Universal Pessimist, Cosmic Optimist

Interview by MaryLynn Scott

British novelist William Golding, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature, is best known for his first novel, Lord of the Flies, which has sold over seven million copies in the United States alone and has been translated into more than fourteen languages.

Often thought of as a pessimistic writer, Golding calls himself “a universal pessimist and a cosmic optimist,” distinguishing between the universe, as the sum of man's empirical knowledge, and the cosmos, as the totality of all there is, including God and man. In his novels, Golding investigates the presence of an innate evil in man underlying a veneer of civilization, concluding that man's propensity for evil is far greater than it is for goodness. Often accompanying this dominant theme is his concern with the questions of original sin and man's free will, all of which help to create a fable-like quality within his work.

During a frosty November morning in his hotel room overlooking Edmonton's North Saskatchewan river valley, Golding, whose mirthful spirit belies his oracular appearance, was forthcoming on a number of topics ranging from his own preferences in literature, the state of his work in progress, to his thoughts on the art of story-telling, the health of the novel today, and his latest novel, The Paper Men.

Aurora: Although your first novel, Lord of the Flies, was not published until you were forty-three years old, you have written a total of ten novels as well as other works, including two books of essays, a play, and a travel journal of a trip you made through Egypt. How long have you actually been writing, and how much discipline do you impose upon yourself when working on a novel?

Golding: I began to write when I was seven, and I have been writing off and on ever since. It is still off and on. You can say that when I am on, when I know I have a book which I am going to write, then I write two thousand words a day. That's so many pages longhand. I finish at the bottom of a page or in the middle of a sentence if necessary. Then I put the pen down, shut the book, and go away with a feeling of hey-day—freedom, freedom— because now I can go and do the things I like doing instead of having to get on with this chore. At the end of about a month, that will be the draft of a novel completed. While I am on, I can discipline myself to that extent. When I am off, I can't discipline myself at all. On the other hand, when I am off, there are so many things I like doing, it doesn't really matter.

Aurora: In your essay “The Ladder and the Tree”, you mention that among your father's many talents was his musical ability. Is music one of those “things” you turn to when the writing is off?

Golding: Yes, my father was very musical, and music plays quite a large part in my life. I play the piano passionately and inaccurately. Indeed, I worked out the other day that of my seventy-five years; I have spent at least one year sitting on a piano stool.

Aurora: Who are your favourite composers?

Golding: Beethoven for listening; Liszt, Chopin, and Beethoven for playing as well as Bach and Prokofiev and so on. If I kept going, this list would spiral. It's as wide as literature; in fact, it is probably wider.

Aurora: Is music your greatest love after literature?

Golding: Probably.

Aurora: Given the extent to which music informs your life, should readers look for musical analogies and allusions in your writing? I'm thinking of your novel The Pyramid, which uses the sonata form.

Golding: I don't know about any other novel that takes a musical form. I don't say that it was conceived to begin with as a sonata form, but it evolved into this half-way through writing it. When I realized this, I more precisely shaped it in that direction so that the last story about the old music teacher is really an air and variations: it comes back in different forms.

Aurora: Your preference in composers tends towards the Greats. Is this true as well of the writers you admire and enjoy reading?

Golding: Well, I have a confession to make. The love affair of my life has been with the Greek language. I have now reached the age when it has occurred to me that I may have read some books for the last time. I suddenly thought that there are books I cannot bear not to read again before I die. One that stands out a mile is Homer's Iliad. So, a month before this excursion across your continent began, when I ought to have been seriously considering other things, I sat down and read Homer's Iliad at the rate of about one book a day. That's roughly a thousand lines of archaic Greek. I went on doing that day-by-day until I finished the book. I finished it on the morning of the day when I left for this journey. So, I suppose I'd have to say that my favourite author is Homer. After Homer's Ilaid, I'd name The Odyssey, and then I'd mention a number of plays of Euripides. Of the authors writing in English, I'd mention Shakespeare and Milton. But all this is terribly high-hat and makes me sound very po-faced, I'm afraid; however, I just happen to like these enormous, swinging, great creatures. I think there might even come a time when I would read Virgil again. Ovid's Metamorphoses, perhaps, not because the music goes round and round and never comes out, but because it's an extraordinary picture of ceaseless change that never comes to an end.

Aurora: As a reader you seek out poets and dramatists. As a writer, you choose primarily to be a novelist. What is your opinion, speaking as a novelist, of the controversy surrounding the novel, which forecasts, on the one hand, its imminent death and affirms, on the other, its ongoing life?

Golding: The novel is very much alive, indeed. In Toronto at the Sixth Annual International Festival of Authors (October 1985) I listened to novelists by the dozen. About 65 of them banded together at the writer's festival I attended. As far as the novel is concerned in my own country, I think it's in a pretty healthy state. Graham Greene at 82 years old is still writing, and I don't think anyone can deny the force, the expertise, and the unique quality of his writing, if you take his complete oeuvre. Then you have people coming up like Malcolm Bradbury, a relatively young writer who deals with the academic scene and deals with it, I think, brilliantly. Between these people, you have the older generation like Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson who are not as old as Graham Greene, but still are coming on. I dare say anyone who knew the scene better than I know it could fill it in with a very satisfactory supply of novels. I've left myself out of this, clearly enough, and should because I'm not a critic so much of my own writing. People must make up their own minds over that.

