|Archive for Big Readers A place for discussing books and all things bookish.
William GoldingFrom: Evie_forever Sent: 2/5/2008 5:36 AM
This morning I finished The Paper Men by William Golding. I want to start a Golding thread, as I think he is an interesting writer, so will say more about it there. It is not his best, but I enjoyed it a lot - it is very funny, but then shot through at times with genuine sadness, and there is a tragedy at the end that was far more affecting than I thought would be possible, given the cynicism of the book. I imagine it is partly autobiographical, in that it is about a novelist in his 60s trying to escape - literally - from a young American scholar who wants to make his name, or his academic career, by writing a biography of the novelist. It is an escapade that takes them round the world, and reminded me at times of the kind of things David Lodge has written; but it then descends into surrealism towards the end, as the novelist, who is narrating the book, loses his grip on reality. The mixture of alcoholism and powerful dreams becomes a heady mix, and Golding's writing changes from the cool, humorous self-mockery of the earlier part into something darker and less rational - very well done.
The ending is a lovely piece of black comedy.
From: Baron_Morgan Sent: 2/5/2008 6:02 AM
I read his Sea Trilogy last year and did Lord of the Flies at O Level, so I have a little knowledge of Golding.
From: MikeAlx Sent: 2/5/2008 6:11 AM
I only know Lord of the Flies - from school of course! - but quite fancy reading The Spire, if I ever get round to it.
Fascinating fact: William Golding came up with the name for the Gaia theory, when asked to think of something by its originator, his village neighbour, James Lovelock.
From: Evie_forever Sent: 2/5/2008 6:53 AM
The Spire is my favourite, Mike - like most, I began with Lord of the Flies at school, and loved it, and have read a few others - for some reason I didn't read all of the sea trilogy, despite liking Rites of Passage. I like the variety in his writing - The Inheritors is interesting,and different again - but as I say, I would like to start a whole thread on him, as I think he's a very original and thought-provoking writer. There was one published after he died, about the oracle at Delphi, that was really beautiful.
But yes, do try The Spire at some point, Mike!
From: MikeAlx Sent: 2/5/2008 7:03 AM
Oh yes - I quite fancy The Inheritors too. So many books, so little time!
Sent: 11/18/2008 11:14 AM
The Spire - William Golding
Oh dear, I really like LOTF such a simple well written story. The Spire was a simple idea but I wouldn't say well told. I didn't find it engaging and it seemed particularly obtuse in the way it was told.
Having read the Wikipedia thing about it I missed loads of details that I'm not sure how you're supposed to pick up on unless told by the author (I assume this is how they known). The possible explanation for the confusion is not touched on Wikipedia page so not sure if its me or them. May be if I was more engaged with the story I spend time resolving what was going on but I wasn't bothered.
Roll on Sherlock Holmes...
From: Evie_again Sent: 11/18/2008 11:21 AM
Hello Tristan - I'd love to know what you found were the confusing bits - it's a while since I last read it, but would love to hear more detail about your response. I found it spectacular, definitely my favourite of William Golding's novels - I haven't read them all, and love his work generally, but this one stood out for me as particularly brilliant. I have only read it twice, but it's one that I will keep re-reading.
It's not such a simple idea, though - but then neither is Lord of the Flies. The idea of the spire as a metaphor for all sorts of aspects of life - especially, of course, the ambition of the main character - is very rich and I thought beautifully done... I don't like historical fiction, as a rule, but this goes far beyond that, and touches on some deep and timeless human issues.
Sorry, I'm getting carried away - you don't have to say anything more, of course - but I'd love to know and think more about the confusion and not finding it well told!
From: KiwiCaro1 Sent: 11/18/2008 1:21 PM
We read The Spire at university but I haven't read it since. Am I right in thinking it ends with a repressed lady wandering the streets naked? Or was that a different book? That must have been a very strong image for me as it has remained over all these years. It is a book I would like to re-visit. (But there are so many of those!)
From: TristansGhost Sent: 11/18/2008 2:52 PM
SPOILER - The Spire
Jocelin finds himself in the buff at the end too.
Well the view I formed from the early pages was that Jocelin was obviously obsessive with his idea of building the spire above all else and this drove him to madness. More probably he was mad in the first place but this just becomes more obvious as the novel develops. This madness is not recognised in Wikipedia. I found a lot of his descriptions (streams of (un)consciousness) and visions very difficult to see what was really going on.
Apparently he pleasured himself at one point, I missed that. The loss of the child was pretty obscurely written. I could never work out quite what he thought of the women in the book, he seemed to be fascinated by both in different ways. The arrival of the nail seemed to come from know were.
