Golding William

William Golding: Pincher Martin

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.

William Golding: Pincher Martin

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.

William Golding's novels. Covers by Neil Gower

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. 

William Golding: The Inheritors

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.