William Golding: Words of gibberish or genius?
Much fuss has been made of the revelation that William Golding raped, or at least attempted to rape, a 15-year-old girl when he was 18. John Carey, whose engrossing new biography breaks the news, jauntily dismisses it as a "wrestling match," and further points out that Golding and the rapee afterwards had an affair, that she enjoyed being whipped (by another man) and got her kicks (or was it her revenge?) by allowing Golding's voyeur father to watch her screwing his son in the distance through a pair of binoculars. In this context Golding's new-found infamy is less shocking than the actions of other writer-rapists — Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Malory, Jack London, Casanova or the Marquis de Sade — all of whom, with the possible exception of de Sade, have long been forgiven by the public at large.
Carey found out about the "rape" through an unpublished confessional memoir called Men, Women & Now in which Golding also revealed that he had learned how to masturbate by climbing a flagpole, that he was excited by the idea of dressing as a woman and that he considered himself a repressed Nazi sadist. Elsewhere Golding is shown to be often drunk (once throwing a plate of chips over his head in a pub), abusive (calling his friends "whores" and "bores"), chippy (mainly in relation to class, the literary establishment and public schools), prone to bouts of paranoia and depression, a poor husband and a rotten father — none of which makes the story of his life any the less interesting. It is unlikely that many readers will finish this book with feelings of admiration for Golding the man, but what of Golding the writer?
Literary opinion has always been sharply divided on the question of his literary merits. Even his Nobel Prize was contentious — one of the judges afterwards spoke virulently against him. Carey concedes that Golding's novels, after his first (Lord of the Flies), were mostly greeted with dismay, bewilderment or outright hostility by the critics, but he staunchly clings to his personal view that he was a genius. Full of allegory, morality and symbolism, these works are rewarding to teach, and have consequently found favour in academic circles, particularly in America — the influential critic Frank Kermode was an early fan — but in Britain, while supporters hail him as a deep thinker, a brilliant prose stylist and a fascinating spinner of yarn, his detractors continue to insist that his work is ponderous, inarticulate, impenetrable and pretentious.
Of course John Carey is impatient with those who fail to see the point. He accuses Anthony Burgess of professional jealousy, Auberon Waugh of being "a young Turk eager to make a splash" and the critic C. A. Lejeune of not reading properly. Reviewing Pincher Martin for the radio, Lejeune said that Golding wrote "deplorable English", to which Carey responds with a passage about eating chocolate. "Can Lejeune have read this?" he asks:
He unfolded the paper with great care; but there was nothing left inside. He put his face to the glittering paper and squinted at it. In one crease there was a single brown grain. He put out his tongue and took the grain. The chocolate stung with a piercing sweetness, momentary and agonizing, and was gone.
If this seriously second-rate and silly passage is really the very best that Carey can come up with, I think he should swallow the bitter pill and lay down his arms to Lejeune.