Darkness Visible


  Darkness Visible

  Table of Contents

  Title Page


  Introduction: by Philip Hensher

  Part One: Matty

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Part Two: Sophy

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Part Three: One Is One

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  About the Author

  By the Same Author



  Introduction by Philip Hensher

  Darkness Visible was the novel that gave Golding most trouble in the writing. Although it was published in 1979, Golding’s first thoughts about it are in his notebooks from 1955, as John Carey’s admirable biography records. It has two strands, which hardly touch each other in the finished work – the mystic progress of Matty from fire to fire, and the monstrous descent of the twins Toni and Sophy. Although they form a compelling unity in the final work, it perhaps took the experiences of disaster and destruction in the 1970s finally to bring these two disparate ideas together. It was the one book that Golding would never speak about; it is, in my view, his most powerful achievement.

  The late 1970s and early 1980s was an exceptional period in the English novel. The advent of high fantasy, the breakdown and spread of wild genre fiction, and the rise of burning questions about the state of what might have seemed a society in terminal collapse created an extraordinary series of novels in England. A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden and Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers were, in very different ways, trying to make sense of the experience of the century, and of the nation. Darkness Visible, published in 1979 at the end of a long period of murder and terrorism – the Aldo Moro case, the IRA’s shift of its campaign to the mainland, the Red Army Faction in Germany and many other national and transnational groups – tries to make sense of the terrifying breakdown of society, and settles, with unforgettable power, for a rendering of that breakdown.

  Matty emerges from a fire through which no child should be able to walk. What is he? But the powers that have created Sophy and Toni are still more atrocious, and only hinted at – there is an appalling scene when their father is asked ‘what he does’ and tells his daughter, with a breakdown of all decorum, ‘You want to know? You do? I masturbate.’ The fires that have created Pedigree and his dreadful passions, reaching, unknowingly, for some kind of redemption, remain mysterious. The strands of the novel barely touch. Towards the end of the novel, Matty finds Sophy’s ring, but to her he is only ‘the odd-job man . . . his awful face’. Fido, who works in the same school, ‘appeared never to have seen or heard of him’. Like Zadie Smith’s recent, magnificent NW, the formal separation of the narrative episodes render, in novelistic terms, the breakdown, in connection and sense, of society.

  The immediate question for the reader is ‘What is Matty?’ But at the end, we find ourselves asking what Sophy is, and what Toni. Matty’s surface is repulsive and shocking, but he, too, wants to find out what he is – is he an angel? Who does he speak to? Sophy and Toni’s surfaces are anything but shocking; they are beautiful, and their monstrosity goes unchecked and unexamined because of it. Society regards their beauty as alluring, and forgives it anything, until it is too late for forgiveness. ‘Beautiful young ladies’, Goodchild says, ‘are not generally considered to stand in need of an understanding of transcendental philosophy on the grounds that they exemplify in themselves all the pure, the beautiful and the good.’ Society gazes at their beauty like Pedigree looking at the beauty of small boys, not interested in what lies beneath – and the author of Lord of the Flies knew very well what could lie within even quite small boys. Society stands in the novel, happy to have its arms ‘full of the plastic roses on which it had not been thought necessary to imitate the thorns’. The twins, however, know what they are, and what is in their own minds: when one of them looks deep into blackness, even just an ink stain of no particular shape, she destroys a party – ‘that dreadful screaming and screaming!’

  In a suggestive passage, Sophy ridicules the shop manager who remarks ‘It’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it?’ when the date comes to 7/7/77. Those four numbers – ‘you could see them coming, and wave goodbye to them! It was the system.’ Similarly, the goodness and wickedness, the encounters between the utterly unlike – Sophy and Fido, Matty and Harry Bummer, Pedigree and the children – look like the product of chance, but are in reality unavoidable. You can see them coming, and it is the system. Where does the fate that determines the outcome descend from? That is a question Matty asks himself, as the fire organizes itself around him into a shape of flame.

  Darkness Visible, as John Carey rightly remarks, sounds preposterous in summary, but, experienced in full, is astoundingly compelling. The most extreme and bizarre of its events become plausible through the solidity of Golding’s imagining. It may not be very likely that a Sophy would experience a spontaneous orgasm through knifing her sexual partner, but the physical sensations of the flesh under the knife, and her bodily shudderings, are so powerfully conveyed that the novel has its way with us. It has an extraordinary rhythm; huge events like Toni departing for Afghanistan and being imprisoned for drug offences are despatched in a sentence or two. The writing has a hallucinatory, incantatory force which can approach Gertrude Stein: ‘Not understood, only one thing understood, the great slash he had made between the two of them, through what had not existed, oh no, could never have existed, and where there was severance, goodbye and good riddance, cruel and contemptuous act of will.’ And at the centre, there is the most fragile of human encounters: a man who has come through fire meets for a second two girls whose beauty wants only to destroy, and afterwards they veer away again, to death and exile. It is the most powerful, and strangest, of all William Golding’s novels, and one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth-​century English novel.