Aurora: You follow the work of contemporary writers?

Golding: Honestly, I haven't the time to read contemporary writers. I know this is awful, but in the main it is true. I don't think they read me either. I mean, if we're concerned genuinely with writing, I think we probably get on with our work. I think this is very true of English writers, but perhaps not so true of French writers, who seem to read each other passionately, extensively, and endlessly, and who then talk about it to each other—which is splendid. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against this as a method, but it is not what English writers do.

Aurora: Is there a sense of community among writers in Britain?

Golding: No, not really. Maybe half a dozen think they are a community, but, in general terms, I think English writers tend to face outwards, away from each other, and write in their own patch, as it were. For a small island, the place is remarkably diverse. Writers tend to see things from their own points of view, looking in one direction very much.

Aurora: In Canada, the ill-defined area of English literature known as Commonwealth literature takes on a major importance. Are you familiar with much Commonwealth literature?

Golding: No, not with much. I've come across a novel called The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, that is really remarkable because it is a kind of fantasy of West African mythology all told in West African English which, of course, is not the same as standard English. I also know Patrick White in Australia, both personally and as a writer, and Salman Rushdie in India. In India the odd thing is that English is this almost artificial language floating on the surface of a place with about fifty other languages. The same is true of Nigeria but even more so. I think they've got 250 languages in Nigeria, and so English is a sort of lingua franca between the 250 languages. Malcolm Bradbury made the point, and I don't know whether it's a valid one or not, that the real English at the moment is not the English spoken in England or in America or even in Canada or Australia or New Zealand. The real English is the English which is a second language, so that it's rather like Latin in the days of the Roman Empire when people had their own languages, but had Latin in order to communicate. Latin, as we all know, ultimately broke down into Spanish, Italian, French, and so on. One wonders whether there will be an imperial parallel with English breaking down into, shall we say, North American, European, Australian, and so on. On the other hand, there is this immense, inward-driving influence of radio and television that is bringing us all back together. One could say it's a fight between the two: a fight between regionalism and the standardization through communication.

Aurora: Perhaps a similar tension exists in the interplay between a regional or national literary consciousness and an international one. Sometimes no boundaries seem to be imposed at all on the use of models and techniques. Everyone can write anything, or in any style or form. What would you say about this?

Golding: I wouldn't have thought that the techniques of story-telling, which is what the novel is after all, can vary much because there are two things involved, aren't there? There's a story and there's a listener, whose attention you have to keep. Now the only way in which you can keep a reader's attention to a story is in his wanting to know what is going to happen next. This puts a fairly close restriction on the method you must use. When you take a child who's hollering like hell, sit him on your knee, and say “once upon a time”, you stop him hollering. As long as you go on telling him a story, he will listen. Novelists who neglect this fundamental effect do so at their peril. They become what is known as the experimental novelist, and an experimental novel is not really a novel at all. Only one novel is a novel: that is a successful novel. Experimental novels are sometimes terribly clever and very seldom read. But the story that appeals to the child sitting on your knee is the one that satisfies the curiosity we all have about what happened then, and then, and then. This is the final restriction put on the technique of telling a story. A basic thing called story is built into the human condition. It's what we are; it's something to which we react.

Aurora: Some critics of the novel see it evolving away from its traditional role of offering sequential and casual representations of events that conform to the reader's expectations, and that you describe as being an essential part of story-telling, towards what you call the experimental novel, of which the postmodern novel is one type with its emphasis on self-consciousness, on thematizing the process of writing itself, for instance. If this is happening to the novel, do you see another genre that provides these fundamental elements of story-telling, such as the biography, to fulfil the function that the novel has served until recently?

Golding: This seems to me an enormous misconception. Biography always has fulfiled this role. Robinson Crusoe is a biography, as is Tom Jones. You can go through the whole range of the novel, and you will find it is biography. The only difference between one example and the other is that sometimes it's a partial biography and sometimes it's a total biography. Clarissa, for example, is a partial biography of Clarissa and a partial biography of Lovelace. In other words, it doesn't follow Lovelace from when he is in the cradle, though it takes him to the grave. So, I think that this is a distinction without a difference. However you disguise novels, they are always biographies.

Aurora: Are you saying that it matters not to the genre of the work whether it's talking about the life of a fictional character or the life of a person who has lived among us?

Golding: It matters only for interest. It's interesting to note that “X” was actually alive. When we read his biography, we know he fitted into history. “Y” on the other hand, was made up by somebody. I don't think there's anything profounder about it than that.

Aurora: You don'T see the biography slipping in underneath the novel, you see any other genre doing this?

