To the Ends of the Earth

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.

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.