- A View from the Spire: William Golding's Later Novels
The person who has read the novels of William Golding as they appeared, from The Lord of the Flies onward, is likely to think that he has been through a considerable miscellany. He has met shipwrecked boys, watched Neanderthals go down in defeat (The Inheritors), observed the erection of an ambitious cathedral spire (The Spire), and been tossed by the psychological turmoil of Rites of Passage and The Paper Men. A rereading of the novels can do something to correct this impression, and Don Crompton's A View from the Spire erases it. Crompton's study—aesthetically sensitive and theologically informed—is an exhaustive review of the novels from The Spire onward. But frequent references to the earlier novels make this book an inclusive discussion of all of Golding's work and show the degree of coherence one can find beneath the variety in the novels themselves and also in the somewhat vatic utterances Golding indulges in when he is interviewed or giving a lecture.
Crompton's study, completed after his death by Miss Julia Briggs, allows one to see the sensibility (and sometimes the guiding intelligence when it is present) that ornaments in similar ways the wide range of materials contained in the novels. And not only does Crompton do justice to Golding; he has a keen sense of the way in which Golding represents many features of what used to be called "the modern temper." Golding, Crompton makes clear, does not represent that "temper" at all when it is in a pragmatic or "realist" mood that reduces the language act to bareness. Instead, Golding and his novels come together as representatives of other persistent aspects of modern feeling and, less frequently, of rigorous modern thought on topics that will not go away just because some shapers of modern opinion are impatient with them. Golding is no theologian, in Crompton's view. Better, he is often a cryptopoet who passes back and forth between two impressions, both of them intermittently powerful for him. There is Golding's sense that the world—whatever the particular section treated—is irradiated by malice, contempt, and outright torture: evil that resists the erection of the Salisbury Cathedral spire and that shames to his death the naive clergyman of Rites of Passage. There is in Golding, quite illogically of course, an opposed [End Page 321] sense: that there is a "Godness" (Golding's word) that we are able to define and watch, chiefly thanks to the fact that we never meet it in isolation. (How could any words deal with that?) Instead, as poets, as novelists, we meet "Godness" when the destiny of a moronic savior-figure moves across the pages of Darkness Visible or a feckless elderly novelist taints whatever he encounters in The Paper Men. In Crompton's view, Golding is not so much a witness to noble and perilous truths as to feelings that are disorderly and inescapable: feelings that we should not allow ourselves to be detached from by either subtle philosophers or "obvious" common sense.
Do the novels fall short of a coherent and predictable set of assertions? Of course there is (in Crompton's account at least) William Golding's faithfulness to the insights of a certain year: insights, however, that never stray far from the disorderly terrain where "Godness" and Satanic forces are defining each other. One may sometimes differ with Crompton's ranking of the novels (the obscure Darkness Visible is at the top of his list, and "easier" ones such as The Pyramid are given a lower position). But Crompton's sensibility is, like Golding's own, a persistent one. And it allows one, as the critical essay unfolds, to follow the winding Golding path with belief and respect.