Monday, August 29, 2016

The Pyramid by William Golding

William Golding's 6th novel "The Pyramid" (1967) was his most autobiographical. In its three delineated sections the narrator Oliver retells stories from a childhood in a sleepy middle-class English village between the wars, though the date isn't obvious at first, particularly in the first story, and only becomes clearer throughout the novel. Though the stories are distinct, it does function as a novel, for this is the village seen through the prism of the life of one who is due to leave it.  The first story is the most clearly a Bildungsroman, as Oliver, at home at his parents preparing to go up to Oxford, struggles with an unrequited (even unannounced) love for the distant Imogen, already engaged to an older man, and is distracted by the earthier charms of the sexually alluring Evie Babbacombe. In the stratified society of the (aptly named) Stilbourne, both are impossibilities for Oliver. His family, with his father a pharmacist, are a solid middleclass, who strive to be acceptable in the company of the richer members of the village society; whilst Evie, her father the Town Crier, is an impossibility.

The action begins when Evie, who until that moment he has hardly noticed, calls on Oliver to help her out. She has been driven in a stolen car by his more worldly neighbour Robert, and the car has been driven into a ditch - apparently as they let the brake go whilst in the middle of a sexual tryst. The naive Oliver agrees to help and becomes embroiled in the complexities of Evie's life. For she works for the doctor as a receptionist, and in this role he sees her often. Yet Evie, a young girl - just fifteen -  blossoming into womanhood and becoming irresistible to the gaze of various men in the village, is not quite as she appears to Oliver's cloistered view. He can't see past the surface, and having seen that she may be "loose", he becomes obsessed with finding out - and in an uncomfortable scene rapes or sexually assaults her. The novel is all told from Oliver's point of view, and is a sometimes confusing story, as the various strata within the village are hard to contemplate from this distance. "The Pyramid" of the title is - according to a gloss I read online - the class system, but despite young Oliver trying to have a life within the all-seeing village, at the same time as pleasing his class-conscious and puritanical parents, and to arrange his own future as a chemist at Oxford (though part of him wants to follow musical leanings), these nuances seem overwrought in a novel that is written not in the 1920s where it is set, but nearly half a century later. The style is in parts that of a book of that earlier era, and one can't help but think of the cartoon village life of the Professor Branestawm books, or Miss Marple's English villages, where every character is a "somebody" - a doctor, a newspaper editor, a lord mayor or whatever. Yet this sepia tinted writing is not afraid to write about sex in a way that would have been contemporary, yet, because it's Oliver's sensibility, is still frustrating in its reticence.

The first story is the longest and only at the end do we uncover the truth of Evie's story, that it is Oliver who has been the perpetrator here, taking her virginity, but also ruining her reputation in telling tales about her. The young girl has been trying to keep safe in a world where men have become predatory, and had perhaps hoped for good Oliver to help her, but he ends up being responsible for her having to leave the village. The unreliable narrator returns a couple of years later to be co-opted into the village's opera society - an irregular performance that causes much acrimony in the village. Here its less musical or acting talent that enables the cast to assemble, rather their respective social status. A flamboyant, probably gay director has come down to help direct the musical, and Oliver is co-opted in for both his musical ability and to play a couple of walk on roles. This second story is played as farce, and yet with its am-dram theatricality is the least appealing of the stories. It seems corny and cliched, bearing in mind this is writing after Coward, after Orton. The farce is as much off stage as on. The now married Imogen is the lead by virtue of her social position, though we hardly heard of her after the first mention in the first story, and turns out to be unable to sing - a result that has turned the director to drink.

The third story redeems the novel in some ways, though its also perhaps the darkest. Returning to village in 1960 Oliver visits Henry the garage owner who now has a number of enterprises in the village, and finds out that "Bounce" his old violin and piano teacher has passed away. Bounce was mentioned in passing in that earlier story, but here we get the story told from the beginning, from when he first went for lessons aged about ten. The real story is that Bounce, a rich spinster, had the first car in the village, supplied by Henry who had insinuated him into her life, taking advantage of her attraction to him, to give himself a lift up. He brings with him a wife and kids who end up living at Bounce's house, her desire to be near Henry making her a bit of a dupe. Yet for all that, Henry always helps her, out of guilt, perhaps, or out of some filial love. This intrigueing relationship is again seen through our unreliable narrator's eyes, even worse, as a gossipy ten year old, he diligently feeds back inside information to his curtain-tugging mother. Bounce gets old, gets mad, and gets sent away. Her story is a tragedy, and in many ways the book is less about Oliver than about these small tragedies of lives lived within the exigencies of their place and time. Within Stilbourne every nuance is soon made public, and the stifling nature of "society" in a close community is clear, yet the outside world - to which Oliver and Evie both disappear into - and from which the opera director and Henry emerge from - is invisible.

I'd been meaning to read a lesser Golding for a while, but this proved to be a disappointment. Given that he's one of our few Nobel writers, I can think of few novels from that period - it was written in 1967 - that feel so tortuous to read. It's a very dated work even for that time. It inhabits the same world as novels by  Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble, but becauses its set in the 1920s it has a horribly quaint feel to it. The middle section is almost unreadable, a dated farce; whilst the opening section appalls more than a little as you realise that our narrator is the perpetrator in his lustful pursuit of misunderstood Evie. The final section, with its particular tragedy, is by some distance the best part, but even here, there's a sense of a private conversation ongoing. Clearly the work was an important one for Golding to get out of his system, but half a century on, it feels not so much a minor work by a great novelist, but a novel that makes one question whether beyond the originality of "Lord of the Flies" and "The Inheritors" he deserves to be remembered at all, and I wonder if he's one of those novelists that outside of that still popular debut, anyone still reads him? 


Ian said...

I am afraid I could not disagree more - this is one of my 6 top all time books and has been for 55 years. It is not as straightforward as reviewed here, with many of the 'conclusions' left to the reader. For instance, there is a suggestion that Evie was abused by her Father, or was she? Presented as a seductress throughout the tale it is only later that it is revealed that she is only 15, surprisingly, younger than the fictional writer. She proclaims him as a rapist to destroy his reputation in the small town - it is established early on that she had been having sex with someone else and indeed in their first sexual encounter when he reveals his shaft, her proclamation 'is all that for me' is not the reaction of an innocent. She later sets him up by using his sexual drive to get him to perform where his father is watching. I am unclear whether they have had sex already. It is a formidable representation of teenage sexual drive. It is all slight disjointed as several times you may go 'what.. where does that come from. Have I missed something' These short revelations completely change ones understanding of the story. A tale of a sleepy village it is gripping and I could not put it down even at my third reading after 55 years. Saying it is dated is like saying Dickens novels are dated because they are set in a different time with different moral attitudes. Reminiscent of 'Cider with Rosie', but with less of the English cosy pretty quaint tone, and a much harder look at real life. I think is a literary Masterpiece and his best book.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Well, thanks for your comments, and yes, I've seen that it is well regarded. Two points though. First, its dated not because it was written in the 1920s but because it was written in 1960s. Its a historical novel at time of writing. Reading it today for the first time maybe it seems particularly anachronistic, hard to tell. But compared to other 1960s novels - Fowles, Burgess, Drabble - it does feel very old fashioned. (For what its worth I found Cider With Rosie an excruciatingly dull book, but I only read it at school.) Secondly, we only have the narrator's sense of Evie's promiscuity. Surely the reveal later on is that it was her pretending to be promiscuous that is the issue, making his telling of the tale more tragic, as rape? It's one of the weakest novels I've read in the last few years, so though we all have different tastes, I'm not sure that it will outlast the curiousity of a few readers like me.