Fiction

The Best William Golding Books

recommended by Judy Golding

The Children of Lovers: A memoir of William Golding by his daughter by Judy Golding

The Children of Lovers: A memoir of William Golding by his daughter
by Judy Golding

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The Nobel laureate William Golding is best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, in which a group of schoolboys marooned on a desert island revert to savagery. But he was a prolific writer who produced eleven further novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Rites of Passage. Here, his daughter and manager of his literary estate Judy Golding selects five of William Golding's key texts, including The Inheritors—the book he felt to be his best work.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Children of Lovers: A memoir of William Golding by his daughter by Judy Golding

The Children of Lovers: A memoir of William Golding by his daughter
by Judy Golding

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I want to start by quoting the Nobel Committee, who awarded your father William Golding the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983, “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” Why would you say it’s a good time to revisit his work?

I think the real answer is that Lord of the Flies was such a phenomenal success—and still, I’m glad to say, sells very well—that it pushed the other books into the shadows. And at least one of them, possibly two, are the better books. He thought so too. And it seemed a shame for these pearls to go unvisited, as it were. Faber has kept them in print, for which I’m very, very grateful. But the sales of the other novels aren’t anything like Lord of the Flies. Faber felt this was a good opportunity to bring them out into the sunlight, for a better look.

Faber have been releasing new editions of William Golding’s books, with forewords from writers including Marlon James, Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Bettany Hughes and Kate Mosse. Why do you think William Golding’s books have had such a deep impact, on writers from such a spread of genres?

They’re very well written—well-crafted, in that writerly phrase. I think they appeal to writers because you can see what he’s doing, and admire it as a writer, while also having an incredibly vivid experience. In The Inheritors, the Neanderthals are starving, which may not be very pleasant, but it’s vivid, which you can relish. And it’s an experience for a writer to see how he portrays the mode of thought of a character that is not Homo sapiens.

Let’s start our discussion with The Inheritors, then. I think this might have been the novel you were alluding to a moment ago when you talked about the book William Golding personally thought was his finest.

Indeed. The narrative is a remarkable rendition of the state of mind of the last group of Neanderthals as they try to survive—with all the perils that they usually face, but with an additional threat of the new Homo sapiens people, who are logical and successful and have already developed weapons and other survival strategies.

“I think his books appeal to writers because you can see what he’s doing, and admire it as a writer, while also having an incredibly vivid experience”

The Neanderthals are mild, gentle people who have trouble with logical thought, communicate by telepathy, and have a mode of thought organised in pictures. The novel tells the story of how the peoples come into contact with one another, and that contact is an astonishing piece of writing. I know it is used by some people teaching about sensory perception, because it’s an exercise in showing how somebody perceives something without having the preconditions for understanding it.

I was just discussing this book with an archaeologist the other day, actually. It’s such an unusual opportunity for us to view the human race from the other side. There’s a very interesting description of our own appearance:

A piece of white bone was placed under [the eyes], fitting close, and where the broad nostrils should have shown were narrow slits and between them the bone was drawn out to a point. Under that was another slit over the mouth, and their voices came fluttering through it.

It’s a strange and bizarre description, but I think it helps us appreciate how we might be seen as strange.

Indeed. And when the Neanderthal character Lok realises that he’s looking, not at a mask, but a face, he’s really shocked. That’s a marvellous moment, because it allows us to see the threatening quality of the new people, ourselves. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing.

I should also note that there are lots of very beautiful descriptions in this book—a description of the waterfall, and of the ‘ice women’—crevices of ice, that lodged in a particular cave.

I read that he wrote the first draft in less than a month, which seems quite astonishing. Was that normal?

I do believe The Inheritors claim. The manuscript actually has the relevant dates written on it, it was just after the Lord of the Flies had been published, finally, after being rejected many times. And then he was facing the second novel problem. He put two possible novels to one side, and suddenly, just before Christmas 1954, he realised how to develop the story and went ahead.

You should remember that not only did he write it in a very short space of time, but he had a full-time job too; he was a teacher. Presumably he just got it down on paper as fast as he possibly could. It’s an extraordinary thing, because so much of the final novel is there as well.

Shall we discuss The Spire next? Published in 1964, it’s set in medieval England, and it’s a tale of the erection of a spire on a church with no foundations. Sounds allegorical. Would you describe this book as an allegory?

I think he shied away from that. He felt that allegories reduce the story, turn it into something painted by numbers. There are meanings beyond concrete representation, that’s certainly true, but they coalesce with the actual physical objects in a way an allegory would not. I think he would rather it be regarded as a myth, which he gave high status to.

In The Spire, he writes about a visionary, and I think he was trying to convey the sort of experience Jocelin thought was religious vision.

Yes, tell us about Jocelin, dean of the cathedral at the heart of this book.

Certainly. Jocelin is someone who has basically been over-promoted. He’s been kicked up through the ranks of the Church because his aunt was the mistress of the then-king. Jocelyn, now in a position of enormous power, has this vision: he’s going to put a spire on top of the cathedral, which will act as an enormous stone prayer. To achieve it, he’s prepared to do almost anything, and those compromises destroy him and several other people.

