William Golding: the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies

Of the two names on the thick spine of this book, one connotes - to this reviewer at least - energy, supple intelligence and fun, while the other prompts little interest and less enthusiasm. The professor as populist tickler is an al­together more appealing and amiable figure than the popular novelist as sage. John Carey's central books, The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, can be reread with astonishment and disbelief (the intended response), but we all know what happens in Lord of the Flies, and what it means.

Or we think we do. It is one of the many happy surprises of this book that Carey expends considerable energy advancing a case for the value and significance of Golding's work. He makes interpretive discoveries in Golding's novels (12 in all), emphasising his refreshing outsider's perspective. Unenviably, he also trawls through the author's unfinished work and unpublished memoirs and journals, turning up jewels as he goes. (The former Merton Professor at Oxford University, a pithy and merciless demolition man, is also the best friend a writer could hope for.) The book's subtitle, Carey explains, is "both ironic and purposeful" - for most people (most potential buyers of this book, at any rate), William Golding is the man who wrote Lord of the Flies, but Carey, evidently happy enough to acknowledge Golding's authorship of that celebrated book, wants him to be the man who also wrote Pincher Martin and The Spire and Darkness Visible, among many others.

Though more of an outdoors type than, say, Iris Murdoch, Golding lived the familiar life of the successful writer - early struggles, mid-life success, elderly acclaim (a Booker, a Nobel, a knighthood), too little money and then too much ("I really am investigating tax havens," he moaned to his journal). Carey is dutiful on the topics where duty is welcome. The book is an intermittent chronicle of Golding's reading preferences, often the recipient of invisibly short shrift even in large biographies of writers. An Enlightenment rationalist while at Oxford, Golding soon found the Voltairean view too narrow, and, seeking a reconciliation of science and superstition, became a temporary follower of Rudolf Steiner (a popular choice amongfuture Nobel Prize-winners: Saul Bellow was a Steiner devotee during the 1970s). As one might have expected, Golding was a lifelong reader of Homer, as well as books pertaining to his pet subjects (sailing, archaeology, myth, music); but Carey also notes that, in his later years he was drawn to a younger Faber author whose work bore little resemblance to his own - Kazuo Ishiguro.

Yet this is not (or not detrimentally) a critic's biography. Carey was born with his sleeves rolled up, and William Golding is tricked out with facts and practical details. We learn much about the to-and-froing of manuscripts between Golding and Charles Monteith, initially a junior editor at Faber & Faber, later its chairman, who saved Lord of the Flies from yet another rejection - the publisher's reader having pronounced it "rubbish and dull" - and who worked with Golding on all of his subsequent books. There seems to be nothing about Golding's life as husband and father or as schoolteacher, writer and star lecturer that Carey has failed to unearth, and he presents his findings with clarity. The book's errors are scant and minor - the names of the academics Denis Donoghue and Edward Mendelson are misspelled, and the travel writer Eric Newby is confused for the BBC producer and first winner of the Booker Prize, P H Newby.

Despite possessing all of the boring qualities of a decent, hard-working biography, this is also a subtly characterful book, alive with Carey's familiar habits and moods. I like the idea of the young Golding being "imaginative to the point of hallucination". The unobtrusive elegance of Carey's prose is a continual source of pleasure, and an especially valuable one in a book of this size. As ever, he is alert to any evidence of prissiness, prejudice and privilege. Golding's class credentials seem to have been as much a draw for him as the writer's literary achievements. Carey sympathises with, and even indulges, Golding's neurotic fixation with Marlborough College, the neighbouring public school when he was in grammar school - failing to see, as well he might, the overlap of chip-on-shoulder and albatross-around-neck.

Readers of John Carey's work are by now accustomed to his eccentricities, and forgive them on account of his numerous invaluable strengths. This book is rare among biographies of 20th-century novelists in doing an effective job of joining the life-dots to the art-dots. Over the course of more than 500 pages, Carey provides a credible account of why Golding wrote what he wrote. But the book will fail, I think, as a recuperation of Golding's less celebrated work, and as a revival of his reputation, on the unlikely grounds of being too good. Due to Carey's gifts as scholar and storyteller, and in spite of his best critical efforts, this is likely to be the second most enduring book with the name William Golding on the spine.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction critic.

William Golding: the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies
John Carey
Faber & Faber, 592pp, £25

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush