In Memoriam – William Golding

This past September 19th marked Sir William Golding’s 114th birthday. While Golding is best known for his iconic, 1954 masterpiece Lord of the Flies, he was much more than just a “one-book wonder”. Some people still aren’t aware the Swedish Academy presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983. They cited the following reason for bestowing that honor: “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” While that’s quite a statement to comprehend, it sums up Golding’s contribution to his field accurately.

Like many, Lord of the Flies served as my first introduction to his work. Somehow I managed to escape both high school and college without reading it. In the same way that Eric Clapton “received” Robert Johnson, that’s how I felt when I encountered this novel. The exquisite descriptions and unique characters drew me in. Every time I read it I’m horrified anew at the boys’ journey into barbarism. Its final pages contain the best ending ever written. The only books containing conclusions that rival it are The Paper Men, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin all written by…William Golding.

Upon completing Lord of the Flies, I resolved to read all of Golding’s novels. They served to both inspire and intimidate me. I learned that, as someone once said of Peter Sellers, “The man is so talented you can’t imitate him: you can only admire him.”

In addition to an inimitable skill at crafting endings, Golding excelled at establishing voice. In The Inheritors he wrote in the primitive dialect of Neanderthal man; at the same time, he kept the story engaging and comprehensible. (I’m embarrassed to admit, it took me longer to figure out what he meant by “floating logs” that it should have.)

As if utilizing that style of narration didn’t challenge the author enough, he concluded his career by writing a three-volume sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth. The story centered on a British vessel bound for Australia in 1814. He told most of the story in the form of a journal written by a young aristocrat. It read exactly like one and took me a while to adjust to the archaic language. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to write it. At one point Golding changed the point-of-view to that of a clergyman. He kept the dialog and narration consistent throughout the story. Keep in mind he did so through three books, not just one.

It’s impossible to select a “definitive” William Golding novel. The Spire remains my favorite, though. While a simple story (by Golding standards) of a man’s Quixotic vision of building the world’s tallest cathedral tower, the author worked in complex characters. The engineer of this project suffered from vertigo. While believing himself chosen by God, Dean Jocelyn received his post due to some very secular behavior from a relative. Golding built the conflict between faith and reason brilliantly.

I admire Golding for many things. If I had to select one that I would pass on to others, it would be the man’s commitment to his craft. He wrote in his journal every day. On June 18, 1993, he expressed his intention to revise the first draft of his work-in-progress, The Double Tongue. He passed away the following morning at the age of 81.

Whenever someone who inspired me passes away I’m reminded of Dr. Seuss’ words, “Don’t be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Literature is a much richer field today because of Golding’s myriad contributions.

Thanks, Bill.

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