29 March 2010

Ur-Story: Straight, No Chaser

Can a pedophile priest inculcate a true sense of religion in a young boy? Can the son of a whore grow up to have a real moral sense? Who makes a better, truer friend: a fierce, but equal rival or a cunning sycophant? If your catechism teacher is a horrible, mean bitch, can she nevertheless serve as a guide for your spiritual formation? If your science teacher is a wondrous humanitarian, does that necessarily mean he can show you the meaning of life—or the way to escape from the oppressive materiality of existence? If you seduce a shy, virginal, Christian girl and then dump her out of lust for a Communist slut, do you bear any guilt? What if she eventually goes insane? Does being a great artist make you a great person? Does being successful mean being good? Can the individual find salvation under the torturous boot of tyranny?

These are the sorts of questions William Golding sets for himself in his novel, Free Fall (1959).

For many of us, William Golding's first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), was required reading in high school or college. And deservedly so. His vision of the conflict between savagery and innocence in our social nature was powerfully dramatized in this adventure of a group of boys shipwrecked on a deserted island. "Soon a kind of primitive society takes shape and is split into warring factions, one marked by decency and willingness to cooperate, the other by worship of force, lust for power and violence." (Sound vaguely familiar?)

Lord of the Flies is, at base, a novel about human society, allegorical according to most. It has the same currency, roughly, as George Orwell's 1984 for describing contemporary politics. Anyone who has played on an organized athletic team or worked in a corporate culture or been even peripherally involved in politics knows what Golding was getting at in this ripping good yarn—a close cousin of Robinson Crusoe.

Though it is by far his most famous and popular novel, it may not be his best or most important. I want to look at another of Golding's novels, Free Fall, in this post. Less a social novel, Free Fall is an ethical story of one man's coming to grips with his own humanity.

Free Fall is a novel of superior craft. Yet it has no plot. Except for a few summary pages at the beginning and the short last chapter, the entire novel seems to take place in a pitch dark mop closet in a Nazi POW camp. The only action, it seems, is in the mind and memory of one Sammy Mountjoy.

The frame story is that of a man reflecting on the key events of his life that led him to his current situation in the hope that these putatively random anecdotes will reveal his soul not only to himself, but to us, his readers.

Sammy, a prisoner of war, keeps trying to answer the simple question: "When did I lose my freedom?" (5) Technically (literally, that is), he never really answers that question, for we never find out quite how he got captured by the Germans, learning only that he was a British captain during the war. [This, I think, is the great technical flaw in this otherwise tightly-structured novel—its failure to resolve the 'objective correlative' of Sammy's physical imprisonment.] However, the question quickly morphs into the metaphorical crisis of free will: "Free-will cannot be debated, but only experienced, like a colour or the taste of potatoes." (5)

Sammy Mountjoy is an artist whose work hangs in the Tate. During the war, as a POW he is subject to psychological torture and the threat of physical torture if he does not betray what he knows of an escape plot by other officers. He claims he does not know, or has forgotten, so the camp's torturer, a psychiatrist in civilian life(!), has Sammy locked in a mop closet pending his eventual physical torture. Sammy, as he explores his tiny cell like a Beckettian protagonist, must decide whether to inform or not. And the stress and terror of impending torture and pain and possibly death causes him to examine his life.

Sammy explores a series of choices that define who he has become beginning with his birth and early years in Rotten Row, a London slum. His tremendous talent, and pure chance, leads him out of these straits and into the guilt-ridden arms of the Church. He receives an education, but ultimately rejects the Church for the Communist Party. No external system is sufficient.

Golding sets up a series of structural oppositions at every turn for Sammy along the lines of the questions I posed at the top of this post. Sammy makes his ethical choices and must live with the consequences. As such, the novel has a schematic feel (spiritual vs. material): What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What does it mean to be a physical being? To be complete, you need both; but because you are a fallen creature, you cannot have both. The best you can hope to do is to connect with another fallen being. Yet, even though the urge to communicate, to connect with an Other, is the aim of our fallen existence, it can only be imperfect.

This is Sammy's ultimate reason for writing down his 'memoirs'. He says:
"It is the unnameable, unfathomable and invisible darkness that sits at the centre of him [Sammy Mountjoy], always awake, always different from what you believe it to be, always thinking and feeling what you can never know it thinks and feels, that hopes hopelessly to understand and to be understood. Our loneliness is the loneliness not of the cell or the castaway; it is the loneliness of that dark thing that that sees as at the atom furnace by reflection, feels by remote control and hears only words phoned to it in a foreign tongue. To communicate is our passion and our despair.

