Google Analytics

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Review - William Golding: Rites of Passage

William Golding: 
Rites of Passage (3*)

Rites of Passage won the 1980 Booker Prize. Three years later the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Call me a Philistine, yet I deign to give it only three stars. Why?

A long time ago, possibly in my early teens, I read Lord of the Flies by the same author, about a group of boys who descend into savagery while stranded on a desert island. I thought it unpleasant and am surprised that it often appears in lists of favourite books from school. I find Rites of Passage unpleasant too. Golding seems to specialise in human degradation (albeit not in graphic detail).

The story begins well enough. We are reading the journal of Edmund Talbot on a voyage to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Talbot is an aristocrat bound for a post with the Governor of New South Wales, and is a pompous prig. For example, he would have you believe that just because of his position in life, his understanding of sailing and navigation is equal to that of ship’s officers. He cannot see that others might not regard him so highly. It is clever, entertaining stuff.

So clever that some of the time I was not really sure what was going on. We Northerners tend to say things as we see them, and often have difficulties with those who talk in hints and insinuations. It was too much bother to try to decipher all the nineteenth century subtleties exchanged by passengers and officers.

Then the novel takes a darker turn. Another passenger, the Reverend Colley, whose presence on board is generally resented or at best unwelcome, suffers humiliation during and following an equator-crossing ritual, and subsequently dies. Talbot then gets to read Colley’s journal and realises he might have prevented his downfall. To say more would be to give away too much of the story, but the phrase “rites of passage” would seem to refer to the crossing of the equator, Talbot’s growing self-awareness, and (possibly unanticipated by Golding) ‘passage’ in the smutty sense the camp comedian Julian Clary might use it.

Rites of Passage was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel but was succeeded by two others in what became known as the sea trilogy To The Ends Of The Earth. I won’t be reading them.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 


28 comments:

  1. Did you hear about the group of boys who really were marooned together for a long period of time? They cooperated with each other very well and survived as a result. Also, you cannot start a fire with reading glasses, so Golding was wrong about that too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I was reading about that recently: optimistic rather than the opposite. But I didn't know about the glasses.

      Delete
  2. Lord of the Flies was one of our set books for English O Level and I really didn't enjoy it, for the reasons you describe.
    As much as I find the subtleties of hint and insinuation entertaining (being a despised Southerner) I may give Rites of Passage a miss too. Thanks for the heads up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are much better social satirists. I didn't actually say that about people from the south. See, there you go again, reading hints and insinuations where there aren't any.

      Delete
    2. It must be in the genes.

      Delete
  3. Lord of the Flies has been taken as a portrait of human, male, nature. In fact it was an indictment of the public school system. They were privileged white boys, who had learned to survive at school in a savage pecking order. I often wonder why on earth it becomes a set book so often. It's a world known mainly to the one per cent, unintelligible to the rest of us. Not a fan, as you see!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rites of Passage is a very blokey book too. It was in a pile that came from my late mother-in-law, and because of Golding's reputation one I felt I should have read before now. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I don't want to read nasty books at my age (although there are much worse around).

      Delete
  4. Admittedly, I have never read Lord of the Flies (it wasn't on our school's curriculum, and personally did not interest me enough to read it in my free time). And I shall also give Rites of Passage a pass. Thank you for explaining about it, though

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As they say about statistical analyses, a negative result is just as informative as a positive one. Negative results don't tend to get published, though.

      Delete
  5. I read Lord of the Flies because I had to teach it - but it isn't my kind of book at all and now long retired I only read the sort of book which appeals. But re The Booker Prize - I rarely find them very readable, don't know about you. I have just read Bernard Laverty book short listed for the 1997 Booker and found that outstanding - it didn't win.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Grace Notes - had to search for the title. Looks good, and very musical.

      Delete
  6. Well, not every book can be a good read!

    ReplyDelete
  7. After Lord of the Flies, I could go on to no other Golding. But, thanks for the note of discouragement.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was never interested in Lord of the Flies and I'm afraid this one does not sound like a book I would enjoy either. However, I did enjoy reading your interpretation of it. I'm glad you shared your review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps I should have lokked at other reviews first, and not read it.

      Delete
  9. Why was he picked for school exams I wonder? A thoroughly miserable view of the nastiness expressed in a few. The only book I have read was 'Heart of Darkness' 'A' level, and am still fixed on the image of a rock in the middle of the sea which was in fact the teeth of the narrator. Did I get it wrong ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I started to read Heart of Darkness a long time ago, maybe 30 years ago, and gave up. There was a film set during the Vietnam war that used the same idea. Some books and films are pretty disturbing and we don't have to read them now if we don't want.

      Delete
  10. I'm not a fan of Golding either. He is both oblique and unpleasant

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Seems to be the general consensus. Does anyone admit to liking his books?

      Delete
  11. William Golding, like Patrick White, Iris Murdoch, and Laurence Durrell, was one of the giant talents to burst out after the War like Impressionist painters in Paris in the late 19th Century.

    Like White, Murdoch, and Durrell, I think of him as a magician. Henry Green comes into that category too. Life is bloody. Writers like Golding show us why.

    Golding deserved the Nobel for The Inheritors alone. What other English writer would have attempted to describe the inner life of violent Homo Sapiens and their murderous hatred for the gentler hominid species, whom our ancestors may have destroyed in genocidal tribal wars?

    In Pincher Martin he created a believably bad and ordinary man, and showed us what he looked like at the moment of his death. Darkness Visible is the most metaphysical of his novels, and carries so many echoes, not least those of Milton's Satan and Milton's embattled God. *Who ARE we?* the religiously agnostic Golding is always asking.

    John Braine, reviewing Darkness Visible for The Sunday Telegraph, said Golding did not merely write novels, but that he was visited by his daemon, who came when he came. What could be more Miltonic?

    Golding wrote Lord of the Flies after reading Ballantyne's Choral Island, with its Victorian fantasy of how English boys should behave.

    With his naval experience in the war, and his years in Salisbury as a schoolmaster who understood boys, Golding tore back the Victorian fantasy and revealed the terrible truth. True, the book owes something to High Wind in Jamaica, a story of good pirates and bad children, but Golding does something completely new, and his ear for prose is faultless.

    Golding doesn't *specialise* in human degradation, Tasker. He is writing out of the most corpse-strewn century in human history - read the new single volume edition of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago (Vintage), which turns something as terrible as Stalin's Soviet Union into a work of art.

    Rites of Passage, like his other novels, comes alive when spoken aloud or enjoyed as an audio book (so does Moby Dick). It reveals the savagery of the English public school system. Lord Salisbury said nothing could ever be as bad again as life at Eton. Junior boys (fags) dreaded the weekends when they were locked inside their houses with the older boys, who could do anything they liked in the way of sexual abuse and torture.

    Just now I am reading his essay on the South Downs (The Hot Gates) and the least known of his novels, Free Fall, about a painter with half a resemblance to Golding and half to Francis Bacon. Yes, Liz Gray, Golding is oblique and unpleasant. So was Shakespeare in Macbeth.

    John Haggerty

    ReplyDelete
  12. There are many critical studies of Golding; I can recommend Patrick Reilly's *Lord of the Flies: Father and Sons* and Don Crompton's *A View From the Spire* as well as Golding's two volumes of collected essays and his travel book, *Egyptian Journey*.

    It has been said of him that he was an Egyptian at heart. Craig Raine has written an introduction to a new edition of Golding's *The Scorpion God* which (says Raine) allows us to understand *the enzymes of a vanished time*. It would have been interesting to hear Golding on Freud's theory that Moses was an Egyptian and was murdered by his adopted people the Jews - see *Moses and Monotheism* first published in 1939 when Freud was dying.

    I made a typo in which I referred to Ballantyne's *Coral Island* as *Choral*; a happy error because Golding's work is like a choir of many voices. His medieval novel set in the heart of England describes the construction of a 404 feet spire in what sounds like Salisbury Cathedral. *The Spire* takes us inside the head of the cathedral's dean who may be following the will of God or his own will. He reflects all the authoritarian religious figures of history from the popes to John Calvin and Ian Paisley.

    Golding's native attachments shine through in this novel as they do in his essay on the oldest roads in the world, the green neolithic roads of the Sussex Downs.

    I wish he had done a book with the great landscape photographer Fay Godwin - you can see a BBC film about her on YouTube.

    J Haggerty

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John,

      Thank you for taking time to comment with such a thorough explanation of Golding's importance, which has helped my understanding. You have a vast knowledge of literature and I'm sure we can all benefit from it, and your first comment was perhaps a justifiable hijacking of my blog this time.

      However, I do feel that commenting at such great length (much longer than the blog post) breaches blogging etiquette and the place for this is in a blog of your own. I suspect others may think the same.

      Returning to Golding, what I'm saying is that I don't want to read books I find unpleasant, even when they are ones I ought to have read (and there will be more), and even though ignoring the kind of real-life behaviour they describe probably facilitates its occurrence.

      Delete
  13. Breaching blog etiquette did not occur to me, Tasker. My apologies. We should never feel obliged to read a book we find unpleasant; there is enough of that in life. Rereading The Gulag Archipelago, after so many years, shook my faith in just about everything, except kindness, and writers who tell the truth in language rich and lucid. As Robert Graves wrote:

    There's a cool web of language winds us in,
    Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
    We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
    In brininess and volubility.

    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. The Gulag Archipelago is a book I do want to read because, again, it's one that made an impact when first published. Whether I'll enjoy it or not ... ?

      Delete
  14. As you didn't like "Lord of the Flies", I wonder why you went for another novel by Golding? Perhaps you were ill-disposed to "Rites of Passage" before joining Edmund Talbot on his voyage of self-discovery. I thought it was a challenging novel with disturbing undertones. It is a few years since I read it but it resonated in my head weeks after I had read the last page.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was with books that came from my late mother-in-law and because of his reputation I thought I ought to read it and expected to like it. Lord of the Flies was a long time ago before I stopped reading almost entirely in my teens.

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day (unless it looks like you are trying to advertise something).