I think the construction itself was based on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, near to where Golding taught. Is that correct?

Yes. He knew Salisbury Cathedral long before he taught there. All his life, really. But you’re quite right; he worked for nearly 20 years with a view of the spire from his window. I think he was curious about it. He was a very practical man, and I think it intrigued him; he was very interested in mechanical things and how they worked, and I think he must have looked at the spire and thought: that’s quite a thing. How did they build it? It must have taken someone with a will of enormous proportion to get it done.

Is this novel one of your personal favourites?

It means a lot to me. Partly because I know the spire very well. It’s so beautiful. If you lie on the grass in the cathedral Close and look up at the cathedral against the blue sky, it’s the most astonishing sight.

Also, there’s the fact that he dedicated this book to me. I had absolutely no idea he was going to do that. I had been going through a rough patch as a teenager, and he said to me one day: ‘I’ve had a rather hard time writing this book, and I think you’ve had a hard time recently, so I’m going to dedicate it to you.’ I was looking at it only this morning and thinking how extraordinary that is.

In some ways it’s quite a sparsely written book, but it really is a triumph. And it did take him a long time, he struggled over it.

Would you talk about the next William Golding book on our list? This is Darkness Visible, which won the James Tait Black Prize in 1979.

That’s quite a challenge. It’s a complicated story. It is basically formed of two stories, which intersect at the end.

On one hand, it’s the story of this boy Matthew Septimus Windrove who walks out of an impossibly hot fire during the Blitz, the bombing of London during the Second World War. He walks from a fire so hot it could melt metal. How he survives is not explained; in fact, you’re invited to puzzle about it. He’s maimed—one side of his face is scorched, and some people can’t bear to look at him. At some points in his life he’s virtually mad,  and he doesn’t have normal human interactions. He’s very religious, very concerned about what he’s ‘for.’ He has visions. Many figures in my father’s writing had visions. He is visited by two beings whom he interprets as messengers of God. They seem to tell him that he must just wait.

The second story is about a girl called Sophy, one of a pair of twins who are both very neglected by their father. Somehow this creates a kind of vacancy in their minds that they fill with disruptiveness. Sophy has progressed to a position that is not even nihilistic—it’s worse than that.

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My dad looked very, very male. But he was always interested in what it was like to be a girl, and actually his portrayal of Sophy is quite intriguing. Especially, you know, to his daughter.

In the end—I won’t spoil it—Matty discovers what he is for, and his and Sophy’s fates intersect. That’s the resolution of the story. I hope I’ve been clear. It’s very complicated, but immensely readable. It’s the only one of my dad’s novels that is large and slightly baggy. He tried for years to write it, had massive drafts which he carved bits out of, and revised.

The title is a reference to Milton’s description in Paradise Lost—that there was “no light, but rather darkness visible”. Was your father a religious man? He returns to these ideas of visions and godliness.

In his journal, he said something like, ‘all of a sudden it came over me the sheer ludicrousness of not believing in God.’ So I think he did believe in God, but he found organised religion not to his taste. For a while my brother was extremely religious and my dad found it hard to live with. I think he didn’t like being located within a system of belief; he liked to move around in it.

But he was fascinated by religious thought and had many books on it. He also said at one stage that ‘the most interesting thing in the world is saints.’ I think he felt that Matty was a saint, in the same way that Simon in Lord of the Flies was.

I’d love to discuss Lord of the Flies in just a moment, but first let me ask you about Rites of Passage. It’s a novel set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, on a journey to Australia. This book is the first in his Sea Trilogy, and won the Booker Prize in 1980. Could you give us an overview?

The book is in the form of a journal, or series of letters written as a journal, in a book destined for the hero’s godfather. The hero is a callow young man called Edmund Talbot, on the edges of the aristocracy—his godfather is a Lord. He’s hoping for his godfather’s patronage. Out in Australia, he is supposed to become an assistant to the governor and therefore rise through the colonial government, and presumably ultimately return to Britain to take up a place in public life.

The book begins with him starting this voyage in an unnamed vessel, which is very old and creaky, and only just holding together. Talbot is learning various things: what it’s like to be human, what it’s like to be humiliated, what it’s like to be a revolutionary, what it’s like to meet someone with different ideas to your own. We only read Edmund’s writing, except for one small patch written by someone else. But we learn by implication lots of things that he doesn’t know and doesn’t see. For that reason, it’s a very subtle piece of writing that you can appreciate in terms of its craft.

“Writers are very prone to thinking, ‘Should I really be doing this? Is it rubbish?’”

My father had a lot of fun writing this book. He said that was part of the reason why he then wrote two more books on the subject; he kept on thinking of silly things for Edmund to say. He’s just incredibly tactless. There’s a lingering attractiveness that I can’t quite put my finger on. You don’t want him to be absolutely destroyed, but to survive. So it’s about a young man, a callow young man, making his way in a small, enclosed society on a ship.

What did winning the Booker Prize mean to your father?

I think it meant quite a lot. I mean, who would be indifferent to winning the Booker? But I don’t know what his feelings were. He just said in his journal that he was getting dressed and the taxi’s coming, you know? Then: “We have won the Booker.” I think it’s interesting he says ‘we’. He means my mother and him, because she was a great deal of help and encouragement.

Writers are very prone to thinking, ‘Should I really be doing this? Is it rubbish?’ And she would say, ‘No, it’s not rubbish,’ or, on the other hand, sometimes, ‘this isn’t that good.’ To hear him say, ‘We have won the Booker’…. I think that’s really nice.

I think that might bring us to Lord of the Flies, which we have as your fifth choice from among William Golding’s books. As you suggested at the start of this interview, it’s a book that has made an extraordinary impact. It was also made into a famous film. For those who haven’t read Lord of the Flies, could you give a brief overview?

Right. I think that a lot of people might not have read it, but think they know the story. During an atomic war, a plane-load of boys are being evacuated across Asia and the Pacific, where the plane is shot down. It lands on a coral island, and the plane itself—after the children have climbed out—is dragged off to sea in a storm, presumably with a few kids, as one of the characters surmises. Then there are just children, no adults.

At first this seems wonderful to them. They try to create a society, to behave well and organise things, and decide things by vote. It’s worth pointing out that they do make a good attempt at that. And for various reasons—my father said it was because they are suffering from the terrible disease of being human—it comes to grief, becomes factional, and one faction is overwhelmingly more successful than the other. People are killed. Finally, the hero—the point-of-view character in the book—is running for his life. I won’t say how it ends.

I’ve heard people say that it’s a book that reflects William Golding’s belief in the essential savagery of the human race. Would you agree?

I think that’s only part of the story. That’s why I stressed that they did make that real attempt. And, I mean… we could hardly claim that the human race is doing brilliantly at the moment. He knew that people, given half a chance, could be really terrible. He’d just been through the Second World War. He’d killed people himself, had definitely been instrumental in killing people. Then there had been the news about the concentration camps and the Holocaust generally. He said, ‘I’d seen what one man could do to another.’

So from that point of view, yes, it’s about human savagery. But he also said somewhere, I think in his journal, that when people say he’s a pessimist, they forget about the good things in Lord of the Flies. They forget about Simon, they forget about Ralph and Piggy standing up to the character who becomes a demogogue.

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I should expand. Simon is a mystic who is brave enough to confront the terrifying figure of what they think is a beast come to haunt and possibly kill them. Simon goes up the mountain to confront the beast. So there are very good and brave people in Lord of the Flies.

Also, it’s about children. Pre-pubescent children. At the most, they are 12 or 13, and there are a whole bunch of younger children as well. There’s the question of how they should have been protected, they should have had adults in their lives. Schools set this as a question: what happens to the characters after Lord of the Flies? They will have been traumatised. So I don’t think it’s just about human savagery. It’s about tragedy, that we can’t get away from it. That’s what it’s really about.

I think that’s a wise take. In Annie Proulx’s introduction to Rites of Passage, she said that William Golding’s imagination was “powerful, terrible, and personal.” I thought that was a good description. 

That’s a wonderful introduction, a tremendous piece of work. And yes, I agree. I think his imagination was terrible to him, because it was so vivid and he could not escape. He described the intensity of it. Sometimes he said he had to externalise this imagination in order to deal with it because he just couldn’t keep it in.

Just as an example: One of the other novels I thought of choosing was his third novel, Pincher Martin. I didn’t, for various reasons, but Pincher Martin begins with the description of somebody starting to drown. That description is so brilliant, but to do that, he must have had to imagine what it feels like. He was prepared to take that step, which I am not prepared to do.

The two qualities that are most admired in his writing are the intensity—which is very, very true—and also the immersive quality of his writing, which is really remarkable. You come out of his novels almost as though you have been in a dream. That is a very powerful, powerful thing.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Judy Golding

Judy Golding

Judy Golding was born in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in 1945 and grew up near Salisbury, where her parents worked as teachers. She read English at the University of Sussex and St. Anne's College, Oxford, and in 1971 she married an American studying politics at Balliol. Subsequently, she worked as a copyeditor for Oxford University Press and Jonathan Cape. Since her father’s death in 1993 she has managed his literary estate. She and her husband have three sons and seven grandchildren and live in Bristol. She is the author of The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by His Daughter, a family memoir.

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Judy Golding

Judy Golding

Judy Golding was born in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in 1945 and grew up near Salisbury, where her parents worked as teachers. She read English at the University of Sussex and St. Anne's College, Oxford, and in 1971 she married an American studying politics at Balliol. Subsequently, she worked as a copyeditor for Oxford University Press and Jonathan Cape. Since her father’s death in 1993 she has managed his literary estate. She and her husband have three sons and seven grandchildren and live in Bristol. She is the author of The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by His Daughter, a family memoir.