Friday, February 26, 2010

Pincher Martin by William Golding (2)

In the post below I discussed Pincher Martin from a spiritual/philosophical viewpoint, but now I want to discuss it in terms of literature, because I think it is a finely written work.

A slight quibble first: I think it is padded and could have done with a damned good prune. I know it is poetic, and Golding’s poetic use of myth and metaphor is very good, but even so I think it is overdone here. In particular, the recurring references to a fire or a spark within Martin’s body, particularly during the early stages, are excessive and labour the message. Some judicious editing would have helped, as it would with the following infelicitous repetition:

For a moment and before he remembered how to use his sight the patches lay on the eyeballs as close as the darkness had been. p. 15

He remembered how eyes should be used and brought the two lines of sight together so that the patterns fused and made a distance. p. 25

In Golding’s interview with Baker, he makes the following observation:

If the story has any validity, any three-dimensional quality, then it must be susceptible to multiple interpretations. If it only had just one great message, why not write out the great message and not bother about writing the novel?

This is a fine observation, and yet to an extent it is something that Golding fell foul of. That isn’t to say that his work isn’t susceptible to multiple interpretation, as we shall see, but rather that he was often too didactic in describing it during interviews. He probably did himself a great disservice when he said of Pincher Martin, for example:

Christopher Hadley Martin had no belief in anything but the importance of his own life, no God. Because he was created in the image of God he had a freedom of choice which he used to centre the word on himself. He did not believe in purgatory and therefore when he died it was not presented to him in overtly theological terms. The greed for life which was the mainspring of his nature forced him to refuse the selfless act of dying. He continued to exist separately in a world composed of his own murderous nature. His drowned body lies rolling in the Atlantic but the ravenous ego invents a rock for him to endure on. It is the memory of an aching tooth. Ostensibly and rationally he is a survivor from a torpedoed destroyer: but deep down he knows the truth. He is not fighting for bodily survival but for his continuing identity in face of what will smash it and sweep it away-the black lightning, the compassion of God. For Christopher, the Christ-bearer, has become Pincher Martin who is little but greed. Just to be Pincher is purgatory; to be Pincher for eternity is hell.

This is too stark, too one-dimensional. In saying this, Golding strips away the mystery of his novel. He removes the possibilities for interpretation. In a sense, he was incapable of doing otherwise, for even within the fiction itself the author’s talent for didactism is inecapably present, and this is his greatest weakness as a writer. Golding is a thundering moralist and he cannot prevent himself from delivering his message. But for all that, such is his talent, there are moments of sheer brilliance. For me, the finest moment in the novel comes around half way through when Martin finally shakes off his indolence and goes about naming his environs:

“I call this place the Look-out. That is the Dwarf. The rock out there under the sun where I came swimming is Safety Rock. The palce where I get mussels and stuff is Food Cliff. Where I eat them is – The Red Lion. On the south side where the strap-weed is, I call Prospect Cliff. This cliff here to the west with the funnel in it is –


“I am netting down this rock with names and taming it. Some people would be incapable of understanding the importance of that. What is given a name is given a seal, a chain. If this rock tries to adapt me to its ways I will refuse and adapt it to mine.”

I think this is beautiful writing, and it is beautiful because it opens up the prospect of multiple interpretation. Remember, on the first reading of this novel you do not realise that Martin is already dead and in purgatory. You still believe this may be a story of human endeavour. And so his words here, his crazy and crazed attempt to give name to everything around him, can be interpreted two ways. Firstly, it may be the hubris of humanity: even in adversity, even when being conquered and defeated by nature, Christopher Martin feels compelled to try to claim dominion over it. This is, then, an act of hubristic folly, a classic example of flawed mankind.

Or, alternatively, it could be seen as a moment of human triumph, the victory of spirit over circumstance: here is a man reduced to terrible straits, but he attempts to maintain his humanity through the very human act of naming things, creating the comfort of familiarity out of the pain of shipwreck. It could be read as a tender moment of passage, a desperate attempt to survive, an example of the indomitability of the human spirit.

Ultimately, the fate of Christopher Martin (not to mention his hideous backstory, which has barely surfaced thus far) would lead you to suspect the former explanation is the more valid. Indeed, it is possible, even probable, that Golding never remotely intended the second interpretation. But it is there, nonetheless. This is the genius of fiction, the way it can be moulded by the experience of the reader. Reading is always a two-way process, and the input of the reader is just as important as that of the writer. Perhaps William Golding genuinely saw or intended nothing redeemable in his literary creation, Christopher Martin. But in that single episode where he tried to define himself by naming everything around him, it was there for all to see.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Tom - just to say how much I am enjoying your views on this book. Mulling, cogitating, and most certainly relating...

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi vanessa, glad you're enjoying my comments. Thanks for reminding me of the book and encouraging me to re-read it.