WILLIAM GOLDING The Man and his Books A Tribute on his 75th Birthday Edited by John Carey Farrar Straus Giroux. 191 pp. $22.50; paperback, $13
IN AMERICA we usually wait too long to honor our best writers. Think, for instance, of that lovely festschrift for Randall Jarrell, with tributes by half the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Posthumous, of course.
They order these matters better in England. During their lifetimes T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and Philip Larkin all received substantial volumes of homage, and now William Golding has his well-deserved turn. After all, is there any more widely read, and studied, postwar novel than Lord of the Flies? Even when Golding received the Nobel Prize, the young king of Sweden shook his hand warmly, saying "It is a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Golding. I had to do Lord of the Flies at school."
As Charles Monteith -- Golding's publisher -- tells us, that famous title was thought up by Alan Pringle of Faber; when the manuscript, having been much rejected, came into the house it was called Strangers From Within. What's more, Monteith suggested pruning away a long section about a nuclear war and starting right in with the boys marooned on the island.
In another piece, Stephen Medcalf reveals that Golding "will talk with great interest and understanding . . . about any of his novels except Darkness Visible." We also learn that The Inheritors is the novelist's own favorite among his books -- and that he pronounces Lok, its Neanderthal hero's name, to rhyme with smoke. John Carey's lengthy interview reveals that when working Golding writes about 2,000 words a day. Ian McEwan -- whose early stories often focused on depraved young people -- remembers his own discovery of Lord of the Flies and dubs himself its "ideal reader." Poet Craig Raine traces Golding's sources (back to Aldous Huxley, Dostoevsky and James, among others); poet laureate Ted Hughes provides a rereading of The Inheritors; and John Fowles talks, with expert knowledge, about fame and the novelist.
For the more serious minded, a quartet of critics -- Mary Kinkead-Weekes, Ian Gregor, John Bayley and Barbara Everett -- offer some diligent analyses of the oeuvre, though only the most fanatic admirer will find his heart leaping to read "The Visual and the Visionary in Golding" or "The Impersonality of William Golding: Some implications and comparisons." Most ordinary folk will prefer Peter Moss' affectionate memoir of Golding's father, a grammar school science master, or Peter Green's account of the novelist carousing in Greece.
At one point, Golding remarks that if anyone wanted an epigraph for a study of his writings, then "Woe all round" would be a good one. But as these pieces point out, and the accompanying photographs confirm, the man himself is quite a cheery fellow. After all, as Stephen Medcalf notes, Golding has "contrived to preserve in maturity all the interests of an intelligent English schoolboy -- boats, treasure, islands, Rider Haggard, natural history, Greek (rather than Latin), geology, the Bible in the Authorized version, machines, riding, Egyptian hieroglyphics, stained glass, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, cricket."
Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.