Review

William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies

by John Carey

In his copious diary entries, William Golding, by then a
“Sir,” reported that only in India did his stories of
“his bullying other children at primary school” meet
with “the silence of incomprehension or shock.”
Elsewhere, he was able to stir his audiences to laughter about this
dark subject, arguably the generative theme of his most famous
book.

Golding started his working life as a public school teacher
whose interests included piano, poetry, science, women and
drinking. His marriage began with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and
lasted the rest of his life, his wife Ann one of the few people who
was completely honest with him. Her unique ability to manage him,
drunk or sober, caused his sponsors to decide it made good economic
sense to pay to have Ann along on his speaking tours because he
became so muddled without her. As the biographer puts it,
“she realized the only thing that made him unhappier than
writing was not writing.”

LORD OF THE FLIES was Golding’s first complete novel,
and almost certainly his greatest, if perennial audience
response is a measure of success. It is clearly his best known book
among American readers. Its publication was midwifed with care by
its booster at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, after it had been
famously rejected by other editors, even within the same
company.

Monteith knew that authors don sackcloth when they get a
negative review and spring back to write again when the
critics’ words flow their way. So he fed Golding on flattery
and goaded him with exhortations to make the next book even better.
His subsequent three were great, no doubt. THE INHERITORS was not
initially published in America, so its fascinating subject matter
--- the destruction of an older primitive tribe of Neanderthals by
the less rigid, more intelligent homo sapiens --- is not
well known here. PINCHER MARTIN, about a marooned sailor,
though beautifully written, is often dismissed as an erudite
“shaggy dog” story. THE SPIRE treats with a grand theme
but not one that immediately captivates --- an arrogant man seeks
to build an ever taller and more precarious tower as
a monument to his power.

No, there was nothing in his later books to rival the deeply
disturbing plot and harrowing language of LORD OF THE FLIES, about
a group of shipwrecked English schoolboys who quickly revert to
savagery on a deserted island, despite their quixotic attempts to
govern wisely and play fair. Golding’s works always grappled
with the darkness of evil, with but a pale strip of hopeful light
struggling to win out, so that on balance he is considered a
pessimist. Was he reliving, through his writing, his experiences of
World War II? Or channeling that bullying schoolchild who he
conjured up to make audiences laugh with him? Making a bow to his
atheist father by insinuating the godlessness of the neo-nuclear
age? Venting his repressed sorrow at having a son with a clubfoot
and chronic mental illness? Or merely recording what he observed
firsthand as a schoolteacher of adolescent males? Whatever it was,
LORD OF THE FLIES has a fiery magic that caused it to be made into
two different films and a play. It was for other works, however,
that Golding won both the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for
Literature, and the totality of his output that gained him
significant honor in his native land. 

John Carey, who has written this first biography of one of the
20th century’s great authors, is himself an author, professor
and book reviewer who triumphs here with his intimate portrait of
the heroic Golding --- bearded, seafaring, self-blaming and
sometimes insecure, at times bold, brawling, hard-drinking and, to
his public, ever brilliant, ever the charmer. Carey had the
advantage of having met Golding and developing cooperative
relationships with his family to reveal the man behind the public
façade. It is hard to imagine any other book about Golding now
that this one has been written.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 24, 2011

William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies
by John Carey

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2010
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 1439187320
  • ISBN-13: 9781439187326