MAN BROOKER PRIZE 1980
Booker club: Rites of Passage
William Golding appears in uncharacteristically breezy form with his Booker winner. For a while
Wed 15 Apr 2009
Before reading Rites of Passage, I was curious to know how it had triumphed over both Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers and JL Carr's glorious A Month in the Country in the 1980 Booker. Now, I can only assume that it beat them up. This book is a brute. It's also a canny fighter, employing the most devious feints before landing its punches. Indeed, if it weren't written by William Golding, it would be easy to mistake the first 50 or so pages of Rites of Passage for a straightforward social comedy.
The early narrative takes the form of a journal that the young dandy Edmund Talbot keeps on the way to Australia – ostensibly to amuse and inform his godfather back in England. He fills his description of life on an old warship at the end of the Napoleonic era with witty observations on the (generally quite bad) manners of Talbot's fellow passengers, salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters. It's light, frothy and – apparently – pleasantly superficial.
True to Talbot's character and the nature of his undertaking, the journal reads like it has been written in haste. So it's no surprise to learn that Golding wrote the first draft of the book in just one month (while on hiatus from Darkness Visible) though the feat is no less astonishing for that. It takes a special kind of genius to be able to recreate such convincing early 19th-century prose so fast and with such elegance. A talent that takes on almost eerie qualities if one believes Golding's claim that he simply transcribed conversations he was hearing in his head to create the novel's fluid dialogue.
Yet this easy reading should not be mistaken for levity. Golding insisted in interviews that this book was "funny" and proved that he wasn't the "dreary old monster" he was often made out to be. But he was being disingenuous. For all its humour, Rites of Passage turns into a most disturbing book.
The main horrors relate to one Reverend Colley, who gradually begins to dominate Talbot's narrative. Initially, Talbot invites his reader to laugh at Colley – and it's hard not to. He is – as Talbot paints him – an absurd, obsequious man, ridiculous in his parson's clothing, his hacked-about haircut, his daft wig and his fawning over "gentlemen".
It's amusing when this religious butterfly is blown off the quarter-deck by the captain for unwittingly breaking the ship's standing orders. It's even funnier when Talbot sees him dead drunk, naked, "his mind only lightly linked to his understanding", crying out "joy, joy, joy" and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.
Then Colley dies of shame – starving himself after he remembers another, as yet mysterious, act he performed in his cups. The horrible feeling arises that we readers have also been implicit in his bullying and degradation.
Golding turns this screw tighter when he introduces Colley's own journal into the narrative. Talbot's coxcomb gone wrong is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man who is terrified at smearing the dignity of his office by wearing the wrong outfit and whose wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing.
Every laugh we've had at Colley's expense turns to ashes in our mouths, every indignity he suffered seems barbarous.
This narrative turnaround is a bravura display of writing skill, and the sense of dizziness is only augmented as he shows Colley suffered many other cruelties that Talbot failed to observe – or ignored. The brilliance of the whole is dulled slightly by a certain clumsiness surrounding the revelation of the details of the mysterious act that so mortified Colley – but by this late stage Golding has done enough to overwhelm us completely. So the final sentence lands like a steel-toed kick in the stomach to an already prone victim:
"With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon."