Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
William Golding’s first novel – Lord of the Flies, 1954 – rapidly became a world success and has so remained. It has reached readers who can be numbered in tens of millions. In other words, the book was a bestseller, in a way that is usually granted only to adventure stories, light reading and children’s books. The same goes for several of his later novels.
The reason is simple. These books are very entertaining and exciting. They can be read with pleasure and profit without the need to make much effort with learning or acumen. But they have also aroused an unusually great interest in scholars, writers and other interpreters, who have sought and found deep strata of ambiguity and complication in Golding’s work. In those who use the tools of narration and linguistic art they have incited to thinking, discovery and creation of their own, in order to explore the world we live in and to settle down in it. In this respect William Golding can perhaps be compared to the American Herman Melville, whose works are full of equivocal profundity as well as fascinating adventure. In fact the resemblance extends farther than that. Golding has a very keen sight and sharp pen when it comes to the power of evil and baseness in human beings. He often chooses his themes and the framework for his stories from the world of the sea or from other challenging situations in which odd people are tempted to reach beyond their limits, thereby being bared to the very marrow. His stories usually have a fairly schematic drama, almost an anecdote, as skeleton. He then covers this with a richly varied and spicy flesh of colourful characters and surprising events.
It is the pattern of myth that we find in his manner of writing.
A very few basic experiences and basic conflicts of a deeply general nature underlie all his work as motive power. In one of his essays he describes how as a young man he took an optimistic view of existence. He believed that man would be able to perfect himself by improving society and eventually doing away with all social evil. His optimism was akin to that of other utopians, for instance H.G. Wells. The Second World War changed his outlook. He discovered what one human being is really able to do to another. And it was not a question of headhunters in New Guinea or primitive tribes in the Amazon region – he writes. They were atrocities committed with cold professional skill by well-educated and cultured people – doctors, lawyers and those with a long tradition of high civilization behind them. They carried out their crimes against their own equals. He writes:
“I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”
Golding inveighs against those who think that it is the political or other systems that create evil. Evil springs from the depths of man himself – it is the wickedness in human beings that creates the evil systems or that changes what from the beginning is, or could be, good into something iniquitous and destructive.
There is a mighty religious dimension in William Golding’s conception of the world, though hardly Christian in the ordinary sense. He seems to believe in a kind of Fall. Perhaps rather one should say that he works with the myth of a Fall. In some of his stories, chiefly the novel The Inheritors, 1955, we find a dream of an original state of innocence in the history of mankind. The Fall came with the motive power of a new species. The aggressive intelligence, the power-hungry self-assertion and the overweening individualism are the source of evil and violence – individual as well as social violence. But these qualities and incentives are also innate in man as a created being. They are therefore inseparably a part of his character and make themselves felt when he gives full expression to himself and forms his societies and his private destiny.
We come across this tragic drama in many different ways in William Golding’s novels. In Lord of the Flies a group of young boys are isolated on a desert island. Soon a kind of primitive society takes shape and is split into warring factions, one marked by decency and willingness to co-operate, the other by worship of force, lust for power and violence. The novel Pincher Martin, 1956, depicts how the main character, the narrator, is drowning. In his passionate absorption in himself he seems for a time to get the better of death. He does so by recounting his life, a life full of ruthless egoism and cruelty to others, a miserable life yet it was his and on no account does he want to lose it. He, the dead man, tries to make the rock to which he is clinging into a picture of himself. It is a weird ghost story, a fable of a will to live without shame or moderation.
In the novel Rites of Passage, 1980, the drama is enacted in the microcosm that the author arranges on a ship of the line at the beginning of the 19th Century. The book gives a cruel and drastic description of social barriers and aggressions on this ship, with an underlying black comedy and a masterly command of the characters’ various linguistic roles. The scapegoat – one of many in Golding’s works – is a priest who, naively trusting in the authority of his office, tries to assert his own dignity. He is subjected to outrages, each worse than the last, himself taking part in them, and ends up in such a desperate situation that he dies of shame.
All is not evil in the world of mankind, however, and all is not black in William Golding’s imagined world. According to him, man has two characteristics – the ability to murder is one, belief in God the other. Innocence is not entirely lost. There is a striving away from evil. This striving often goes astray in self-assertion and illusionism. But it is there nevertheless and is allied with something that is not merely human. In the novel The Spire, 1964, this striving is imbodied in a story about the building of a medieval cathedral. The builder is a priest who believes he has been ordered by God to build a spire that defies all reasonable calculations and measurements. His striving is both good and bad, containing the most complex reasons-humility and conviction but also arrogance, wilfulness and furtive sexual motives.
William Golding’s novels and stories are not only sombre moralities and dark myths about evil and about treacherous, destructive forces. As already mentioned they are also colourful tales of adventure which can be read as such, full of narrative joy, inventiveness and excitement. In addition there are plentiful streaks of humour, biting irony, comedy and drastic jesting. There is a vitality which breaks through what is tragic and misanthropic, frightening in fact. A vitality, a vigour, which is infectious owing to its strength and intractability and to the paradoxical freedom it possesses as against what is related. His fabled world is tragic and pathetic, yet not overwhelming and depressing. There is a life which is mightier than life’s conditions.
Dear Mr Golding,
In interviews and essays you have sometimes made fun of commentators who have tried to summarize what you have written in a formula and fit your outlook on life into some pattern or other. That is impossible – simply because if it were possible there would be no reason for you to write your books and – as I hope – to continue to write. So I have not tried anything like that. I have only given a few reflexions, a few reactions to some of your novels – in the hope of conveying to those who might not yet be familiar with your works a glimpse of the fascination and stimulation which they afford. My second task is to express the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
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