This year marks the centenary of William Golding’s birth. To mark it, his lifetime publisher Faber & Faber has reissued two of his novels: the ubiquitous debut Lord of the Flies, and his second novel The Inheritors. This is a source of mild frustration to me. In the last fiteen years, there have been three reissues of some of Golding’s novels, but never all of them. In 1997, five of his first six novels were reissued in this style. Between 2005 and 2010, four of his first five (Free Fall never seems to get the treatment) were reissued in this style. Now, in 2011, we have just the first two reissued, with handsome covers and new introductions. All this seems to be a disappointing level of diminishing returns for an author described by Gabriel Josipovici as one of “the two greatest post-war English novelists” (the other was Muriel Spark). And it is a frustration for those of us who like uniform editions. When I carried out a straw poll on Twitter recently, I was surprised that the most praised of Golding’s books was Darkness Visible, which has been languishing in the same jacket for 30 years. (And please nominate your own Golding recommendations in the comments below: I’ve read just Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin.)
The Inheritors (1955) was the novel Golding considered his best. It is a book which both demands and resists literary analysis. Describing it in sufficient detail could sum up the schematics of the book so perfectly that the reader would not expect to gain anything from reading it – other than the invaluable experience of doing so, which, because of the language, can never be adequately described.
It reports the lives of a small group of primitive humans – Neanderthals, the blurb tells us. There are around half a dozen at the beginning of the book, some well differentiated (such as Lok, a clown of low intelligence), others less so. The stuff of their lives is unremarkable. The story is simple, and the telling is simple, so what makes this such an exceptional book? It is to do with Golding’s exemplary use of language as the unit of construction. All books are built of language, but in many cases the language or style is something strapped onto an existing story or idea. Here, the book is built from the language up, so it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise. In other words, it is sui generis.
This requires the reader to rethink, or rather de-think, to the Neanderthals’ level. We see into their minds and discover that they have no insight into their own consciousness, and that their experience of the world is predominantly external, limited to what they experience through their senses. (Their sense of smell is particularly strong.) As a result the book relies heavily on description, emphasising the absence of contemplation and internal reflection by the Neanderthals. They are fearful of water, driven by emotion, but often happy. They have fire but no cultivation or agriculture, so they must find food day by day. “Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.” They see ‘pictures’ in their minds, which seems to be a word that for them covers ideas, memories, mental images, and even a sort of telepathy, suggesting that evolution has resulted in losses as well as gains.
Evolution is the invisible character in the book, driving everything. The challenges facing the Neanderthals – finding food, returning home, getting across the river when the log they normally use goes missing – are amplified because they are not alone. Encroaching on their territory is a group of “new people”, Homo sapiens we presume. We see their activities through the eyes of Lok and his fellow Neanderthals, so we must place our own interpretation on their limited and literal understanding of what they witness. (The effect is similar to that in novels narrated by children, though Golding almost never interferes with the narrative integrity: one measure of his greatness.) It’s impressive just how much information Golding gets across while retaining the walls of his narrative structure: for example, the Neanderthals will not kill animals; they scavenge meat which has died by other means. This is because they view all animal life as equal to theirs (snails are “snail people”); they don’t see themselves as higher beings. That distinction arises as a result of thought.
There is great pathos here, as the mother of all dramatic ironies is upon us: the hopelessness of the Neanderthals’ struggles for survival in the face of the Homo sapiens, with their better tools, better communication and better planning; their habit of playing, a consequence of “leisure [and] incessant wakefulness.” Occasionally, one of the Neanderthals will strain towards an understanding of how to develop skills they don’t have – to gather more food than they need; to hold water in a shell – but it slips agonisingly away. In a sense to review The Inheritors as a ‘normal’ book does it a disservice. Its strength is in how it renders a world without thought as we understand it, and becomes a complete and convincing world. Language is restricted until the reader sees things as the Neanderthals do. This means that it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the their memories and experiences, even though Golding has clearly worked out their world meticulously. However there is no difficulty in the words themselves, as in Riddley Walker or the like. This new edition has a helpful introduction by John Carey (which reads as though it were adapted from his recent biography of Golding). In it he tells us how Golding, insecure as most writers are, submitted The Inheritors to his editor at Faber, Charles Monteith, with a note saying the manuscript was “nowhere near final – hardly begun, in fact.” Monteith published it as it stood.