Friday, 3 December 2010

Golding, Lord of the Flies

There’s been a Golding stir lately: biography by John Carey, mentioned by Gabriel Josipovici as one of the last English novelists, with Muriel Spark, to maintain the Modernist refusal to write like Victorians (What Ever Happened to Modernism? and articles) -- and frequently named by people we’re interviewing about their schooling in the 50s and early 60s.

I taught Lord of the Flies in the mid-60s myself, I think for a CSE course (not Mode 3 -- this was London, a conservative exam board), didn’t like it and hadn’t re-read it since, but now I have, twice, motivated by those references. I’d also read The Inheritors, long ago (about the prose style of which the linguist Michael Halliday had illuminating things to say -- I wish he’d written more on literary texts) and had found it -- well, the word was ‘interesting’, and that’s the view I’ve held over the years about both books, that Golding in each case found an issue and did a rather schematic treatment of it: boys reverting to savagery, gentle Neanderthals supplanted by aggressive homo sapiens (I’ve probably misremembered that).

I was particularly motivated to re-read Lord of the Flies by a quotation that John Carey had used (I think in What Use Are the Arts? -- bad book but great final section where he forgets his philistine pose and hails, in traditional terms but with originality and insight, the use that literature is). It was the passage in which Simon’s body is gradually covered by the wavelets with their tiny phosphorescent creatures and carried out to sea. I had to agree that this was wonderful writing, and it wasn’t at all the sort of thing I’d noticed in the novel when I first read it.

On my first re-reading, by a third of the way through I’d decided that I still didn’t like it. There was something unpleasant -- distant and standoffish -- in the writing, particularly about the boys. I read on and became more and more impressed and was utterly gripped by the last couple of chapters. I then wondered whether there had been something wrong with my re-reading of the start of the book, so I went on and re-read it again. Fortunately I had a couple of comfortable two-hour train journeys to do it on. This time I was impressed throughout and now I realise that Lord of the Flies is, as people had been saying, a great book.

I also realised how badly I must have taught literature in my first few years of teaching, and how inadequate my literary education had been at Oxford. (And how small a part of our education our degree course contributes, compared with what we learn later in the course of reading and working.) I don’t think I had a clue what books and plays were doing.

Some observations on the book from my re-readings:

(1) Yes, it’s about a descent into savagery but if you look at the distribution of attention it’s as much about nature and cosmos -- the island and its constantly shifting states, the movements of its small creatures and its huge trees, its plants, its geology, its weather, its heat; and the planet in its setting in time and space. We almost never see the boys without seeing also the light shifting on them and making shadows, the salt drying on their limbs, the breeze disturbing their hair... The human story is just part of what’s going on, a brief and trivial interlude. Even the burning of the island at the end will not be terminal. The formation of the rocks in past eons is described. Roger throws a stone that had once -- in geological time -- ‘lain on the sands of another shore’ (Faber 1958 edition, 67). The tide that carries the corpse away is the work of ‘sun and moon... pulling’ (170). Beyond, the stars -- ‘the miraculous, throbbing stars’ (63) -- are referred to frequently, and not just as things seen in the sky.

It’s this distribution of attention, in which nature and cosmos are addressed as seriously as the human story, that gradually makes this novel, that starts off in familiar realist mode, into a different kind from, say, the excellent realist writing of a Le Carré.

It’s into nature and cosmos that the poetry in the prose goes. But not only: ‘Passions beat about Simon on the mountain-top with awful wings’ (78).

I'm not sure that larger, cosmos-wide narrative scope succeeds in placing the little local doings of the boys into a natural or planetary or cosmological perspective - sub specie aeternitatis. The boys’ doings are still the boys’s doings, human doings, and I read them as a human myself, quite differently than I do the descriptions of the breezes among the creepers or the collapse of rocks into oceans over centuries. And who does this narrator think he is to take on himself the view of someone who, as if from outside, sees both humanity and nature and regards them as somehow equivalent facets of the same story?

(2) It’s a celebration of thought, Vygotsky’s ‘higher mental functions’, an account of emergence into thought and a lament about its cost. Piggy has command of it; Simon thinks -- is actually sceptical -- but is unable to give voice to his thoughts; Ralph thinks intermittently and increasingly, gradually becoming a thinker, emerging into thought, coming to recognise its necessity and Piggy’s superiority in it and is in consequence said by Jack (or is it Roger) to be getting ‘like Piggy’ and ‘not one of us’, not spontaneous, reckless and fun-filled. ‘Again he fell into that strange mood of speculation that was so foreign to him.’ And while essential, thought is a responsibility, a burden -- like keeping the fire going and building shelters instead of playing at hunting -- ‘the world of longing and baffled common-sense’, so different from Jack’s ‘brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill’ (77). ‘He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life’ (83). Ralph’s thinking at the end is breaking down -- the boys are losing their minds -- a curtain keeps flapping in his, cutting off his train of thought.

(3) We get interiority -- Ralph’s thoughts and those of Simon (the most interesting character whose full depths never find expression). The narrator’s entry into these is sympathetic. But at the same time he’s detached and proffers an adult point of view on the proceedings: ‘This toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch’ (24).

(4) It’s difficult -- I still don’t have a clear mental map of the island, despite constant allusions to left, right, seaward, lagoonward etc. (Would a map have done any harm? yes, because its not-fully-explored, not-known character is important throughout.) The succession of episodes and locations is quite confusing -- I have to make a deliberate effort to keep track of it. How many boys are there? How many bigguns -- just the ones who get named or are there more?

But there are also things that never get explicitly: why does Simon go off on his own? what exactly does he know and realise? what is this wisdom that he seems to have? When Simon looks away from the pig’s head on the stick (the Lord of the Flies), ‘his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition’ (152). What did my fifth years in 1965 make of that? what did I? what do I now? I still don’t know what that recognition is.

(5) The characters: those who can think (Piggy, Simon) and are good: despised, not likeable, handicapped. Jack, Roger: evil from the start -- that’s made quite clear (‘He [Ralph] felt himself facing something ungraspable. The eyes that looked so intently at him were without humour’ -- 40). (The start of the story, that is: we all know kids who appear evil at 11 or 12 -- it doesn’t mean original sin, from birth.) The twins, Sam and Eric: good but weak. It’s a poor lookout for humanity -- nothing was done, hard to see what could have been. And it seems that’s the way it is -- in the book -- which I think was one strong reason why I so disliked it in 1965. It seemed implicitly to argue the necessity of authority -- a naval officer in white uniform -- to keep civilisation afloat and prevent the descent into savagery. ‘Samneric protested [at their capture] out of the heart of civilisation’ (198). Civilisation is what saves us, not anything more fundamental in our nature.

(6) For Josipovici, Modernism was the most recent response, out of several in the course of western history, to a sense of the loss of an old innocence and unselfconsciousness, to the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. Jack and his hunters recover or reinvent the (savage) enchanted world of myth and ritual. Ralph ‘grows up’, as out of medieval slumber into Reformation, thinks and is troubled.

And rescue is the idiotic, Home Counties banality of that naval officer.

‘Ralph shouted against the noise. “Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”’

The latter don’t come out of the story too well, but the former, too, seem to leave much to be desired.

No comments: