Tuesday, July 7, 2020

William Golding’s initial struggles as a writer

Friday last week I was at Carrefour and in its book section there was this sale of books (I guess the same remainders that has got publishers in India worried about their future; what to do? Even Borders in the US has filed for bankruptcy!). In the sale, you could buy a book for eight dollars or buy three of them for twenty dollars. I had bought three books a day earlier (had to let go of a nice edition of a cookbook by Padmalakshmi; she had some fabulous portraits of herself in there), so I was just browsing at the stalls, hoping to find a hidden gem or maybe learn a thing or two before I went off and finally bought some bananas. 

There was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well (yes, just for eight dollars!). I read a few passages and decided it was not a book for me (and I could borrow it from the library any way if I ever wanted to put myself through another Ulysses). I don’t ‘get’ American novels, and thank God I’m not an American. Imagine the guilt of not being able to enjoy and be impressed with the great American novel, Freedom (as Time would have us believe). But I must clarify that just like Rushdie’s, I love Franzen’s non-fiction. 

In the pile of books, there was a memoir by one of Norman Mailer’s assistants (or was he a cook?). The book described how he was picked up by Mailer, how much he revered the man, his daily life, likes and dislikes, and so on. I realised that this book was also not for me. I have no plans to become famous or nasty or both. Flaubert had lost the desire to be famous after he had lost his sister and father. By God’s grace I have a healthy clan and the desire to be famous has gone quietly, without any loss. 

Allow me a little digression here. Two years ago when I shared with a fellow writer (quite senior to me) that I was suppressing my ego and letting go of my desires (including the one to be famous–it sounds so vain and foolish, doesn’t it?), he looked at me aghast, as if I was denying myself some ice cream after a dinner in a desert summer. What’s wrong if one wanted to be famous? he said. It demanded a long explanation and perhaps even a dive into metaphysics and religion (I wish he could understand this simple line from Pyaasa: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai!). I didn’t want to explain anything to him, so I just smiled and let the matter pass.

Now, back to the book sale. Interestingly, during the search, I found this biography of William Golding–hardcover, in great condition. The moment my eyes fell on the book, I knew it would be in the library. So, there was no need for me to buy a personal copy. However, I looked at the book’s contents. There was a chapter on his struggling years. I read it right there and found it very interesting. It is instructive for those who don’t know the value of perseverance. 

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s publishing breakthrough. Before that novel was published, school teacher Golding had written two novels. Both were rejected by London publishers. His second novel was rejected by Jonathan Cape but the rejection had come with some comments. That’s why Golding sent his Lord of the Flies (it had some other title then) manuscript to Jonathan Cape hoping they would like the new one. It was also rejected. Cape suggested Golding to show the manuscript to Andre Deutsch. He did but there too he faced rejection. He sent it to some more publishers in London but the result was always the same (Zindagi, chuka jo tu, haath mein sifar).

Golding then realised that maybe he needed an agent. He wrote to Brown Curtis. They rejected him. He wrote to some more agencies, all without any success. 

When he sent the novel to Faber & Faber in 1953, a reader there put an R (rejected) on the manuscript along with a nasty remark on how the book was too dark. The book would have remained in the pile of rejections and unpublished if not for an Oxford gentleman, Charles Monteith.

Charles was only three months old at Faber (he is known to have discovered many great writers in his career). Charles picked up the tattered Golding manuscript from the pile of rejects and began to read it. He found it so interesting that he took it home. In the next editorial meeting he fought for the book. He succeeded and after a time met Golding. In his original version, Golding had opened the book with descriptions of a nuclear war. Charles wanted him to change it (he suggested some other changes too). Golding totally took out the nuclear war chapter. Finally, the book was published in 1954 to great success.

In this back story, Golding shows great persistence. Isn’t it encouraging? It is very important for a writer to believe in his work and do whatever possible to get it published, unless you are Javier Bardem’s father in Vicky Christina Barcelona but that is another story and I will write about it the next time.

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