The Spire

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: 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.