Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the last book I read

Free Fall by William Golding.

Samuel Mountjoy is a respected and established artist, but, well, it's not all been glamorous exhibitions and critical acclaim. Born to a feckless single mother and brought up in a slum, and later as the ward of a priest, he rose to the dizzy heights of having his work exhibited in the Tate.

Yes, but has it made him happy? Well, no, not really. And so as he looks back at his life with some confusion and dissatisfaction, he tries to pinpoint where the choices were made, consciously or unconsciously, that brought him to where he has ended up, and wonders whether he could have chosen differently.

As a child? It's Sammy's being manouevred by his devious friend Philip Arnold into desecrating a church that leads indirectly to Sammy being taken on (after his mother's death) as a ward by kindly old closet paedophile Father Watts-Watt.

At school? Faced with the opposing teaching worldviews of goddy, cold, bitter Miss Pringle and easy-going, gentle atheist Nick Shales, Sammy naturally chooses the path associated with the person who's been nicer to him.

In his love life? Developing a furious obsession with pretty, demure Beatrice Ifor while still at school, Sammy mounts a well-organised campaign to woo her, but, having eventually worn her down to the point of consenting to sleep (somewhat joylessly) with him, he finds that he has lost interest in her and promptly goes off and marries someone else.

Eventually World War II breaks out and Sammy finds himself taken prisoner and interrogated by the Gestapo. After a bit of verbal sparring with Gestapo officer Doctor Halde, Sammy finds himself locked in a pitch-black storeroom to reconsider his refusal to divulge any information about the series of recent escapes from the camp, and also to anticipate the delightful prospect of being tortured to obtain it. The fear and the darkness induce in Sammy what might be mild hysteria, or might be some sort of psychotic episode - and, we seem to be invited to infer, the frenzied reconsideration of his previous life that occupies most of the book - before he is released from his confinement and returned to his prison quarters, possibly as a changed man, possibly not. Who knows?

Free Fall was William Golding's fourth novel, published in 1959 at the end of the busy early period of his career that produced four novels in five years. Golding's biographer John Carey reckoned that it was the lukewarm critical response to Free Fall that prompted the five-year period of writer's block, or possibly sulking, that preceded the publication of The Spire in 1964. Frank Kermode's potted summary of Golding's early books (we'll come back to the first one in a bit) from his review of The Spire warrants reproducing here:
In the years that followed Golding did much to confirm this belief, but very little towards making himself a popular novelist. The Inheritors is a technically uncompromising, fiercely odd, even old-fashioned book about the overthrow of Neanderthal man, wonderfully distinguished but inconceivable as a big seller; Pincher Martin is as difficult as it is masterly; and Free Fall is complex, original, and in many ways reader-repellent.
I think "reader-repellent" is probably overdoing it a bit, but Golding's books are generally - while relatively short - dense, gnarly and difficult and make demands on the reader that some will find onerous and unappealing, and Free Fall is no exception. It's probably more linear and less wildly weird and eccentric than either The Inheritors (which I see I've namechecked here and here) or Pincher Martin (which I mentioned here), and to be honest, probably not quite as good as either of them, but it's still writing of great power, even when you feel like there's some Great Meaning afoot that would snap into focus if you could just look at the words from the correct angle. In the case of Free Fall this is to do with notions like choice and free will, a concept that tends to dissolve into incoherence if examined too closely, particularly with an eye not blinded by religious thinking. Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True has a series of very thought-provoking articles on free will from a secular/scientific perspective if you're interested.

Obviously the elephant in the room here is Golding's first novel, 1954's Lord Of The Flies, still appearing on Best 100 Books Ever lists 60 years after its first publication. It was one of the first proper "adult" novels that I ever read (at probably 15 or 16) and made a massive impression on me. No doubt it vexed Golding (a somewhat irascible character by all accounts) greatly that his first book was the one that defined him, but there it is. I would recommend - nay, insist - that everyone read Lord Of The Flies; what I would say to those wanting to venture further is that Pincher Martin and The Spire are probably the ones to try. Just don't expect always to understand what's going on.

Golding also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 - these two book reviews contain a couple of relevant lists.

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