According to Wikipedia his angel and demons were related to the tuberculosis in his spine, I saw this purely as a sign of him being increasingly unhinged.
The idea of him backing himself into the corner (or perhaps point!) was interesting and I did like the fact the spire doesn't actually fall down at the end. Overall though I found it messy.
For me the ideas in LOTF were so simple and so well done it seemed one of those thing were you wonder why it wasn't done before. I only really read it on three main levels though, the adventurer story, whether the true human condition tends to good/evil and examining peer pressure.
From: Evie_again Sent: 11/18/2008 11:51 PM
Thanks for that, Tristan. I have tried to warn people before about Wikipedia; it sounds as though that is not a helpful entry!
It is certainly more complex and less parable-like than Lord of the Flies, though still with a moral message - about hubris, mainly, I think. I need to read it again - but think you are closer to the mark with seeing Jocelin as becoming unhinged - though the relationship between physical and moral health is very much a medieval preoccupation, so perhaps Golding intended that the two should be intertwined. I don't think he was mad in the first place - the spire becomes an obsession, but as a metaphor, it also enters his psyche in more lateral and complex ways - the book isn't really about the cathedral spire, it's about human relationships, and I think Golding's imaginative feat here is brilliant, more spectacular than in Lord of the Flies, but I agree that that book is strong partly because of the relative simplicity of the story (though not of the ideas it contains).
Golding is a writer who manages to write novels about ideas that still work as novels - he is (or was!) a great storyteller as well as a great thinker, and that's a powerful combination - a man of huge imagination with the ability to verbalise his imaginative ideas, which is a wonderful gift.
From: KlaraZthefirst Sent: 11/19/2008 5:25 AM
I read The Spire many years ago now (early 1980s, I think) and I remember being absolutely knocked out by it----to me, it was a very complex novel about a man who was somehow both *right* and *wrong* simultaneously----Jocelin was a flawed character , full of moral weaknesses/delusions, obsessive----and yet inspired at the same time. And the evocation of the medieval world, when it was possible to believe in angels and demons was superb. I haven't seen the Wikipedia entry----but when I read the book, I certainly thought SPOILER ALERT
that when Jocelin felt the 'angel' warming his back it was actually a symptom of disease.
From: TristansGhost Sent: 11/19/2008 2:35 PM
Well may be I'll give it another go sometime, its probably not been helped by me studying at the same time so may not got my full attention (note: slipping in excuse for missing bits if everyone else thought they were obvious!!) but still not impressed as it is.
I wonder if Golding started the book just at the point of his insanity when he couldn't face up to the problems with his plan not coming through and his way of dealing with it given his ambition/ hubris. Still think ambition and nuttyness are the main thing though above relationships.
From: castor-boy Sent: 7/30/2008 11:23 PM
The Paper Men - The first 20 pages of this short novel raced along and I thought it was going to be a satire on writers and those who batten on to a best selling writer.
But it turned into a chase around the world with the writer behaving like a secret agent in his efforts to shake off his pursuer.
The ending is superb with the last word a "coup de literature" - if that's the right phrase for a great surprise.
It made me think how we are fond of quoting famous sentences at the beginning of novels but we never quote the last sentences of well known books.
I suppose we can't really quote those last words because it would give away the whole reason for writing the book in the first place(especially in detective stories).
This book will remain in my mind for a long time! Amateur
From: Evie_again Sent: 7/30/2008 11:48 PM
I also read The Paper Men recently - hey, you're not stalking me, are you?! Also loved it, though it was a bit daft - Golding having a bit of fun at his own expense, I feel - I think that surely it *is* a satire on writing and publishing, at least in part.
From: MikeAlx (Original Message) Sent: 8/5/2008 10:20 AM
The Inheritors was Golding's second novel, published in the mid-1950s, and following on from the success of Lord of the Flies.
I think it would be a mistake to say this is a novel about neanderthals; it's really a novel about humans, though it's written from the perspective of a group of neanderthals.
Undertaking their annual migration, as they have done for as long as anyone can remember, the group of neanderthals reach a crucial river crossing and find that the fallen log which they have always used as a bridge has been moved. For a group of simple innocents such as these, this disruption is a major upset - but it is the merest foreshadowing of things to come. However, only the wiser amongst the group have an intuitive inkling that some greater, darker disturbance may be at work in their world. The old man, Mal, has memories of a great forest fire, which is the nearest yardstick anyone has by which to grasp the gravity of unfolding events.
However, Mal is very old, and senility is beginning to creep in. It is likely that Ha will be his successor, Ha has 'many pictures' (in this context equating to memories/wisdom), whereas Lok, the other mature male, from whose viewpoint the story is told, is a boisterous, happy-go-lucky simpleton.
