A couple of years ago on this blog, I bemoaned the fact that Faber has frequently rejacketed some of William Golding’s books, without ever doing the whole lot. (The last time they were all issued in consistent editions was in the 1980s, with Paul Hogarth’s sinister designs. I can still recall the bloodied pig’s head from studying Lord of the Flies at GCSE.) Well, bemoan no more, because this year the decent thing has been done: handsome covers by Neil Gower, new introductions, reset text. In the last few months I have read The Spire – clearly a work of brilliance – and Free Fall – less obviously so – but never felt equal to the task of writing about them.
Pincher Martin (1956) is different. It is Golding’s third novel, and I had read it before. I knew what was coming, and that is a significant factor, because this is a book which needs to be read twice for full benefit. It contains more than one jaw-dropping revelation, but it is the one at the end which turns everything in the book on its head and sends the reader casting back through the pages. I wanted to see how the novel would stand up when I knew what was coming.
The first thing to say is that this is a short and seemingly simple book: the story of a shipwrecked sailor. We join Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin just as disaster has struck:
He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
After a few dicey moments, he gains buoyancy by kicking off his seaboots and remembering to inflate his life vest. Yet already Golding is sowing doubt. Body parts are described as though separate from him – “the upper lip”, “the chattering teeth” – the, not his. Why is this? Because Martin feels detached from his body? Because the scene is being viewed not through his consciousness at all? These and other details make the reader understand that even in these opening pages, we do not really know what is going on. It also makes us think about the nature of identity – a major theme of the novel. What makes a person: a body? A mind? In fact, working out exactly what is happening is tricky until the time when Martin begins to reflect on his situation. (“He began to think slowly.”) Suddenly, the meeting of two minds – his, and ours – brings clarity. Thinking makes it so.
By then, Martin has washed up on a rock – “one tooth set in the ancient jaw of a sunken world” – somewhere in the Atlantic. No relief though: “Yet this solidity was terrible and apocalyptic after the world of inconstant wetness. It was not vibrant as a ship’s hull might be but merciless and mother of panic.” And there he remains, for the next 200 pages. All that time, in extreme and excruciating detail; moment by moment agony. What could be duller, right? Well. Golding’s style is quick, sketchy, full of fireworks, and never loiters. The interest in identity returns: finding his way about on the rock, Martin speaks aloud, even though there is no one to speak to, because “it gave him back a bit of his personality.” What else is needed for identity? Memory: and so we get snatches of Martin’s past, but where ‘backstory’ can be a vehicle for a writer who has failed to impart information in other ways, here it is tight and necessary. So tight, in fact, that the casual reader might not immediately notice how much it tells us about the sort of man Martin is. No feminist, for one thing. “That wench was good for a tumble.” A friend turned enemy, for another, to his colleague Nat. A failed actor, a conscripted sailor, a shipwrecked struggler.
A man on a rock, hoping for rescue, must want to survive, and Martin applies his human resources and cunning to the task. He sets up signals visible to both shipping and aircraft, and survives on limpets and anemones. The struggle not just for survival but for supremacy runs through the book, most memorably in an anecdote Martin recalls about a grotesque (and, I hope, apocryphal) Chinese technique of rearing maggots as a delicacy. It challenges the reader in more subtle ways too. We have been in Martin’s head throughout the book, so we must associate with him, and want him to survive, and furthermore we are glad that he uses his brain to master the rock and the little life that’s on it. (One thing he does is give names to all the places on the rock, just as any first settler would. “I am surviving. I am netting down this rock with names and taming it.”) What, then, if it turns out that he had the same urge to master, the same ruthlessness, beforehand, when it was not needed for survival? The reader gets a taste of this when Martin struggles to define himself – to recover his identity – with no one else present to play off. Not, he thinks, like the old life, where
there were other people to describe me to myself – they fell in love with me, they applauded me, they caressed this body, they defined it for me. There were the people I got the better of, people who disliked me, people who quarrelled with me.
We begin to get the measure of him. But Golding is a master of paradox, not just in defining Martin’s character but in the very core of his style as a writer. As with his other novels, there is a great physicality present, and Martin’s senses are exhaustively explored, not least his remembered sexual urges in some of the book’s most vivid scenes (“I must, I must, don’t you understand you bloody bitch?”), and this gives a sense of solidity, of concrete certainty. Yet it is slippery and ambiguous through and through: those maddening moments of revelation see to that. It has links to Golding’s other works – the switch of viewpoint at the end recalls The Inheritors, the intense, enveloping portrait of one man at a time of crisis predicts The Spire, and the metaphysical inquiries and the question of evil are unavoidable. Toward the end when Martin begins to ramble with a cynical, almost destroyed view of human life – “…[man] is a freak, an ejected foetus robbed of his natural development, thrown out into the world with a naked covering of parchment, with too little room for his teeth and a soft bulging skull like a bubble. But nature stirs a pudding there and sets a thunderstorm flickering inside…” – it’s hard to tell whether he sees this as brutally clear insight or a final succumbing to madness. The reader, however, will get answers, though they lead only to more questions, such as how a grounded story set on a few square metres of rock can lead to something so boundless, eternal and infinite.