English Literature

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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Book Review – The Paper Men by William Golding

I’ve been a huge fan of Mr. Golding’s work since I first read Lord of the Flies. It impressed me so much that, I’ve read everything by him that’s still in print. Why you may wonder? As I tell everyone who asks me that Golding is the one person I’ve come across who’s just as miserable and pessimistic as I am. Books like The Spire and Pincher Martin made my views on human nature seem upbeat. One can imagine my surprise when I opened the pages of The Paper Men. Golding did a complete about face and crafted a comedic piece. Based on my familiarity with his work, his skill in doing so didn’t surprise me.

Golding established the humorous tone of this work at the very beginning. A noise awakened the protagonist, Wilf Barclay. Suspecting a badger got into the garbage he grabbed his gun and went downstairs. To his astonishment the creature going through his trash turned out to be his house guest, a professor of English literature. “You must be very hungry, Tucker.” Barclay said. “I’m sorry we didn’t feed you better.” (Page 5) Shortly after this, Barclay’s pajama bottoms fell around his ankles. Definitely the most atypical opening I’ve ever read in a William Golding novel.

The story itself described the relationship between Wilf Barclay, a British author, and Rick Tucker, a college professor. The latter longed for the writer to appoint him as his official biographer. The author had no interest in doing so. In the scene I mentioned above, Tucker searched Barclay’s rubbish to locate writings the author may have discarded. While the two had a dysfunctional or series of antagonistic interactions throughout the book, I liked Golding’s continual use of humor. He even used a catchphrase popularized by contemporary comedian Jon Lovitz. “That’s—er, the ticket.” (Page 105) I’m not familiar with other instances of ‘serious’ writers quoting Saturday Night Live sketches.

Among all novelists awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe Golding possessed the best overall writing ability. The Paper Men came out in 1985; two years after he received the honor. It provided a good example of why. Without giving away spoilers, the author showed a spectacular proficiency at foreshadowing. He repeatedly dropped hints by making references to a certain object. People who’ve read the book will understand. I’m not going to ruin the fun for readers interested in delving into it.

Golding’s unique gift for plot twists achieved its apex in this one. This book had the cleverest ending I’ve ever read. He crafted the narrative in a way any writing instructor would declare impossible. For that reason alone, I’d encourage people to read The Paper Men. Trust me. It will expand one’s view just how a writer can structure a novel.  I’m very surprised it’s not cited more often.

Expanding the epistemological scope of novel writing isn’t something any author can do. Even fewer can do so through a comedic work. This author achieved it. While The Paper Men may not be as famous as The Inheritors or To the Ends of the Earth, that’s more of a testament to the caliber of the writer than the quality of the work. That observation would make even William Golding smile.

Book Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje took the concept of creativity to unheard of levels with The English Patient. He presented a narrative about four totally unique characters’ lives intertwining. While that would be a superlative achievement in itself for many authors, he then set his main story in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War. The characters then experienced flashbacks. This took the narrative into the deserts of North Africa during the 1930s. What a creative use of setting! In addition, he expressed himself so eloquently, that at times I thought the book a work of poetry.

Mr. Ondaatje wove a complex narrative about the coming together of four unique characters. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading about a cast this original. All of them added to the organic whole of the piece; none seemed contrived. Hana the nurse refused to leave the villa following the evacuation of all the patients save the title character. The author added a thief named Caravaggio to the mix. He then included Kip, a soldier from India, who defused bombs. Of course, the enigmatic character of the English Patient served as the center of the story.

The author sedulously researched this tale. On page 303 the author cited a number of sources he consulted regarding the desert and exploration of the North African region in the 1930s. It showed. Overall, the writing came across as very credible.

The author also made numerous references to Herodotus’ The Histories. The English Patient possessed that book when he turned up at the villa. He referred to the book repeated times throughout the narrative. The way Mr. Ondaatje wove it into the story I wondered if he knew its contents better than the original author.