This highly restricted viewpoint is an extremely powerful narrative device; though it does at times make the book difficult to read - not difficult in terms of vocabulary or grammar, which is generally very stripped back and simple, but difficult in terms of 'reading between the lines' to grasp what is really going on, outside the scope of Lok's limited conceptualising abilities. The effect, when one does, is a sort of dramatic irony; when Lok thinks the 'new men' have given him 'a stick' as a present, we realise it's actually an arrow which they've shot across the river, trying to kill him. Lok is essentially an unreliable narrator, though not a deliberately dissembling one.
One of the marvels of this book is the way Golding sustains that limited viewpoint with complete consistency and authenticity throughout the book, whilst keeping the narrative moving and engaging, and the language fresh. We get a vivid sense of a people in tune with nature (which reminded me a lot of a later book - John Gardner's excellent Grendel), but ill-equipped to deal with radical change.
Of the many astonishing characteristics of the 'new people' (besides the physical), which Lok never really fully grasps, there are boats (which he seems to regard as some sort of strange animal - and which are all the more shocking since the neanderthals, like modern chimpanzees, have a huge fear of water); art and ritual (Lok cannot quite grasp how the men summon a stag from the earth, and is simultaneously attracted and repelled by a strange ritual where one man has a finger cut off). There are also weapons. Lok and his people don't go much beyond digging with bones or stones and throwing projectiles at hyenas; the new people have spears, knives and bow-and-arrows.
One aspect of the book that I found it hard to come to terms with is the implied telepathy which Golding seems to ascribe to his neanderthals. There is of course no scientific basis for this idea; it seems to be a necessary plot device in a largely non-verbal society. Golding keeps it just about vague enough (talking about 'sharing pictures') that you could almost pass it off as body language (in which we know primates, with the exception of humans, are expert); but the pictures shared are too specific for this to be plausible. In the end though, because the writing was so good and the scenario so engaging, I forced myself to suspend disbelief on this one. (If memory serves, Jean M. Auel used a similar device in her Clan of the Cave Bear books).
** Potential Spoilers Ahead **
The story develops as first the old man, Mal, dies, then, after the appropriate mourning rituals, members of the group start to go missing. Ha is one of the first to disappear, leaving the woefully under-equipped Lok as leader. The female Nil also vanishes, and the old lady (Lok's mother) is seen dead in the river. Finally, with Lok and Fa the only adults left, the child Liku and the unnamed infant known only as 'the new one' are abducted by the new people - apparently to be kept as pets. Lok and Fa, spying in astonishment on the antics of the new people, make several attempts to rescue them, planning to escape and start a new family.
It will surprise no-one with any familiarity with Lord of the Flies if I say it really doesn't end well. Golding's "Inheritors", in contrast to the Biblical "Meek" who will "Inherit the Earth", are treacherous, murderous, arch-deceivers. In any case, we already know that in the long run the neanderthals do not stand a chance. In the final chapter, Golding switches to the viewpoint of the 'new people', and we see revealed in cold light the nature of the humans - all their petty rivalries, their selfishness and their brutality. It's a grim view of human nature most of us will recall from Lord of the Flies; and here it's shown right at its early beginnings.
Apart from the telepathy thing, I suppose the other criticism I have is that - presumably in order to emphasise his point - Golding has almost certainly romanticised the innocence of the neanderthals. These are noble savages in the Rousseau model. Would a pre-literate, unthinking race such as this feel guilt about eating meat? Doubtful. And would they really be so trusting about the 'new men'? I suppose you could argue that they see them as like themselves, only different. They certainly don't seem to regard them initially as dangerous predators. My other big question mark would be whether neanderthals lived in such small family groups. I don't know what the evidence is, but I would have thought that living in tribes or large extended families would have been a much more likely scenario.
It's testament to the brilliance of the book that I enjoyed it enormously despite harbouring these significant reservations. It really is a superb and audacious piece of writing - and an astonishingly vivid and sustained feat of imagination, to which this rambling and no doubt incompetent review scarcely begins to do justice.
From: KiwiCaro1 ent: 8/5/2008 2:13 PM
Would that I could write such an "incompetent" review, Mike. Considering how much I dislike Lord of the Flies it must be pretty good to make me think I would like to read this. You have done a really good job as advocate here. I do remember reading The Spire at university and think I quite liked that. My main memory of the ending of that (and it is possible I am remembering a different book!) is of a repressed woman walking down the street naked and mad.
Golding has the merit of writing short books. I think at the time of his writing there was still a tendency to be romantic about people living simply; Rousseau's reach was long.
From: MikeAlx Sent: 8/6/2008 2:32 AM
Perhaps 'incontinent' would be a more accurate description, Caro. I'm surprised anyone made it through to the end. As Mark Twain once wrote: "Sorry this letter is so long, but I didn't have time to write a shorter one!"
From: Evie_again Sent: 8/6/2008 5:24 AM
Thanks very much for this, Mike - I loved this book too. It's about 20 years since I read it, but it has made a lasting impression (as all of Golding's books have - I love his stuff, and each one is quite different from the others, despite overlapping themes and ideas).
I think you are taking it too literally on a historical level - it's not an examination of Neanderthals from a historical point of view, it's a fable about what man (ie homo sapiens) is doing to the world, surely. One of the reasons I hate historical novels is when the author has done too much research and tries to make the novel sound historically authentic - what's the point in that? But to take this extraordinary moment - when Neanderthals evolved into humans - and do something contemporary with it is wonderfully inventive and imaginative, as you say, and he does it with such style and beauty.
I had one friend who gave up on it because she found it unbearably sad, but I seem to be able to take quite deep levels of sadness - I think there is so much sadness in the world, and writers should sometimes deal with that, so I am very happy to deal with it too. But I take her point - it is very sad.
But to look at it in terms of whether it's an accurate portrayal of Neanderthals or, indeed, of man's evolution, is, I think, to miss the purpose of the book, and shows far too scientific a view of the world - or at least of literature!
From: MikeAlx Sent: 8/6/2008 5:47 AM
That's an interesting angle, Evie. It's certainly not the first time I've been accused of being too scientific- or literal-minded, LOL. So, if I understand correctly, you consider its intention to be something closer to myth or parable? I think even taken in those terms it's a bit of a stretch for me; it still seems to be saying there's something uniquely human about selfishness, cruelty, deception etc. I would argue that those are traits of all animals to a greater or lesser degree; it's just that homo sapiens, being a bit cleverer, is better at it than most. Ritual, language, art and technology are what really separates us. Of those, only technology really contributes to the downfall of 'the people'.
But perhaps Golding's argument is not so much that we're worse than animals, but that we're not really any better? In which case, why does he need neanderthals of angelic innocence to make his point? It just seems there's a bit too much of a whiff of the 'noble savage' about it all - which inevitably stirs the cynic in me!
From: Evie_again Sent: 8/6/2008 5:56 AM
Well, I don't feel equipped to talk about it in too much detail, as it's so long since I read it - but I think all of Golding's books are parables to an extent. Lord of the Flies clearly is, and this one may be less blatant about it, but still, to me at least, appears that way.
I can't think of a book of his I have read - even The Paper Men - that is not some kind of parable.
I suppose it starts, with me, from the question of why he wrote it - he clearly isn't simply writing a historical novel about Neanderthals, since, as you say, there are questions about historical accuracy there (even within our limited knowledge of how they lived). He uses historical situations to express contemporary ideas. I think he is, as in Lord of the Flies, partly thinking of the Fall - the loss of innocence involved in that idea seems to me to be summed up not just by the aggressive nature of Man in the book, but also by the loss of that telepathy that worries you - the loss of true community, man is not just at enmity with the world but with his own species. He was writing not too long after WWII, and I think he also has that in mind - man's ability to tear apart his communities, to kill his own species, to destroy and call that freedom.
But that is just my interpretation - he seems such a poetic writer, and interested in philosophical ideas rather than story or history for its own sake, and is one of those wonderful writers who manages to create good stories out of concepts.
From: MikeAlx Sent: 8/6/2008 6:13 AM
Ah yes, I can see the community thing. It's something Lok is particularly aware of; he has an epiphanic moment when he sees a "picture" of himself and his family as though attached by strands of skin, and realises these bonds are the most important thing to 'the people'; indeed, they're crucial to their survival. By contrast, in the final chapter, one of the humans is planning a mutiny against the leader.
I cannot help myself making another scientific objection to that - though to be fair it would be based on research that post-dates the book; since the late 1960s it's been clear that all animals communities are founded on self-interest; even worker-bees act in the interest of their closest genetic relatives. And other social primates such as chimpanzees have groups every bit as hierarchical and riddled with power struggles as human society.
The other big argument, to which you've drawn my attention, is ecological. Humans may be no more brutal, selfish or destructive in intent than other animals, but our technology has certainly made us more destructive in effect. This is clearly a major theme of the book, which seems obvious now you've drawn my attention to it, and strikes me as remarkably prescient given the time when it was written.
From: Evie_again Sent: 8/6/2008 6:17 AM
I don't think he's comparing us with anything else - just exploring the human condition, and evolution seems an ingenious way to do that. And as I say, his Neanderthals are not meant to be scientifically accurate - they are a literary device. He is a writer not a historian, far less a zoologist.