Pincher Martin

I came to read William Golding’s Pincher Martin (San Diego: Harvest Brace Jovanovich, 1956) yesterday in rather a strange way. My first opportunity to read Golding was in Grade 7 or 8, when we were supposed to read Lord of the Flies, which curriculum writers always suppose will be interesting to young readers because of the age of the antagonists, but which is too psychologically complex for most preteens to understand and enjoy. I was a constant reader at that age, but I was bored enough by the first few pages that I left the rest of it unread, bluffing my way through test as I almost always did.

It was not until after I had graduated from my second literature degree and was reading more or less promiscuously for my own enjoyment that I ever read one of Golding’s novels, The Spire, which I liked so much that I went back to read Lord of the Flies, Darkness Visible, and The Pyramid, in that order. By that time I had exhausted my appetite for Golding and moved on to something else without having read Pincher Martin, and I might never have read it if a friend had not lent me a book, called something like The 100 Best Fantasy Novels, just before I was to teach an offering of my Fantasy Literature course last year. As I usually do when I cannot find enough time to read something thoroughly, I just photocopied the table of contents and the bibliography, which listed all of the books in any case.

Making this photocopy was one of those seemingly insignificant actions that produces entirely unexpected results. I started reading some of the novels from the list, avoiding those that seemed simple sword and sorcery novels, selecting those with authors I had enjoyed previously and those with copies readily available in my local used bookstores. Some failed to impress me very much, but some of them have become favourites: Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell (Frogmore: Panther Books, 1972), Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (London: Sphere Books, 1986), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), and several others. Pincher Martin was also on the list, and I had even added it to my list of books to purchase on LibraryThing, but I had never had the chance to buy it.

On Thursday evening, however, my regular ballhockey night was cancelled, and since I was already at that end of town, I stopped by Sunrise Books. There, sitting atop the first stack of books I saw, was Pincher Martin. I bought it, read a few pages at a local coffee shop, then spent most of yesterday finding space to read it between parenting and cooking and raking the yard.

It is one of those books that has an ending that should not be spoilt, so I will refrain from spoiling it, but it begins as an account of a sailor whose ship is torpedoed and who finds himself on what is little more than a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. The novel describes his efforts to survive on the island and intersperses this account with flashbacks to his previous life, but its primary narrative is clearly the progression in the sailor’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual condition. Confronted with his past life, his current situation, and the decision that connects the two, he comes to see himself as the last maggot in a tin box, the one who has eaten all the others to become the biggest and the fattest. He begins to see the rocks of his miniature archipelago as teeth in a mouth that is somehow his own. He begins to project various figures from his life, real and imagined, onto the statue he has constructed. In short, he begins to go mad, or perhaps to believe that he is mad, or perhaps to be lead into the belief that he is mad.

The writing is typical of Golding: intense and imagistic, surreal and troubling, but also beautiful. His sentences are often long, full of clauses and subclauses, rhythmic. I found myself wanting to read the prose aloud, so that I would not rush through the linguistic quality of it in my eagerness to follow the sense of the narrative. I think a reading of the book is benefited greatly from this kind of slowness, is able to immerse itself in the richness and the intensity of the prose, in the sense of reasoned madness that pervades the story.

What impresses me most about the novel, however, is a quality of Golding’s that I have never really been able to articulate. When I finish one of his novels, I am certainly stimulated intellectually and narratively, but many novels provide this same kind of stimulation for me. With Golding, I also come away feeling what might best be described as spiritually troubled, or conflicted, or disquieted. I am always less able to look into myself with equanimity. I am always forced to confront possibilities in myself that I would rather leave unconfronted. Pincher Martin does this unnervingly well. It confronts us, or it does me, with our own possibilities, and it is this, I think, that recommends it more powerfully than any other quality.

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