I watched an excellent Arena documentary about William Golding last night, (which can be seen on iPlayer here). Golding was an immensely complicated and conflicted person, and I have become increasingly interested in him since reading John Carey’s biography a couple of years ago. Ironically subtitled ‘The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies’, Carey’s book demonstrates just how varied and powerful was Golding’s achievement, and how, in a career that eventually gained him the Nobel Prize, he could still feel in some way overlooked or dismissed. The Arena documentary drew on Golding’s unpublished, million-word journals and dream diaries, and they revealed a man clearly tormented by his own sense of wickedness and by a wider understanding of human depravity and man’s capacity for evil. His dreams seem to have abounded with images of violence and torture, and although from a young age Golding was clearly an imaginative person, it is also clear that his terrible experiences in the Second World War dislocated him profoundly. ‘Lord of the Flies’ may remain his most famous exploration of mankind’s innate brutality and how fragile is the veneer of civilisation that keeps that brutality in check, but its fame has tended to obscure his other books, which offer an equally disturbing vision in a variety of stark and original forms. I remember reading ‘Darkness Visible’ and, after closing the book, feeling more or less ashamed to be a human being.
Golding was essentially a theological (rather than a religious) writer, and his theme was Original Sin. For Golding, this manifested itself in mankind’s limitless facility in pain and suffering, although it would be a mistake to dismiss him, as many did, as a fundamentally pessimistic writer. The act of writing those books was optimistic in itself, and Golding’s novels generally contain a redemptive figure who, although defeated, indicates the different paths available to the human animal. Another writer who dealt with a similar theme over a much more wayward career was Anthony Burgess. At the moment, I’m reading his longest and greatest novel, ‘Earthly Powers’, a panoramic view of the 20th century as experienced by one character, a mediocre and highly successful novelist called Kenneth Toomey (who is clearly based on W. Somerset Maugham). It would be wrong to call it subtext as it’s all up front in the narrative, but Burgess also addresses himself to theological concerns in this book, as Toomey’s path crosses again and again with his brother in law, Carlo Campanati, a man destined to become Pope. Burgess’s interest in original sin finds its clearest expression in the scenes set during the aftermath of the Holocaust, when mankind fell about as low as it could go. In a fascinating reversal though, Burgess, in this book and in others, sees original sin almost as a protective carapace for humanity; or, rather, that to dismiss it puts mankind on the even more dangerous path towards human perfectibility. Burgess roots this tendency in the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century AD. Pelagius, a monk who denied the transmission of original sin and believed that God’s grace was not necessary for the performance of good works, was eventually banished from Rome and denounced, but his ideas live on in many of our arguments for free will. For Burgess, one of those lapsed cradle Catholics who never lost the dialectical cut and thrust of a Jesuitical education, neo-Pelagianism was the most dangerous ideology in the world, and he saw its traces in Soviet and Maoist communism, in Nazism, and in any secular political ideology that thought it could coerce people into being better. Over about 300,000 words, with immense stylistic verve, ‘Earthly Powers’ parses these ideas down about as far as they can go.
This is all strong stuff, and makes the usual thematic and stylistic run of contemporary literature seem pretty thin. Crucially, as a reader you don’t actually have to buy into any of it; you do not need to share Golding’s or Burgess’s ideas on what makes a human being capable of evil or ‘sinful’ acts, but you do have to accept that this is one of the animating concerns of their fiction. This is what got them to the desk in the morning, and if there’s one thing I go to novels for, it’s to see the private idiosyncrasies and obsessions of a writer given free rein, in the freest artistic form there is.
Not long after I started writing this blog, I reviewed another documentary, about British novelists ‘in their own words’. I argued that the episode which concentrated on the immediate post-war novelists gave the lie to a common assumption that it was only when the Amis/McEwan/Barnes/Rushdie quartet imported the lessons of the big American post-war novelists (Bellow/Mailer/Roth/Updike) in the late 1970s and 1980s that English fiction moved away from a narrow concern with Hampstead dinner parties and the upper middle classes. The example of William Golding, Anthony Burgess and, in particular, JG Ballard, demonstrates how partial a reading that is of English literature in this period. Three more original writers could hardly be imagined, their concerns as far away from Hampstead dinner parties as could be conceived. (Who did write those Hampstead dinner party novels?) Their writing tried to dig up the very roots of what it meant to be human; if Golding and Burgess were haunted by mankind’s fall from the Garden of Eden, then Ballard was fascinated by what would have happened to the Garden after mankind was gone.
These three writers obviously have unassailable reputations and are in no way obscure, but Golding was right when he felt himself overlooked in some way, and Burgess felt a similar sense of rejection from the ‘literary establishment’ (whatever that is), even though he was a best-seller and critically respected. Because they fit into no easy narrative, and because they don’t belong to any definable or short-hand group or generation, it can be easy to forget how important their work is. Ballard is probably the more influential of the three, and has good claim to be the most important writer from Britain since 1945, but I would like to think that they all provide a slightly neglected model of what is possible in fiction, how it can bury itself in the visceral and spiritual essences of human life and nature, and how those mythical Hampstead dinner parties never had as many attendants as you thought.