The truth and fiction of a father
MEMOIR: MOLLY McCLOSKEYreviews The Children of Lovers: A memoir ofWilliam Golding by his daughterBy Judy Golding Faber and Faber, 246pp, £16.99
JUDY GOLDING sought to answer two questions in this memoir of her father, novelist William Golding: “First, why did my father become a writer, and, I believe, such a good one? And, second, to what extent do parents shape their children, and their children’s lives?”
She wisely avoids rehashing a lot of well-known biographical detail and instead adheres in The Children of Lovers– published to coincide with Golding’s centenary – to a daughter’s-eye-view, one that sheds light on its subject, yet retains a certain childlike quality of betrayed reverence.
William Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911 and grew up in Marlborough, Wiltshire. His parents were committed socialists. At Oxford, where he took a degree in English literature, he was the only grammar school boy in his class.
Upon graduation, he was labelled by the university’s appointments committee as NTS (Not Top Shelf). In 1939, he broke off an existing engagement to marry Ann Brookfield, whom he had met at the Left Book Club in London. Their first child, David, was born in 1940, the year Golding joined the navy.
The war did much to shape his fiction, as he saw first-hand the indiscriminate death and destruction so-called civilised beings were capable of unleashing on each other.
After the war, he taught for some years in Salisbury, before the phenomenal success of his first novel Lord of the Flies(1954) allowed him to leave the job. A tale of young boys stranded on a deserted island, the novel looks squarely at the evil inherent in human nature.
Judy was nine when Lord of the Flies came out, old enough to mark the change in her father that followed fame, when their lives became split between “normal daylight experiences and exotic, unpredictable evenings”. Her father’s drinking increased.
At some point, she also noticed that her family had a “pronounced diagonal structure” linking David to their mother, and Judy to her father. Her relationship with her father was fraught with Freudian subtexts, the weight of class aspirations and intellectual pressures. When Judy was a child they enjoyed an affinity through a shared sense of the uncanny, a tendency to have nightmares, a love of Shakespeare, a “slightly contemptuous appreciation of Latin”.
With adolescence and the death of her paternal grandfather, with whom Judy had a warm relationship and Golding a complicated one, tensions set in.
The reality of her femaleness was awkward for her father: “He found incest both natural and absorbing – in theory.” And, his goals for her did not quite match her own. Her failure to master Greek and commit to the classics practically unmoored him. (In the end, she did English.)
Judy later came to understand the obsession: “If his daughter had read classics at Oxford, he might have seen the fading of that vengeful ghost, Oxford in the 1930s, the place where he was not quite a gent.” The period of conflict certainly unmoored her. When Judy was 17, she had a breakdown, at one point of taking 14 prescription pills a day.
She began to come out of it, oddly enough, on a trip to Cannes with her father for the premiere of the film adaptation of Lord of the Flies, a trip during which Golding one night lay on the bed drunkenly tearing up francs. By that time his drinking often made him “harsh, baffled, humourless, and desperate”.
As the years passed, he could be (drunk or sober) scathing in his criticism of Judy, particularly with regard to what she terms her harmless left-wingery. At one point he calls her a political slot machine: “You put your penny in, he said, and out came a cliché.”
During one dreadful visit home with her new husband she recalls her father managing “both to ignore me and shovel contempt over me”. If this was how he was with Judy, “his supposedly much-loved daughter”, one imagines far worse for her brother David, who suffered badly in the Oedipal battle with Golding.
Judy’s failure to make clear the nature and degree of David’s mental illness leaves a large gap in a book that aims to illuminate the extent to which parents shape their children’s lives. Judy mentions the fact that her father believed he contributed to David’s mental problems, an assessment with which she agrees. Without understanding the nature of the illness, however, it is difficult for a reader to know what to make of these asides.
Golding had his struggles. He derided his most successful book as boring and crude, and was extremely sensitive to the reception of his subsequent work. (His biographer John Carey describes the novels as preoccupied with the collision of “the spiritual and the miraculous” and with “science and rationality”; Golding was interested in “seeing mankind in a cosmic perspective rather than an everyday social setting”.)
From 1954 to 1967, Golding published six novels. But from 1967 until the late 1970s, the closest he came to a novel was a collection of three short stories, one of which had appeared previously.
When, after years of doubt and misery, he published Darkness Visiblein 1979, it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The following year he won the Booker for Rites of Passage. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Golding saw himself in an ongoing crisis that stemmed both from the drinking and from his inability to write. In his journals, which his daughter transcribed after his death, he engaged often in self-laceration: “Basically I despise myself and am anxious not to be discovered, uncovered, detected, rumbled.”
Elsewhere he calls himself “a monster in deed, word and thought”. Judy writes, “I dont know where the hatred came from, but it was very deep.” Whatever its causes, it was a source of suffering for both his children.
At one point, Judy scolds herself for having rarely come to her brother’s defence when they were young. Partly, she writes, it was cowardice. But it was also an inability to think ill of her father, this man who, despite (or perhaps because of) his occasional “savagery”, she was “appallingly eager to please”.
Golding died in 1993. It has taken his daughter the years since to be able to hold the two William Goldings in her mind: one generous, self-deprecating and hugely funny; the other capable of a cold and deliberate rage that could leave her feeling “shrivelled, obliterated”.
The Children of Loversis an interesting, intelligent memoir, written in a clipped, engaging and unsentimental style. Judy is a compassionate and forgiving daughter, and she has managed to arrive at some understanding of who her father was, and of how he shaped who she is.
Her linked aim of determining the foundations of Golding’s strengths as a writer is, not surprisingly, less achieved. One’s children are not the most likely candidates to provide that sort of analysis. As to the why, can we ever really say why anyone becomes a writer?
Molly McCloskeyis a short story writer, essayist and novelist. Her memoir, Circles Around the Sun, concerning her brother’s schizophrenia, will be published in June by Penguin Ireland