Golding: I suppose drama can either take the place of a novel or can be very closely allied with it. It's quite customary to turn a successful novel into a film or a television series because you can dramatize and pictorialize a novel. That's, in a sense, slipping in under the novel; but, interestingly enough, this doesn't destroy the novel. It works in the opposite direction because as soon as Oliver Twist is serialized, people who would never dream of reading Dickens, if they hadn't seen him on their box, buy the paperback. I really feel the novel has certain conveniences about it and has something so fundamental about it you could almost say that as long as there is paper, there is going to be the novel. Even if you got rid of paper, you would still have story-tellers. In fact, you had the story-tellers before you had the paper.

Aurora: In your novels, you often create self-contained worlds which exist independent of the everyday world. Could one assume that these self-contained worlds are meant to illuminate the real world?

Golding: I suppose so. One tries to tell a truth, and one hopes that the truth has a general application rather than just a specific one. For example, you might say The Spire is about building a spire. In fact, it's about making anything.

Aurora: About making a novel?

Golding: It could be about writing a novel or a play, or about composing a symphony, or even about carving a statue. In that sense, I hope my books make statements about our general condition.

Aurora: Because The Paper Men is your most recent novel, you have had few opportunities to comment on it. I am curious to hear your thoughts about The Paper Men and to know what statement it makes about our general condition.

Golding: One thing should be put firmly. Where people have commented on that novel, they generally criticize the poor academic, Rick L. Tucker, who is savaged by the author, Wilfred Barclay. I don't think people have noticed that I have been far ruder about Barclay than I have been about Tucker. Tucker is a fool, but Barclay is a swine. The author really gets his come-uppance. It's not a sweetness and light novel. Another point I would make is that the religion in the book is meant; it is real. Let me expand on this. Barclay suddenly comes to what the technical religious call a moment of conviction—a conviction of sin. Because he has paid no attention to it all his life, it hits him like a sledge-hammer. He says, “It's the divine justice without mercy.” In other words, he sees himself as he is at that moment. So, it's a profoundly religious book in that sense, you see. Then he thinks, “Well, I am sin, I am this awful thing.” But, gradually, sooner or later, the mercy comes in, and he's let go. God appears to him in the shape of this billionaire, standing on top of the church and sets him free. Then Barclay tries to get Tucker free by giving him this account of their mutual lives. Barclay is biographizing himself for Tucker. But Tucker, the aspiring biographer, shoots him in order to stop Barclay from burning his own papers.

Aurora: It is a delightful turn of events; the situation comes full circle.

Golding: Yes, because Barclay shoots Tucker with an air gun at the beginning of the book, and Tucker shoots Barclay with a rifle at the end.

Aurora: So what Barclay achieves by writing his own life for his biographer, including his account of the relationship these two have had, is a combination of autobiography and biography. But if you say that Barclay is biographizing himself, this suggests that he doesn't distinguish between these two genres.

Golding: Yes, that's right. It's a mutuality. He is writing a Tucker-Barclay symbiosis, if you like. He wants to give this to Tucker to do with it what he likes in order to show Tucker what's happening that Tucker doesn't know. It's Barclay's one act of mercy.

Aurora: Did you intentionally blur the division between autobiography and biography?

Golding: As I said earlier, every novel is a biography. Well, then, this is a novel which is a biography that is pretending to be an autobiography. That's what you could say about it. No specific human figures stand behind Tucker and Barclay. Both are joke figures. Tucker is a mélange of the people I've known, and Barclay is a mélange of the writers.

Aurora: Are you sending these characters types?

Golding: In point of fact, I'm really sending up the literary world: both critic and author—the lot.

Aurora: Would you comment on where your writing might go next and on how your work in progress fits into the off and on pattern that you described earlier as being your characteristic mode of writing?

Golding: I'm really in a mess at the moment. Put it this way. I've got about three novels that I can't write, and one of them may land.

Aurora: But this has happened to you before, hasn't it? Didn't one relatively dry period occur between the publication of The Pyramid in 1967 and Darkness Visible in 1979?

Golding: Yes, this has happened to me before. On the other hand, I'm seventy-four, and it has got to stop some time.

Books by William Golding

The Paper Men. Farrar, Straus, 1984.

Rites of Passage. Farrar, Straus, 1982.

Darkness Visible. Farrar, Straus, 1979.

The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. Harcourt, 1971.

Free Fall. Harcourt, 1960

The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin. Harcourt, 1957.

Pincher Martin. Harcourt, 1955.

The Inheritors. Faber, 1955.

Lord of the Flies. Faber, 1954.

MaryLynn Scott is an English tutor with Athabasca University.

An Aurora Update

Since writing this article, two more novels, Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989) were published. Sir William Golding was knighted in 1988. His last book, The Double Tongue was written in 1993 and published (in draft) in 1995. William Golding died in 1993.

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Updated February 2002

Citation Format

Scott, MaryLynn (1990). Universal Pessimist, Cosmic Optimist: William Golding. Aurora Online: