Free Fall by William Golding

5th May 2008     
  Jane Austen
  The Birds

When William Golding won the Nobel literature prize in 1983 there was much debate as to whether the award should have gone instead to Graham Greene, a writer whose reputation seemed to outrank all his contemporaries. With the benefit of hindsight the decision of the Nobel judges looks ever more sound: Greene was a towering figure in his time, but perhaps also too much of his time for them. Golding, on the other hand, wrote novels which have a more timeless character, rooted in the primal struggles of men’s souls.

His most famous book is Lord of the Flies, the story of schoolboys regressing into savagery deservedly bringing him to public attention, but for me his masterpiece is Free Fall. Written in 1959, it tells the story of Sammy Mountjoy from his humble prewar beginnings in the Dickensian sounding Rotten Row to his postwar status as an established artist. Along the way he experiences love, loss and all manner of reversals of fortune, and in the process of describing this Golding gives us a vivid portrait of England in the middle of the twentieth century. The key to the story, though, is Mountjoy’s belief that somewhere in his past lay an event which brought about a metamorphosis in which he changed from being an innocent child, graced with the gift of free will, to an adult constrained by the burden of his past.

To support and develop the narrative, the novel is given a structure which is essentially a brilliantly conceived prose poem, repeatedly striking out into new facets of Mountjoy’s life, and then circling obsessively back to the central question of when the fateful event occurred and he lost his existential freedom. And when we finally discover the truth we realise the premise on which the novel is based has a positively mythological resonance: the young Sammy carelessly scribbles a pencil sketch for his friend in a school art lesson and, without realising it at the time, is touched by the Muses. Only later, when he appreciates the scale of his achievement and is mortified by his art teacher’s stubborn – and knowing – refusal to credit him as the originator, does the reaction set in. He wants the glory due to the artist, the acknowledgement that he has created something which transcends the moment, and in due course he wants the girl who modelled for the portrait. He tries over and over to recapture the casual brilliance of that first drawing, but none of his subsequent efforts matches up to it. This is the moment when his childhood freedom disappears.

The scene has a mythological resonance: the infant Sammy exists in the sort of golden age in which the Greeks believed men and gods mingled freely, and in due course he receives a gift from them – the gift of art. But, as with all gifts from the gods, it inevitably turns sour: in pursuit of his destiny he eventually casts aside Beatrice, the girl in the picture, and robs her of her happiness. Far from opening up boundless possibilities, he finds himself trapped on the course he has set.

Many people have described Golding’s writing as pessimistic, but it was a label he disputed and he would probably have argued that he was simply a realist. The moral imperative which rules Sammy Mountjoy’s universe is the Greek notion of suffering into knowledge: without going through the fire there can be no true self knowledge, and without that knowledge we cannot see the world as it really is. The culmination of Mountjoy’s voyage of self discovery comes at the hands of the Gestapo’s Dr Halde where, in an experience which sadly seems rather tame compared with recent horrors inflicted by so-called civilised nations, his old self is swept away and a new being emerges. Stripped of all illusions he now finds that he can see with intense clarity, and what before was hidden is now revealed. It is a useful gift for an artist, of course, and in many ways he goes out into the world like an ancient prophet or seer, with the difference that his prophecies are delivered as drawings and paintings rather than words.

At the end of the novel we see where Mountjoy’s journey has led him – into a postwar England which is determined that the world will be a better place, free of the horrors of the recent past (though still haunted by them). Mountjoy’s personal circumstances match those of the country: he is now a successful artist, living a bohemian life far removed from his humble origins, and which mirrors the increased social mobility which followed the second world war. But he too is haunted by the past: very directly in his case when he visits Beatrice in a mental hospital, and is forced to acknowledge the part his actions played in her illness.

Free Fall has many of the attributes of a Greek tragedy, and in some ways it can be seen as an investigation built upon a tragic plotline. First we are presented with the tragic outcome – Sammy Mountjoy’s fall from innocence and freedom – and then we are asked to consider when it became inevitable that this would indeed be a tragedy. Unlike a classical tragedy, though, Mountjoy survives through to the end, and in fact enjoys what many would consider to be a somewhat enviable lifestyle. In this Golding is simply reflecting the reality of postwar Britain: the world really did become a better place – for people in the affluent West, at least – and for a while it looked as though it might just be the onset of a new golden age.

Golding, though, knows better – and this is where I think he has gained his reputation for pessimism, because he makes sure we understand the darker side to this world. Mountjoy, and all the others like him who came through the war and built a better life, have earned their new-found happiness through their past sufferings. They know this is no golden age and will hang on tightly to what they have because they understand the alternative. Later generations, however, born into this better world will treat it as a given, and in their carelessness will be in danger of seeing it slip through their fingers. Free Fall does not take the story into these later times, but other novels by Golding do, and one can see where he felt things were heading. Does that make him a pessimist or a realist?

Whatever one’s view of that question, and whether the mythological underpinnings of Free Fall are of interest or not, it is still worth reading for its own sake. It is a brilliant novel, perfectly paced and plotted, and with every phrase crafted with poetic skill. And, on top of that, it is superbly evocative of the times in which it is set. By anyone’s standards it is a masterpiece.

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