in its shame.

In the not too ample volume of man’sknowledge of Man, let this sentence be inserted. Men can die of shame.

He has made his players face shame, he has made his narrators face it, and in this trilogy has made the writer of its journal face it. What is the last Golding trick left? Now, we see his own flagrant vice, see him ludicrous with ambition, his the last shamed face.

From ‘Utopias And Anti-utopias’, speaking of treating other writers in ways they mightn’t like, he says:

I have done it in this essay to so many other writers it is only fair that my own turn should come.

And that’s what has so rattled me. Not the swaggering, the elaborate references, the double-plays, the intellectual work, the heady near-misses, but this possibility: I have been watching a writer of courage enough to appall himself, so to stay true to the world he began.HAS HE FINISHED with us? Never. There is one more thin page to end the trilogy, space enough for his one more astonishing thing.

In the manner of an afterword, he means to accommodate his own shortfall, if that’s how we judge him, but set with comparisons of other times, with the more modern, the newer frontiers. As his narrator, now old and tired, he wonders what else he might have become had things been different. Like much Golding, the place of wisdom, the meeting of triumph and sadness, appears in what seems like some off-cut, in this case a dream, a midnight waking terror of lost opportunities.

I do not wish it to have been more than a dream: because if it was, then I have to start all over again in a universe quite unlike the one which is my sanity and my security.

This is a dream of the crippled old philosopher, the Utopian, and the aged feminist: the Prettimans. They are on horseback. They are riding a strange land, yet

… from the laughter and, yes, the singing you would have thought that they were going to some great festival of joy, though wherein the desert around them it might be found there was no telling. They were so happy! They were so excited!

The idealists are leaving him behind.

These are the trilogy’s last lines, and so, to date, the last of Golding:

I woke from my dream and wiped my face and stopped trembling and presently worked out that we could not all do that sort of thing .The world must be served, must it not? Only it did cross my mind before I had properly dealt with myself that she had said, or he had said, that I could come too, although I never countenanced the idea. Still, there it is.

For Overland Magazine 1990.
William Golding then died in 1993.