Friday, 20 October 2017

Book Review: Darkness Visible by William Golding tales like The Beauty and the Beast should have prepared us for the fact that in life appearance often deceives. And yet, we all tend to neglect this ancient wisdom judging the world and especially people by what we see or otherwise perceive instead of taking a good look under the surface. Thus we can be deeply shocked at recognising that something beautiful is fundamentally evil and stunned at finding good in the ugly. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so easy to distinguish the one from the other because there are many shades between the light of Heaven and the dark of Hell. The hell of Darkness Visible by William Golding is a very human one. Starting in the inferno of World War II the novel tells the story of disfigured Matty with a mystical vocation in life and the beautiful twins Sophy and Toni who turn to crime or terrorism respectively.

William Golding was born in Saint Columb Minor (today part of Newquay), Cornwall, England, U.K., in September 1911. He studied at Brasenose College in Oxford changing from Natural Sciences to English Literature after two years. In 1934, he made his – widely unnoticed – literary debut with a volume of Poems and then became a teacher like his father. During World War II William Golding served in the Royal Navy and resumed teaching as well as writing only in 1945. He penned three novels, before Lord of the Flies (1954) was published (after 21 rejections!) and the success allowed him in 1962 to give up teaching for good. The most notable of his novels are Pincher Martin (1957), Free Fall (1959), The Pyramid (1967), Darkness Visible (1979), and Rites of Passage (1980), the first book of the sea trilogy To the Ends of the Earth completed by Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989) after the author received the Nobel Prize in Literature 1983. Another late novel worth mentioning is The Paper Men (1984). Knighted in 1988, Sir William Golding died in Perranarworthal, Cornwall, England, U.K., in June 1993. The draft of his final novel The Double Tongue (1995) was published posthumously.

The opening scene of Darkness Visible is set in London during one of the many German bomb attacks of World War II. The firemen hardly believe their eyes, when they see a child striding out solemnly, as it seems, from blazing ruins that they believed to have been evacuated in time and where no living creature could be expected to have survived.
“[…] He was naked and the miles of light lit him variously. […] The brightness on his left side was not an effect of light. The burn was even more visible on the left side of his head. All his hair was gone on that side, and on the other, shrivelled to peppercorn dots. His face was so swollen he could only glimpse where he was going through the merest of slits. […]”
The boy, who is given the name Matthew “Matty” Septimus Windrove in hospital, bears years of painful treatment with almost saintly patience, but his disfigured face and strangely quiet nature upset people. At the Foundlings School at Greenfield he is an eyesore to his teacher Mr. Pedigree who has a fancy for beautiful boys. To silence rumours about paedophile abuse, he asks detested Matty to his room for private lessons after school, the next morning, though, his current favourite is found dead below the fire-escape. Mr. Pedigree goes to prison, while Matty gets a job and grows into a man without hope to ever establish a fulfilling relationship to a woman. To overcome his desires, he studies the Bible and moves to Australia. After several years in search of his identity and meaning in life, he returns to England where he has visions of two spirits.
“Tonight I asked them why they brought me before them out of all the people in the world. They showed: You are near the centre of things. This was what I had always thought but as I felt the pride of it I saw them both much dimmed. So I hurled myself down inside, down as far as I could and I stayed like that. But they went away, or as I should say, put me from them. […]”
The spirits tell him to go to Greenfield and accept the first job that is offered him. Thus he becomes a handyman at exclusive Wandicott House School a little outside town. Meanwhile, the far from identical twins Sophia “Sophy” and Antonia “Toni” Stanhope pass their childhood and adolescence in the care of their indifferent father. They are highly intelligent and breathtakingly beautiful, but they turn out selfish and ruthless. When Sophy plots to kidnap the son of a rich oil sheik with her criminal lover, Matty’s fate moves towards its fiery completion…

The title of Darkness Visible is inspired by a line from John Milton’s evocation of hell in Paradise Lost and most appropriately, it deals with the eternal fight between Good and Evil impersonated by Matty and Sophy respectively. It’s little wonder that it’s a very complex and symbolic novel that not only leaves much room for interpretation, but also needs attention to read and time to sink in. With the exception of Matty’s journal entries, the narration is written in third person from the point of view of the protagonist of the respective scene. It consists of three seemingly quite separate parts. The first focuses on Matty’s life well into his thirties and on the constant descent of paedophile Mr. Pedigree after his release from prison. The second part is dedicated primarily to Sophy although her twin sister Toni is present too if not always in person, at least as idea or reflection. In the third and final part the fates of the protagonists and of some secondary characters merge into one dramatic story fitting well into the 1970s with its mysticism, sex, crime and almost-lunacy. It’s also a dense novel in a powerful language that is rich in images.

Being unfamiliar with the work of John Milton, I couldn’t associate Darkness Visible by William Golding with a vision of hell when I picked it. I hoped, however, that this late novel of the author would be more to my taste than his chef-d’œuvre Lord of the Flies, a book that I started reading several times in the past thirty years without ever getting beyond the first page. I’m glad that I gave Nobel-Prize-awarded William Golding another chance because this one turned out a really impressive and engaging read. Admittedly, I was too short of time to plunge into it with the care needed to see and understand at least the most important aspects of the multi-layered and highly symbolist story. Still I found much to think about even on the surface, and then, there’s a captivating plot too. Certainly, it’s not a novel that everybody will like, but I did and therefore I recommend it.

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1 comment:

  1. In 2008 I made it through Lord of the Flies for the second time, after being forced to read it in school.
    Here is what I thought: "I was made to read this book in school. All I remember is that it upset me a great deal and I felt that I was put through something against my will. This time, I did not find it as gruesome, being older and wiser I suppose. I was drawn in to the story and, since I had no recall of the ending, I was eager to find out what happened. I did not like the way it ended, but it was his first novel so I gave him a break.

    What I somehow didn't know is that Golding got the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983 and also won a Booker in 1980. Now I must decide if I want to read his other novels. Oh yes, the theme? Brute force and meat eating win the day over intelligence and planning."

    I did decide to read his other novels and so far have also read Pincher Martin ( and Free Fall ( I like Golding. He is not like anyone else. I have this one on my 1979 list. I will get to it one day. I like your review.


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