WILLIAM GOLDING: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies.

by John Boland

By John Carey. Faber & Faber.

You can tell a novelist is out of fashion when his publisher feels obliged to subtitle a biography of him with the nervous declaration “The man who wrote Lord of the Flies.” In a postscript to this book, John Carey defends the subtitle as “ironic and purposeful,” hoping it will “catch the eye of people who remember reading Lord of the Flies at school” and whose “curiosity will be sufficiently aroused” for them to seek out his other books, but there’s the distinct tone of special pleading about that aspiration.

Indeed, Lord of the Flies remains the book with which Golding will forever be associated. Fifty-five years ago, when his most famous novel was published, it was an instant critical and commercial success and it’s never been out of print since – a phenomenon no doubt helped by its inclusion as a set text for British school students. But long before the author’s death in 1991, and despite the Nobel prize he received in 1983,  his reputation and popularity had waned and he’s little esteemed or even read now.

This is the fate of many authors on their demise, though it must be said that Golding’s dry, humourless and relentlessly high-minded fiction – concerned less with individual men (women hardly feature in his books) than with Everyman – had always invited the backlash of dismissal. Yet he has his champions, none more lively and eloquent than Oxford professor and newspaper critic John Carey, whose biography might lead to a reawakened interest in his work.

He’s aided by the wealth of hitherto unseen material to which he was granted access, not least an unpublished memoir called Men, Women & Now, in which Golding agonised about the “monster” lurking in his nature, a monster that led him to the attempted rape of a 15-year-old girlfriend when he was an undergraduate at Oxford, as well as to alcoholic excess, depression and general feelings of personal and social inadequacy – “Not quite a gentleman” was the assessment of the university’s careers when he sought job advice.

But he fought courageously in World War Two before settling down to life as a teacher and embarking on a writing career. Lord of the Flies was the first notable fruit of this endeavour, though it was turned down by various publishers, including a reader at Faber & Faber called Polly Perkins, who pronounced it “absurd and uninteresting.” However the same firm’s Charles Monteith, a young Belfast man who had just recently been employed as a Faber editor, detected something intriguing in the manuscript and encouraged the author to reshape – indeed, rewrite – it extensively.

Monteith was to remain a formidable influence on Golding (while also becoming mentor to a whole generation of writers, including John McGahern, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney) and Carey rightly acknowledges his importance, providing in the process a vivid portrait of the man. Golding himself isn’t as interesting a figure and the biography becomes a bit tiresome when it details the insecurities and petty vanities that accompanied his ever-growing stature.

Now the stature has faded and, despite all of Carey’s most persuasive efforts, we’re left with The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, which even its author later dismissed as “boring and crude – the language is O level stuff.” It’s hard to disagree with him.

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