Monday, February 25, 2008


After I delivered the edited MSS of The Quiet War to Gollancz, I visited the row of little secondhand bookshops in nearby Cecil Court. It’s one of the few streets in London that still maintains the tradition of harbouring the workplaces of various representives of a trade cheek by jowl, and thus, for a bibliophile, it’s horribly full of temptation. Too much temptation: I came away with a first edition of William Golding’s The Spire.

I already have a paperback edition, signed by Golding just after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and published his penultimate novel The Paper Men. He rarely did signings, and I had to queue for a fair while in Blackwells (on Broad Street, Oxford, just around the corner where I worked in those days) before I got my turn with him. A novice to book signings, having already bought The Paper Men in hardback, I purchased a couple of paperbacks at the till beforehand as the price of admission, and also had him sign my first of The Scorpion God, one of the first hardback books I ever bought, (at a much reduced price, in Bristol, a couple of years after it was published). I’ve been a fan of his work since school. Unlike many schoolchildren of my generation - I did the sciences instead of English Literature - I wasn’t taught The Lord of the Flies as a set book, but I read it anyway, and then read everything else of his that I could find. But despite his early popularity, and the Nobel Prize, he seems to have fallen out of fashion after his death; this and his early and enormous success with his first novel means that first editions of his novels (apart from The Lord of the Flies) are fairly plentiful and therefore fairly affordable.

One reason for his unfashionability may be that he never wrote the same book twice, thus resisting easy academic explication. And he is also, it has to be said, something of an old-fashioned writer, not only in his thorough grounding in the classics, but in his assumption of a God-like but detached, forensic point of view. Thus, he never explains or enters the minds or emotional states of his characters, except when the novel is narrated in the first person (and even though his ‘Tarpaulin’ trilogy is written in the first-person, it is in the form of a journal kept to flatter and impress the narrator’s rich and powerful uncle, so we’re kept at one remove from his real thoughts and feelings). Instead, emotion is conveyed only by its physical manifestation; yet this forensic detachment, married with limpid yet incredibly precise prose, conveys very clearly great emotions in a manner that’s both ironic and sympathetic, and on occasion tremendously moving: in The Inheritors, the discovery by the Neanderthal Lok of the bones of his murdered child is, for me, one of the most heartbreaking passages in English literature. It’s the evocative power of his extraordinarily concise, clear-eyed and accurate descriptive prose that first hooked me, and still enthralls me. All of which is a small part of the explanation of why the epigraph of The Quiet War is from Golding’s Free Fall: ‘The Herr Doctor does not know about peoples.’ For the rest, you’ll have to read the book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

congratulations on delivering The Quiet War, i've been waiting for this book for over a decade! i've read six short stories in the sequence, Second Skin, Sea Changes.., Reef, The Passenger, Dead Men Walking and Making History. are there others that i may have missed? are you planning on gathering them all in a short story collection? i noted a reference to Greater Brazil in one of them which would tie the sequence in with 400 Billion Stars and your earlier novels although i can't work out the chronology. Phil.

February 26, 2008 11:57 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

Hi Paul,

I got into Golding when I saw the BBC adaptation of the Tarpaulin trilogy. I missed the first episode, which I suspect was the best, and, you know, just when you think they repeat everything ad nauseam, along comes a series which to the best of my knowledge was shown only once. Anyway, I read the books, and enjoyed them.

I'm curious about Free Fall - should I read that next?

February 28, 2008 3:36 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Pete,

I think the BBC adaptation of the Tarpaulin trilogy was recently repeated on BBC4, but that’s
not exactly mainstream (re)exposure.

If you haven’t read any other Golding, may I recommend Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors and
The Spire, before Free Fall? Not that there’s anything wrong with Free Fall, but it’s an intense
psychological character study that’s very different in tone to the Tarpaulin books. Fans of
Gene Wolfe (and ancient Egypt and Greece) might well like two of the novellas in The Scorpion God, and The Double Tongue.

February 28, 2008 7:52 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

Thanks for the tips. Next time I'm in Waterstones, I'll have a look.

February 29, 2008 3:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any excuse to read Golding, a man who didn't pander to the whim of self important academics.

I was in Barter Books in Alnwick yesterday and came across a copy of his play, 'The Brass Butterfly'. Needless to say, it cost me more than the cover price of 7/- . . .


March 03, 2008 4:40 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Seven shillings is 35 new pence, I believe (when did new pence stop being new pence and become pee?). Why, you can't buy a decent newspaper for that, these days... You're dead right about Golding's, erm, ambivalence, toward critical analysis, Martyn.

March 06, 2008 12:42 am  

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