By Wendy Smith
Sunday, August 1, 2010; B06
By John Carey
Free Press. 573 pp. $32.50
William Golding's literary career culminated in the early 1980s with a Booker Prize for his seafaring drama "Rites of Passage" and a Nobel Prize for a body of work that ranged from "The Inheritors," a tragic account of peaceful Neanderthals done in by weapon-wielding Homo sapiens, to his visionary tour de force, "Darkness Visible." None of those works, however, entered popular culture with the primal force of Golding's tale of schoolboys stranded on an island who quickly give way to their most savage instincts. Someone younger might have been unmoored by being the author of the book that "replaced Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' as the bible of the American adolescent," but Golding was nearly 43 when "Lord of the Flies" was published in his native England in 1954, and 50 when the runaway success of the American paperback edition enabled him to give up his uncongenial post at a Salisbury grammar school. His preoccupations as a writer and a man, John Carey demonstrates in this thoughtful biography, had already been fixed.
The conflict between reason and faith, neither of which can wholly ameliorate human cruelty, was waged in Golding's breast long before it became the subject of his fiction. His father, a popular schoolteacher in Wiltshire, was an atheist, socialist and rationalist; his mother shared her husband's "advanced" views. Both endeavored to disabuse their sensitive, fearful son of what they saw as his superstitious tendencies. Yet his most powerful childhood memory was a vision of a benign spectral presence in his bedroom: "a glimpse of 'the spiritual, the miraculous,' " Carey writes, quoting from an unpublished autobiographical fragment, "that [Golding] hoarded in his memory as a refuge from 'the bloody cold daylight I've spent my life in, except when drunk.' "
Drunkenness became a problem early on; Golding was sacked from his first teaching job in 1939 at least partly for drinking too much. Alcohol may have blunted the humiliation of being judged "not quite a gent" at class-conscious Oxford. And it may have helped with the guilt he felt over jilting a hometown fiancée to marry Ann Brookfield, whose mother also worried about his alcohol consumption. Carey gently presents Golding's lifelong weakness as the self-medication of "a deeply self-examining and self-blaming man who, as he said more than once, saw the seeds of all evil in his own heart."
Service in the navy during World War II confirmed Golding's jaundiced view of human nature, especially his own: "I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort," he later wrote. Nothing in his outwardly ordinary postwar existence as a husband, father and lackadaisical schoolmaster justified such a comment, but Carey makes excellent use of Golding's personal papers to delineate the turbulent inner life that fueled both his creativity and his harsh evaluation of unexceptional failings.
In this context, "Lord of the Flies" -- shamelessly written in the classroom while his students labored at make-work tasks -- can be better understood as a salvo in the author's battle between dark impulses and the longing to transcend them. Charles Monteith, the Faber and Faber editor who plucked the manuscript from the reject pile, encouraged Golding to eliminate religious echoes that suggested Simon's death was a willing martyrdom. Golding reluctantly complied, and perhaps his more mystical original would not have been as popular as the published version. With subsequent novels, he would not so readily accede to demands that the action be "explicable in purely rational terms," and his critical reputation occasionally suffered as a consequence.
By the time "Lord of the Flies" became a cultural phenomenon, Golding had published three more novels, all well received despite some carping from the upper-crust intellectual establishment. Once he gained the financial freedom to write and live as he pleased, his pace slowed, and his output lessened; he traveled extensively, gardened obsessively and went through more drafts of shorter texts. In the early '70s, he endured a writer's block that lasted 4 1/2 years. Success had not changed his bleak view that rationalism was insufficient to nourish the human soul, but "belief did not mean you were a better person." His son's 1969 nervous breakdown, the beginning of a long struggle with mental illness, confirmed his sense that "the name of our God is Random."
Writing "Darkness Visible" restored his equilibrium and productivity. Golding published four subsequent novels and had completed a draft of a fifth when he was found dead on the bedroom floor of his home in Cornwall in 1993. Carey's depiction of his final two decades, during which he was honored by a knighthood as well as the Booker and Nobel prizes, suggests that they contained as much happiness as was possible for a man who considered himself "a monster in deed, word and thought." Golding's constant self-castigation seems hardly justified by the sporadic incidents of drunken abusiveness Carey records, or a few seamy sexual affairs in his youth, but this intelligent, elegantly written and deeply empathetic biography reminds us that the factual basis of a writer's neuroses is less important than the imaginative use he makes of them. Golding took the darkness he found in his own heart and rendered it visible in novels that examine with pity and horror "the long nightmare which is the bedrock of being human."
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar.