Darkness Visible, by William Golding

Golding is one of the few writers whose complete novels I’ve read, so now I’m getting around to re-reading one or two. From this perspective, his novels fall into 2 categories: those I can remember something about (The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Rites of Passage), and those I remember absolutely nothing about (Free Fall, The Spire, The Pyramid); – and, of course, Lord of the Flies, which I think we can give a category to itself.

Darkness Visible is one of those I remember nothing about. I had an idea it was notoriously obscure; and that Golding had taken no pains to elucidate it.

For someone whose complete works I’ve read, I’m still not sure how I consider Golding’s writings. He’s not a particular stylist; but I do find him an interesting writer. The last book of his I reviewed, I said that what I found interesting was his penchant for peculiar states of mind. And yet here, it is these parts of the book which I found least interesting (which I actually found quite annoying), perhaps because I didn’t really understand the states of mind he was describing (a problem too, I felt, with the Greek prophetess in The Double Tongue). At times I’m not sure I believe in what Golding is describing: the whole centre part of this book is about 2 sisters rebelling against society in the late 60s/early 70s; and I just don’t credit Golding, who seems a writer stuck anyway in the English society of the 40s/50s, with depicting this with any real attempt at sympathy or understanding. I’d almost say he’s a man who sees society around him changing (sixties culture, seventies terrorism, immigration) and doesn’t like it.

The treatment of race in this novel I found perplexing (and I come from a point of view where, for instance, I don’t find Conrad to be particularly troubling from the point of view of race), and I still don’t really know what I think about it. In every external scene, where a character is wandering around what I take to be a rural town, Golding makes a point of the fact that the crowds of people contain a lot of immigrants – referred to in various ways, but let us say as times using words like Paki and nignog. Now I’m not sure if this is the narrator’s view (there is no narrator character, but perhaps it is just an attempt to build a particular sense of the world), or if this is meant to be part of the characters’ views of a world changing around them (it’s certainly not clear if it is). The nignog, for instance, sees one of the sisters in a bar, and then follows her home, seemingly with the intent to rape her – and that’s his entire portrayal in the novel. – Was this all just standard fare in 70s England? (In English culture, it is a period which today has the character of being particularly racist). But I can’t off-hand think of any similar novel from any time or country.

Again, this may sound strange, but the most effective parts of the book, it seemed to me, were the sections about the paedophile schoolmaster – perhaps because they were the most human and were treated the most sympathetically by the writer. The intent of this is perhaps to make the other characters, in contrast, seem, though on the surface perfect members of society, to be less decent in comparison. Certainly I guess we’re in a world that’s lost its moral compass: everyone seems to have lost their way and be searching for something.

So yeah, it’s interesting in parts. And I haven’t even managed to mention the book’s main character (a half-burnt boy who suffers from celestial visions).

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