"With whom then?


"My darkness reaches out and fumbles at a typewriter with its tongs. Your darkness reaches out with your tongs and grasps a book." (8)

Deep calls out to deep. Our communion (communication) must of needs be imperfect for we are fallen creatures, yet we must of needs make the effort.

Many reviewers have noted the autobiographical aspects of this novel—excluding, of course, the POW aspects. Those do not interest me. Sammy Mountjoy, proxy for Sir William Golding, Nobel Prize winner, reaches out to us from the darkness of his cell—from the darkness of his Self. Though the form of the communication (this novel) is structured, even schematic, its rationality is in service of its spiritual aim: the examination of our fallenness. And, to Golding, in this sense, the novel is the most spiritual art form.

In his 1983 Nobel acceptance lecture, he had this to say about the novel (in general):
"Even the novel, if it climbs into an ivory tower, will find no audience except those with ivory towers of their own. I used to think that the outlook for the novel was poor. Let me quote myself again. I speak of boys growing up—not exceptional boy, but average boy.
"Boys do not evaluate a book. They divide books into categories. There are sexy books, war books, westerns, travel books, science fiction. A boy will accept anything from a section he knows rather than risk another sort. He has to have the label on the bottle to know it is the mixture as before. You must put his detective story in a green paperback or he may suffer the hardship of reading a book in which nobody is murdered at all;—I am thinking of the plodders, the amiable majority of us, not particularly intelligent or gifted; well-disposed, but left high and dry among a mass of undigested facts with their scraps of saleable technology. What chance has literature of competing with the defined categories of entertainment which are laid on for them at every hour of the day? I do not see how literature is to be for them anything but simple, repetitive and a stop-gap for when there are no westerns on the telly. They will have a far less brutish life than their Nineteenth-Century ancestors, no doubt. They will believe less and fear less. But just as bad money drives out good, so inferior culture drives out superior. With any capacity to make value judgements vitiated or undeveloped, what mass future is there, then, for poetry, for belles-lettres, for real fearlessness in the theatre, for the novel which tries to look at life anew—in a word, for intransigence?"

I wrote that some twenty years ago I believe and the process as far as the novel is concerned has developed but not improved. The categories are more and more defined. Competition from other media is fiercer still. Well, after all the novel has no build—it claims on immortality.

'Story' of course is a different matter. We like to hear of succession of events and as an inspection of our press will demonstrate have only a marginal interest in whether the succession of events is minutely true or not. Like the late Mr. Sam Goldwyn who wanted a story which began with an earthquake and worked up to a climax, we like a good lead in but have most pleasure in a succession of events with a satisfactory end-point. Most simply and directly—when children holler and yell because of some infant tragedy or tedium, at once when we take them on our knee and begin shouting if necessary—"once upon a time" they fall silent and attentive. Story will always be with us. But story in a physical book, in a sentence what the West means by "a novel"—what of that? Certainly, if the form fails let it go. We have enough complications in life, in art, in literature without preserving dead forms fossilised, without cluttering ourselves with Byzantine sterilities. Yes, in that case, let the novel go. But what goes with it? Surely something of profound importance to the human spirit! A novel ensures that we can look before and after, take action at whatever pace we choose, read again and again, skip and go back. The story in a book is humble and serviceable, available, friendly, is not switched on and off but taken up and put down, lasts a lifetime.

Put simply the novel stands between us and the hardening concept of statistical man. There is no other medium in which we can live for so long and so intimately with a character. That is the service a novel renders. It performs no less an act than the rescue and the preservation of the individuality and dignity of the single being, be it man, woman or child. No other art, I claim, can so thread in and out of a single mind and body, so live another life. It does ensure that at the very least a human being shall be seen to be more than just one billionth of one billion."
Free Fall threads us in and out of the events in the fictional life of Sammy Mountjoy William Golding has deigned to commit to paper. It is, as it tells us, an act of communication, ultimately an unalloyed spiritual act. And that is its art.

1 comment:

Frances Madeson said...

Didn't I say you were golden, Jim? or did I dream it?