The author utilized a very intriguing structure. He varied the points-of-view while including a series of flash backs. In spite of this intricacy, he kept the reader engaged. The main reason I read so intently centered on the use of language. For me, it defined the core essence of this book. At times the narrative read more like verse than prose. The elegant way the author described an affair affected me the most. It read:

She picks up a cushion and places it on her lap as a shield against him. “If you make love to me I won’t lie about it. If I make love to you I won’t lie about it.”
She moves the cushion against her heart, as if she would suffocate that part of herself which has broken free.
“What do you hate most?” he asks.
“A lie. And you?”
“Ownership,” he says. “When you leave me, forget me.”
Her fist swings towards him and hits hard into the bone just below his eye. She dresses and leaves. (Page 152)

I liked the passage’s eloquence. At the same time, I could visualize this happening. The author made the scene believable.

Another line from this book that grabbed my attention read:

But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others. (Page 117)

When I picked up The English Patient and read the blurb about it winning the Man-Booker Prize, I cringed. Many award winning books have left me feeling, well, frustrated. I struggle to understand them. Then I lose sleep trying to figure out why they got published let alone won anything. This book was a delightful exception. While the story interested me I found the fantastic language alone justified taking the time to read it. Since I now have a background and understand the overall premise, I look forward to reading this book again to see what else I discover in it. It’s not often I finish reading a book and get excited about doing so once more. For once, I can put in writing that I read a book that truly lived up to its reputation.

Book Review – The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

“Art is the Mirror of our betrayed ideals,” wrote Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook. (Location 7502) This complex tour-de-force provided the author ample opportunity to explore this theme as well as myriad others. Ms. Lessing delved into matters as diverse as relationships, her disillusionment with the Communist Party and the psyche of the creative mind among more I wouldn’t be able to count.

It saddened me to hear of Ms. Lessing’s passing last November. I’ve had a copy of The Golden Notebook sitting on my bookshelf ever since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (2008) I’ve read several of her other works, but just never got around to this one. I know many people cite it as her major novel. When I saw a digital version of it on sale for a few dollars, I decided to stop waiting. I picked it up and read it. I’m glad I did. If I’d known the text’s difficulty in advance, I don’t know that I would have. This book caused me to struggle mightily.

The story centered on a series of notebooks that the protagonist, Anna Wulf, kept. I welcomed the section where she described the purpose of each one.

I keep four notebooks, a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary. (Location 8163)

The perspective shifted between the various notebooks and the overall story narrative. When I realized that it reminded me a bit of The Who’s Quadrophenia. I couldn’t follow that, either.

While hard to understand, I did like a number of things about the novel. The insight into the creative mind of an author (the yellow notebook) enlightened me. It left me with some insights into how the mind of this Nobel Laureate came up with ideas.

On a personal level, I’ve always thought communism the most ridiculous political philosophy ever developed. It made me glad to see the author abandoned it by the time of this 1962 release. The following statement appeared in the novel.

Very few people care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have the guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born. (Location 9622)

I’m glad Ms. Lessing realized that and abandoned Marxism.

While I had trouble comprehending how their adventures related to one another, I thought the characters very well drawn. I especially liked Anna Wulf. The line, “It seems to me that if I can achieve some sort of self-discipline, instead of aimless reading, aimless thinking, I can defeat my depression.” (Location 9408) From the way the author structured the novel, I don’t think Anna did.

All-in-all I’d classify The Golden Notebook as a very complicated read, and extremely hard to understand. Now that I have a background and know the framework of the story better, I would be willing to read it once again. I might keep a journal while doing so. Who knows? When I finish, I may have enough material for a golden notebook of my own.

Book Review – Pincher Martin by William Golding

Here’s life on an island in the sun as only William Golding could describe it. When I reviewed the plot summary of Pincher Martin, I knew I had to read it. It described the book as a seafaring tale about a British Naval Officer who found himself stranded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the course of the narrative he experienced flashbacks and delusions that melded past, present and future. As if the challenge of writing a book that followed the adventures of one man alone in the most prosaic setting imaginable didn’t challenge the author enough, the protagonist Golding chose was unreliable and unlikable. Just about every element of the book encompassed something we writers are taught never, never to do. And yet, in Pincher Martin, it worked.

As with any Golding novel, his brilliant use of language enriched the narrative far beyond the story. Mr. Golding began his writing career as a poet; in his Nobel Lecture he emphasized his great passion for verse. In Pincher Martin, it showed. I read so many poetic lines that I struggled to provide just a few in this review.

How can she hold the center of my darkness when the only real feeling I have for her is hate? (Location 1634)

When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place-burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. (Location 21)

The sun could illumine the mist but not pierce it. And darkly in the sun-mist loomed the shape of a not-ship where nothing but a ship could be. (Location 183)

I cite three examples in my reviews most times. The author inundated Pincher Martin with such a rich array of language, I need to add one more.

There is no center of sanity in madness. (Location 1982)

I’ve read all of Mr. Golding’s works currently in print. Phrasing like the above makes me wish that whoever has the rights to his 1935 work Poems would re-issue it.

As I’m sure readers inferred by now, Pincher Martin wasn’t one of the happier novels in the William Golding catalog. It almost made Lord of the Flies seem like an episode of Fantasy Island.

Golding showed exceptional skill at foreshadowing. The author inserted it sparingly and with great subtlety. The first time I read this book, I couldn’t believe the creativity of the ending. It met the classic definition of a proper conclusion: it surprised me, but at the same time, it hit me as inevitable. When I read Pincher Martin the second time, I picked-up on the clever hints Golding included along the way. As I strongly encourage readers to examine the book, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. In fact, a few weeks ago I recommended it to someone. She had a foreshadowing question with her work-in-progress. I encouraged her to read this book.

Another superb element of Pincher Martin entailed how the book left itself open to interpretation. That’s the difference between an art and a science. With a science, there’s a hypothesis, someone tests it and then we know every time we follow a certain procedure, we’ll get the same outcome. Literature is similar to the Kuleshov Effect in film: the mind of the person experiencing it contributes to the understanding. I read the afterword by Philipa Gregory. I also used Virginia Tiger’s William Golding: The Unmoved Target, to help me grasp the text. They presented differing evaluations regarding the significance of the rock among other elements of the tale. Once again, I don’t want to spoil the book for those planning on reading it. I’ll avoid providing details, but both critics presented lucid, well-reasoned analyses. The fact they differed showed me the true genius of William Golding’s art.

The next time readers find themselves day-dreaming about an island in the sun, check out Pincher Martin. It will provide a whole new perspective. While thoughts of hurricanes, loneliness and struggling to find water may not appeal, reading William Golding’s brilliant depiction of Pincher Martin’s struggles will make the journey well worth the time. Just bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

Book Review – The Double Tongue by William Golding

On the penultimate day of his life, as he did every day, Sir William Golding wrote in his journal. He expressed his plan to start revising the first draft of The Double Tongue the next day. Unfortunately, fate intervened and he passed without having the opportunity to do so. Let this be a lesson to all so-called “writers”. Golding wrote in his journal every day and planned on revising a novel the day of his death. I should also add that he lived to the age of 81. What’s your excuse for not writing, again?

In commemoration of the 21st anniversary of the author’s passing on June 19th I re-read The Double Tongue. As any fan of William Golding knows, every one of his novels is different. This one was certainly the most unique. I thought it a very interesting choice of topics to follow-up a sea trilogy. It presented the tale of a young lady, Arieka, who became the Pythia at a Delphic Temple.  The author set the novel in Ancient Greece at a time when it’s power declined as Rome’s ascended. The Point-of-View was first person from Arieka’s perspective. (Golding took a lot of criticism though out his career for not writing about female characters, so this approach marked quite a departure.) At the time he wrote this draft, Golding was an octogenarian. He deserves monumental credit for taking on a project like this at the literal conclusion of his life.

Many people know Golding from his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Many are surprised to discover it wasn’t his first book. His first published work was a book of poetry. The Double Tongue showed me that even in the twilight of his years he still possessed a poet’s gift for language. Even for a first draft, I found the text rich with poetic expressions. Some examples included: “They were just enough to remind me that women aren’t free, not even the free ones.” (Page 17) Another memorable line: “I think that in sleep with its dreams we are trying to rid ourselves of the rubbish of our minds.” (Page 33) I also found the following exceptional use of alliteration: “…I heard from that sun-drenched crowd before the portico a stricken and sudden silence.”

The novel did have its drawbacks, however. For one thing, I found it very heavy on dialog. I’m sure had Golding been able to revise he would’ve balanced it out with more narration.

