It's question-and-answer time at the Library of Congress reading, and William Golding winces like a man who expects to be slapped. He gingerly directs a finger at a woman in the audience. She does not disappoint. She asks about "Lord of the Flies."
He gathers his bantam frame into a crouch behind the lectern while raising a protective arm to his wispy-white brow.
It's a response more eloquent than words -- although Golding, never at a loss for them, manages to express himself further in an interview.
"I think it was Rachmaninoff -- wasn't it? -- who wrote the famous C-sharp minor Prelude, you see," says the Famous English Novelist, neatly rounding every vowel. "Well, they wouldn't let him off the concert stage till he played it. He was sick to the teeth of it. He'd come back for about five encores, hold his hands up like that, but they'd keep on stamping, and he'd have to play the damn thing. Well, 'Lord of the Flies' is something like that.
"I know people are going to talk about it. I know what they're going to ask me about it. And I know what their opinions are going to be -- and they're going to give me those opinions. And I will express delighted surprise at a new thought that comes along. It's all, all, all cut and dried."
He efficiently inhabits a wing chair in the Library of Congress' poetry office -- an economy-sized Nobel laureate complete with sage beard and wizened face. Reeling from a 10-city tour of Canada, he looks like a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly -- but suffers all the same. His wince is ever-ready.
"It's just like the pain barrier in athletics," Golding says, trying to explain why the mere act of giving an interview makes him feel unclean. "You have to go through a period of self-disgust and come out the other end when you realize you're just doing a job like anybody else. But it's a form of literary exhibitionism, you see, and I think exhibitionism of any sort probably leads to certain moments of self-disgust. I can't put it any plainer than that."
Yet in the 31 years since his first novel, "Lord of the Flies," began its inexorable climb to "over 7 million copies in print" -- enriching his life and enlarging his fame -- he has given so many interviews. It's a fact he might be expected to find deeply troubling.
"I would be deeply troubled by it -- this is going to be paradoxical and make nonsense -- if I weren't deeply troubled by it. You see? So as long as I keep my deep trouble, I'm okay. Hang on to that pain, it's all you've got."
He laughs a haggard laugh.
At 74, Golding can boast a certifiable classic -- the unavoidable, ubiquitous "Flies" ("I have written other books, books I like better") -- and a dozen less widely read works, including novels, short stories, a book of poetry, a play, two essay collections and, lately, "An Egyptian Journal," a meandering nonfiction account of a meander down the Nile.
"I shouldn't have done it," he says of his latest book, which came out recently to mixed reviews. "I got myself into a sort of feverish state, and one way and another, so much was going on, I was supposed to be in three places at once, and I did this in a state of somnambulism. I look back and think, 'Thank God I'm not there anymore!' I still don't know how I talked myself into it or somebody talked me into it. That's the publishing world for you."
Golding -- who sees himself, when it comes to literary critics, as "A Moving Target," the title of his most recent essay collection -- undertook the river journey amid a squall of controversy whipped up by the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1983.
It began when the Swedish Academy conferred the honor, comparing Golding to Swift and Melville, and praising his novels as "not only somber moralities and dark myths about evil and treacherous, destructive forces, but also colorful tales of adventure." A renegade academy member, Artur Lundkvist, then created an unprecedented public flap by holding a press conference to denounce the winner as "a little English phenomenon of no special interest . . . decent but hardly in the Nobel Prize class." At the time Golding laughed off the outburst as "one man screaming in a rage" -- but the memory of it still rankles.
"Oh, I see, we're getting around to that one," he says when asked if he ever met the cantankerous Swede. "I thought it would rear its head. No, I didn't meet Mr. Whoever-It-Was. I really was so naive. I didn't understand how boringly eternal this phenomenon would be. As I said at the time, everybody knows, for God's sake, that a different committee would have chosen a different writer. This was being human. Because literary judgments are subjective. I said this loud and plain, and everybody goes on -- like you, I'm afraid -- asking the same bloody boring questions."
Asked how the Nobel has changed his life, Golding gets positively feisty.
"I wasn't hooted at in the streets," he snaps. "I wasn't debarred from either of my clubs. I saw a large increase in my bank balance and I also found out instantly how many people don't like me. The only thing I can say about all these people -- whoever they are that I hear vaguely of -- is they've none of them won the Nobel Prize, and I have. Occasionally one just feels like taking a beautiful long running kick at the next person who raises the subject."
Growing up in pastoral Cornwall the son of a schoolmaster-father and suffragette-mother, William Gerald Golding was a terror of a tyke. "I was used to being adored for I was an attractive child in an Anglo-Saxon sort of way," he recalls in an autobiographical essay, "Billy the Kid," about his brief career as a spoiled brat and bully. "I . . . enjoyed hurting people."
Much later, after an education that spanned Latin and Greek, Oxford, the Royal Navy, and World War II -- which taught him "that man produces evil as a bee produces honey" -- he would become a close observer of the human species. He was raising a family and making his way as an educator when he produced his first novel at age 43.
His books since have ranged widely and ambitiously over many styles and tones -- from the raw Neanderthal narrative of cave dwellers in "The Inheritors" to the epistolary elegance of a young 19th-century aristocrat in "Rites of Passage." But, while different from one another, all of his novels chip away at the civilized veneer of humanity. Golding embraced his overarching theme, The Fall of Man, from the very beginning -- to wit, the stark chronicle in "Lord of the Flies" of English schoolboys marooned on an island:
. . . the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves after her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgment for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands.The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her . . .
He is a rigorous moralist who, as Robertson Davies has written, "tackles moral problems head on and wrestles them to the floor."
"Isn't it awful, I suppose so," Golding agrees. "I think anybody who's taken any given art seriously finds himself at some point concerned with moral issues. He can't avoid it. Morality is only a serious look at life, isn't it? The relationship between people. It sounds terribly dull, and maybe it is. But after all, you must admit that the novel is a fairly painless way of dealing with morals. It's not like preaching unmitigated sermons. Novels persuade to virtue, they don't order to it."
As to whether a novel should necessarily persuade, "I don't know how to answer that," he says. "It looks as though I ought to know it. Maybe it's a pointer to my feelings, whatever they may be -- and I don't think I've got them straight in my own mind -- but I detest detective stories, simply because they play about with the idea of murder. They have no moral sanctions, so to speak. That seems to me to be doing something which is actively wrong."
He is also quick to condemn what he sees as society's willingness to indulge the faults of artists, merely because they are artists. "We can forgive anybody provided they've got a bit of genius -- which is absolute fatuity, of course," he says. "I mean, when Beethoven promised one overture to two different publishers, he was a con man. He may have been a genius but he was also a moral slob."
The life of a distinguished author, full of statesmanlike shuttling between public readings and interviews and book tours, is enough to exhaust the most indefatigable of men, even William Golding. "It's perfectly true," he says, crinkling his brow. "I am shot."
So he and his wife of 46 years, Ann, recently forsook the hustle and bustle of suburban Wiltshire for the far-flung countryside of his native Cornwall. "We decided we had to move to a place where you couldn't get there and back in one day from London," he says. "Now, anybody who wants to interview me has to stay overnight in a hotel. This cuts down the traffic, you see."
It is here, in a "superb Regency house," that Golding plans to nurture three different ideas for stories, hoping that one of them will "glow" and become a novel. Because he prefers projects that demand much of his imagination, writerly craft and technical virtuosity, it's no surprise that his favorite creation is his second novel, "The Inheritors," a critically acclaimed tour de force written 31 years ago in the voice of a primitive.
"It was fun, real fun," he says. "There aren't many pleasures connected with writing, but when you have something which is a sheer joy to do, like that -- never mind what it's like to read -- to cook it up, you know, and get it all working, that's fun."
Alternating between longhand and typewriter, Golding has been steadily, and prodigiously, productive. His most recent novel, "The Paper Men," a black comedy about an aging English novelist and the young American academic who dogs his every step, was published shortly after the Nobel prize to generally bad notices. "The weakest of the lot," said The Washington Post's reviewer, "so weak indeed that had it appeared before last fall's Nobel committee meeting, the vote might well have been different." Golding takes exception, finding much to admire in his novel. "It's the only one of my books that I like to dip into now and again to cheer myself up," he says cheerily.
In the meantime, he keeps a journal.
"Why not? I got a right to, like everybody else. Don't look so shocked. It's not going to be one of these inestimable literary treasures. It's going to be -- to anybody who looks at it, if they get the chance after I'm dead -- a 15-volume disappointment. It is a discipline and I do it every day to at least make contact with paper. I suppose it is a little salve on the wound of not being able to write all the time."
And he reads.
"Homer," he says. As for contemporaries, "None. Nobody."
He eventually admits to reading half a dozen living British novelists and even the odd American. "I have read Norman Mailer's 'Ancient Evenings' or 'Little Egyptian Evenings' or whatever it's called," says Golding (who reports in his own Egypt book: "For the last sixty years I must have read every popular book that anyone ever wrote about Egypt.") "There was some very good blood-and-thunder writing in the battle scenes, but a lot of it got away from me, I'm afraid."
Beyond that, he enjoys studying historic games of chess.
"I remember playing one game through between Napoleon and one of his generals, in which it said, 'Napoleon took white and won.' And he did, too, but it wasn't a very good game. I thought I could have given Napoleon a better run for his money than the general."
And he plays the piano.
"I worked it out the other day that I have literally spent an entire year of my life on a piano stool. I may not be the best pianist in Cornwall. I think I may be the loudest . . . There's no doubt I like a rumbustious bit of Liszt. It's like cleaning your teeth to play Bach after you've played enough Liszt and Chopin."
When challenged on this last assertion, Golding smiles waspishly.
"Well, there are you are," he says with a sniff. "I'm talking about my experience -- not yours."
At the Library of Congress -- where many in the audience, apparently high school students, are holding copies of "Lord of the Flies" -- he gives the workmanlike performance of a journeyman litte'rateur. After reading from selections about his childhood years, he fields questions with pithy pronunciamentos such as, "I am not a theologian or a philosopher, I am a storyteller," and, "I think good will overcome evil in the end. I don't know quite how but I have that simple faith."
The crowd warms to him -- and he to it, betraying no hint of self-disgust. When they gather round at the end, proffering book after book for autograph, he tackles this drudgery with animal zest. "William Golding," he scrawls over and over with a reckless flourish of his ball point.
"If you're asking whether there's any more fiction coming from my anvil, my answer is probably yes," he says. "I think life is unpredictable and I never know if I'm going to 'get through' anything. And I think that every novel is certain to be my last. I have this feeling when I've done it -- 'splendid! hurrah! I've written a book!' And eventually that dies away and it starts to become -- 'You haven't written a book for a long time. My God! You haven't written a book for a long time!'
"And so on and on -- all the way down the steps to dementia."