From the library I got a recording of William Golding reading his own Lord of the Flies. It had been mentioned recently by Todd, who is given to reading fiction. It has a reputation for being liked by many, and I’d seen the movie; both of these made me think light of it. So Todd was for it and my impressions were against it: an even balance, no decision. What tipped the scale was the cover of a trilogy Golding wrote I saw at Half-Wit. It was a really interesting cover so I thought I should become familiar with his writing, see if it was worthwhile. I got the one available, Lord of the Flies.
At the end of each chapter Golding commented on what he had read. Around the fourth or fifth chapter I began to wonder if it really was such a wise thing for an author to comment on his own work. After all, a good story would be one in which the author included what was necessary; adding a commentary seems to admit the inadequacy of the finished product. Now if the book is inadequate it is possible to comment correctively or even to come out with a second edition, but that is not the sort of commentary Golding provides.
The commentary Golding provides is meant to head off bad readers. It saves the author having to get mail trying to correct him. What makes me suspicious of Golding is that he is adamant about Piggy’s specs even though his explanation is preposterous. I will say that the sort of readers who write in to complain about that sort of thing do not really even deserve a reply: if they are right, they are right about something very minor, the blunder of an author who has neglected a small detail. That Golding responds to something so small in such an elaborately defensive way makes me take a low view, not only of Golding but also of this business of commenting on one’s own works. It is kind to help bad readers read better; it is useful to many for the writer to provide some sort of clues when the work is too enigmatic; but to defend oneself from illiterate attacks is to give them a legitimacy they do not deserve.
One of the things that confuses Golding is the acclaim his book received. He wrote a manuscript that was turned down by twenty publishers. It was taken up, at last, by Faber & Faber when TS Eliot worked there (in fact, Golding is pretty sure the title was Eliot’s suggestion). After it was published, Golding says, more books were written on this book than he wrote books himself. In these numerous publications conflicting interpretations were offered and Golding says he is not sure he has the right interpretation. He concludes his rather agnostic observations on the interpretation of the book by saying that anyone’s the interpretation on the first reading is the true one.
That is well said in that he still feels the thing can stand on its own, it is a completed work and he put everything into it that it should have. It explains why he takes the defensive position he seems to take, warning people from seeing too much symbolism, explaining why he chose boys not girls (not so defensive here; it is at the beginning and promising, this bit), and heading off criticism about Piggy’s specs. And on climactic chapters he refrains from comment–the story says it all.
But the observation that anyone’s the interpretation on the first reading is the true one is also not well said. It is nonsense to say that everybody’s interpretation is true, unless one somehow believes everybody who reads it will just get it right the first time. I do wonder if this latter is what he means, or if he secretly means by everybody who reads it who is sensible. Otherwise it is too naive, even for him. It is also badly said because it implies that the more the book is scrutinized, the murkier the interpretation becomes. That is not promising; it seems hardly the sign of the best of books.
There can be no doubt that part of Golding’s difficulty is that the things in the story being investigated and discussed in ways that Golding finds surprisingly academical were not explicitly intended by him. That the work should have depths Golding did not altogether realize should not be a surprise: that is the talent of the artist. He may feel it is right without consciously working out for himself how every detail works together. The work is a work of discovery and a work of art cannot be put together by mere rational analysis. If art has no mystery then let it be produced by mathematical insects and mechanical bureaucrats. It is for this reason the author cannot anticipate every way in which his work will be taken, and that is part of the glory of a work of art. Still, it is clear Golding feels there are legitimate and illegitimate ways of taking what he wrote.
The question still remains, why comment on any of it at all? Perhaps it has to do with the range of legitimate inquiry, with the proper depths of the work of art. If the story has depths like the South Pacific, does it not follow Golding is suspicious when the depths described more resemble the North Atlantic? He tells us the point of the book at the end and yet he claims to be baffled by the multitude of conflicting interpretations, so much so that he says definitely, and as his last words, that the meaning is not what the author puts in, but what the reader gets out. That is what he says: not what the author puts in but what the reader gets out.
Which is true, but not true enough. The meaning is still in some measure shared; it has to be communicated; there is a meaning the author wants to send along, and he is a failure if the good reader fails to receive it. I have come to wonder if the problem is in expecting something hard and definite and reducible rather than a shared understanding. This is why Golding can say what the point of the book is; and it is obvious and clear. This is why he can tell us the original plain reading will give us the idea. In the end, the novel is a success, I think, because the development of the character is revealed in action, because the plot comes together with satisfaction, and because the theme is completely at harmony with the situation of the book—it is a well crafted piece of literature. And it is, moreover, a success because adding from what he has realized, Golding gives me something he cannot have quite the way I have it, for I take it differently, seeing the possibilities from a different vantage; he gives and I receive; he describes while I gaze. If the thing is real, who can exhaust its possibilities?
I wonder if Golding did not mean that the meaning was on the other side of the text. I wonder if it looked like the reader’s side to him, from the author’s vantage. And from the reader’s vantage? This is the appeal of the commentary! A glimpse at the other side which we mistake for the author’s side. But the book is more like an upright prism through which both look obliquely and discern something beyond the story itself: the meaning the story exists to show. And of this meaning, in a good book, they both know they want more.