There’s no greater indication of an author’s aptitude than to make a reader want more. The Double Tongue did so for the wrong reason. In my copy of the book I found a blurb that read, “A passage of the manuscript is missing at this point.” (Page 78) This leads to the inevitable question, is it fair to publish author’s unfinished works? (From my own experience, I didn’t find The Love of the Last Tycoon up to the standards of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s completed novels.) I think that the only way an author can prevent something from getting published posthumously is to throw the manuscript into the fire, a la Gogol. I thought The Double Tongue an entertaining and interesting read. As a hard-core William Golding fan, I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so. It left me thinking that just maybe with a little more time Sir William’s last novel could have been his best.  

 

Book Review: William Golding – The Spire

My writer friends are afraid to read William Golding. I take the blame for this. They tell me that they read Lord of the Flies and found it “too disturbing.” I respond that Golding used that book as practice. His pessimistic portrayal of human nature in some of his other words makes Lord of the Flies look like something out of Fantasy Island. If that doesn’t make them want to read more Golding I don’t know what would.

In all fairness Sir William Golding is my all-time favorite author. I’ve read work by every prose author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Golding is undoubtedly the best. One of the most difficult challenges an author confronts is staying in the voice of the character. No one could do this more proficiently than Golding. His deftness at characterization went into overdrive in The Spire.  

Golding revived one of his best literary techniques in this story: the unlikeable protagonist. It took a special kind of author to make this the focus of the novel and yet have readers hang in there to the end. He pulled it off brilliantly in The Spire. It described Dean Jocelyn’s (perhaps insane) vision of building a 400 foot tall tower above his church. To make this even more interesting the tower was constructed on a very unstable foundation. Golding could have stopped there, but he decided to make the story even more intriguing. Jocelyn repeatedly made references to miracles, an angel guiding him and God wanting this tower to be built. Through this exposition Golding made it pretty clear that this whole situation would not end well. His choice of Jocelyn’s voice to tell the story enabled readers to understand that this is more of a monument to him than anything else.

One memorable scene occurred when one of the workers fell to his death during the construction. Golding wrote:

In this dark and wet, it took even Jocelyn all his will to remember something important was being done; and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. (Page 49)

In this one, admittedly very long, sentence, Golding truly defined the core essence of his protagonist. It was a fascinating about face from Jocelyn’s inner monologue where he thought, “Lord, I thank thee that Thou hast kept me humble!” (Page 18)

With writing like this, Golding humbled my faith in my own writing ability!

 Another major highlight to The Spire came through Golding’s beautiful use of language. He began his literary career as a poet, and it showed in this book. One phenomenal example:

What can I do on this day of days, when at last they have begun to fashion my vision in stone, but give thanks?

Therefore with angels and archangels-

Joy fell on the words like sunlight. They took fire. (Page 17)

Another outstanding simile: “Vanished like a raindrop in a river.” (Page 180)

The most original use of language by far occurred in the description of the “singing stones.” Throughout the book as the spire rose the stones made an “eeeeeee” sound that Golding eloquently described as “singing.” I could actually hear the noise as I read the book. I’ve never before had that happen to me. I’ve got to give major kudos to Mr. Golding on this one.

There were a lot of other great plot points and story sparks in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the surprise twist as to how Jocelyn got the job of leading the monastery. I won’t spoil the fun for readers here. I will report: Golding did an awesome job flexing his creative muscle on this one. If you’re troubled by the idea of using “miracles” as a substitute for sound engineering practices, I envy you the thrill of reading what made all this possible.

I think of William Golding as one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. In fact, I have a photo of him on my writing desk. It’s staring at me as I’m crafting this review. The Spire stood out as a great example of Golding’s superlative talents. I wrote earlier that he held a pessimistic view of human nature. To be perfectly fair to him, he always disagreed with that statement. He once said something to the effect, “If you hold up red and blue together the red will always stand out.” The red in this case meant the negative. With the greatest of respect I think he refuted his own argument in The Spire. In spite of reading a 200 plus page story regarding an unlikeable narrator pursuing an obsessive quest, what stood out from The Spire was Golding’s incomparable talent as a wordsmith and storyteller.