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William Golding Beyond Lord of the Flies

Posted on 19th October 2021 by Anna Orhanen

To celebrate the distinguished work of William Golding, Faber and Faber are reissuing three of his powerful and thought-provoking novels – The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, and The Spire  with striking new cover art and introduced by prominent contemporary authors Ben Okri, Marlon James and Benjamin Myers respectively.

In this exclusive piece, Judy Golding, the author’s daughter and director of William Golding Limited, and Nicola Presley, Publicity and Media Manager of William Golding Limited, discuss these three reissued classics, along with some very special extracts from interviews and Golding's unpublished journals.

Faber is embarking on a major celebration and reappraisal of one of their most distinguished authors.

William Golding’s debut novel Lord of the Flies was rescued from the reject pile at Faber in 1953 by their sharp-eyed young editor Charles Monteith. Golding went on to win the Booker and the Nobel Prize in Literature, further publishing eleven extraordinary novels, but he himself regretted that his readers often viewed his works through the lens of Lord of the Flies. He would be delighted by his publisher’s new venture to spread the word about his other novels, which are just as radical, experimental and morally provocative.  

This autumn, Faber begins the celebration with new editions of three of Golding’s most visionary novels: The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and The Spire. Each has a striking new cover, designed by Faber’s Creative Director Donna Payne, who commissioned illustrator Bill Bragg to create dramatic new artwork; each is introduced by a distinguished contemporary author – Ben Okri, Marlon James and Benjamin Myers. In these novels, Golding’s originality, creative courage and poetic intensity are startling. Lord of the Flies, for once, takes a back seat.  

The Inheritors is Golding’s second novel, published in 1955, and his personal favourite, dedicated to his wife Ann. It takes the reader on an almost hallucinatory journey inside the mind of a different species, the Neanderthals, who are doomed to encounter a new kind of human, Homo sapiens: us. We ourselves – the readers and the author too – are the inheritors. As Ben Okri says in his brilliant new foreword, ‘It is a tragic tale about the death of an older species. But it is also an incipient tale about those who survive them.’ Presciently, Golding shows how the Neanderthals live with the land, whereas the new people abuse it, burn it and transform it, with no regard for the consequences. 

Golding wrote the first draft of this novel in under a month – ‘in a white heat of imaginative urgency,’ as Ben Okri says, springing out ‘with the force of nature’, at odd times and in different places. In Golding’s unpublished journal he meditates on this:

Flies, Inheritors, and Pincher were written in the interstices, crevices, cracks of a teacher’s life: and what is more, a teacher who had nowhere private to go. What matters is having something to say. If you have that, nothing can prevent you saying it.

While he was imagining or planning a novel, he was as if locked inside his head. He saw it as being ‘a person whose tumultuous life, torrid, complex, is lit behind the smooth skin of a brow’.

Golding’s journal, with entries from 1971 until the night before his death in 1993, is deeply concerned with his novels, especially The Inheritors and Pincher Martin. He had a lifelong preoccupation with the sea, dismissing the idea that he loved it. ‘Nobody,’ he said, ‘who knows the sea loves it.’ In 1972, nearly twenty years after their publication, he reflects on the sea in these two novels:

The Old People [the Neanderthals] feared the sea. Perhaps they were too close to it and had to fight to preserve an ego against the waves and storms of the unconscious. The New People used it; but I see now that it was not for nothing that my sense of fitness sent Tuami and the others sailing away across a mysterious lake. More than that it is clear to me that Pincher is suspended in the depths of his own unconscious. It is better to suffer in the unconscious than not to have one.

Pincher Martin, the story that Golding initially called ‘The Rescue’, recounts a naval officer’s attempt to save himself from drowning, published in 1956. Pincher finds a rock in the mid-Atlantic, crawls on to it and faces up to his past. As the novel unfolds, Pincher struggles to maintain his reality, his ego, shoring up a world to live in. Finally, a plot-twist provides an almost physical shock: what Marlon James in his new foreword calls ‘one of the most devastating endings in all of twentieth-century literature’.

Golding served in the navy in the Second World War and knew his subject matter. He was amused by reactions to his central character: he believed he had made Pincher as wicked a man as he could imagine. Many people, nevertheless, told him how much of themselves they saw in Pincher.  

In The Spire, Golding evokes the flawed attempt by Jocelin, dean of a medieval cathedral, to erect a spire on top of the building – completing it as a hymn of praise. But the cathedral is unfortunately built on a swamp, and the cost, financial but most of all human, is great – excessive to many people who don’t share Jocelin’s religious vision or (to his detractors) crazy obsession. Most of all, the novel is a partly confessional account of the cost of any great creative enterprise, demonstrating the ruthlessness necessary to undertake, stick with and eventually complete a task seen as ludicrous by others. That single-mindedness was shared, of course, by the author, and as Benjamin Myers says in his brilliant foreword, ‘The context and mechanics of the creation of The Spire are important, for such visionary work comes at a cost to the writer who must pay a psychic price’.

But Golding was more matter-of-fact than Jocelin. In July 1956, between the publication of The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, a BBC interview recorded his remarks on the process of writing:

Well, if these novels have any poetry in them, then that poetry is the result of a strict and conscious discipline . . . you have to feel most unpoetic and really rather business-like.

For many years Golding wrote a thousand words a day, no more and no less, and he could switch straight into the fierce concentration necessary, trained no doubt by years of writing in school staffrooms. When he received the Nobel accolade in 1983, the Foundation cited, ‘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’. 

Golding himself was understandably pleased by the award. But three days after the announcement, he reflects in his journal:

9 October 1983
Now, having written more than thirty letters of thanks I’m watching the Oresteia, which is a rather humbling experience. I feel like the Roman Emperor who facing his triumph had a slave whispering in his ear – remember you are mortal.

However, later that year he felt more upbeat:

22 December 1983
This morning David [his son] and I went into Salisbury and bought some presents – one for him, and one each for the little boys [his grandchildren]. I have Ann’s. I think the Nobel Prize is enough for me.

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