  Part One


  Chapter One

  There was an area east of the Isle of Dogs in London which was an unusual mixture even for those surroundings. Among the walled-off rectangles of water, the warehouses, railway lines and travelling cranes, were two streets of mean houses with two pubs and two shops among them. The bulks of tramp steamers hung over the houses where there had been as many languages spoken as families that lived there. But just now not much was being said, for the whole area had been evacuated officially and even a ship that was hit and set on fire had few spectators near it. There was a kind of tent in the sky over London, which was composed of the faint white beams of searchlights, with barrage balloons dotted here and there. The barrage balloons were all that the searchlights discovered in the sky, and the bombs came down, it seemed, mysteriously out of emptiness. They fell in or round the great fire.

  The men at the edge of the fire could only watch it burn, out of control. The water mains were broken and the only hindrance in the way of the fire was the occurrence of firebreaks here and there where fires had consumed everything on other nights.

  Somewhere on the northern edge of the great fire a group of men stood by their wrecked machine and stared into what, even to men of their experience, was a new sight. Under the tent of searchlights a structure had built itself up in the air. It was less sharply defined than the beams of light but it was far brighter. It was
a glare, a burning bush through or beyond which the thin beams were sketched more faintly. The limits of this bush were clouds of tenuous smoke that were lit from below until they too seemed made of fire. The heart of the bush, where the little streets had been, was of a more lambent colour. It shivered constantly but with an occasional diminution or augmentation of its brightness as walls collapsed or roofs caved in. Through it all—the roar of the fire, the drone of the departing bombers, the crash of collapse—there was now and then the punctuating explosion of a delayed-action bomb going off among the rubble, sometimes casting a kind of blink over the mess and sometimes so muffled by debris as to make nothing but noise.

  The men who stood by their wrecked machine at the root of one northern road that ran south into the blaze had about them the anonymity of uniform silence and motionlessness. Some twenty yards behind them and to their left was the crater of the bomb that had cut the local water supply and smashed their machine into the bargain. A fountain still played in the crater but diminishingly and the long fragment of bomb-casing that had divided a rear wheel lay by their machine, nearly cool enough to touch. But the men ignored it as they were ignoring many small occurrences—the casing, the fountain, some fantasies of wreckage—that would have gathered a crowd in peace time. They were staring straight down the road into the bush, the furnace. They had positioned themselves clear of walls and where nothing but a bomb could fall on them. That, oddly enough, was the least of the dangers of their job and one almost to be discounted among the falling buildings, trapping cellars, the secondary explosions of gas and fuel, the poisonous stinks from a dozen sources. Though this was early in the war they were experienced. One of them knew what it was like to be trapped by one bomb and freed by another. He viewed them now with a kind of neutrality as if they were forces of nature, meteors it might be, that happened to strike thickly hereabouts at certain seasons. Some of the crew were wartime amateurs. One was a musician and now his ear was finely educated in the perception and interpretation of bomb noises. The one that had burst the mains and wrecked the machine had found him narrowly but sufficiently sheltered and he had not even ducked. Like the rest of the crew he had been more interested in the next one of the stick, which had struck further down the road, between them and the fire, and lay there now at the bottom of its hole, either a dud or a delayed action. He stood on the undamaged side of the machine, staring like the others down the road. He was muttering.

  “I’m not happy. No. Honestly chaps, I’m not happy.”

  Indeed, none of the chaps was happy, not even their leader whose lips were set so firmly together. For by some kind of transference of effort from them, or by a localized muscular effort, the front of his chin trembled. His crew were not unsympathetic. The other amateur, a bookseller who stood at the musician’s side and who could never put on his wartime uniform without a feeling of incredulity, could assess the mathematical chances of his present survival. He had watched a wall six storeys high fall on him all in one piece and had stood, unable to move and wondering why he was still alive. He found the brick surround of a window on the fourth storey had fitted round him neatly. Like the others, he had got beyond saying how scared he was. They were all in a state of settled dread, in which tomorrow’s weather, tonight’s Enemy’s Intention, the next hour’s qualified safety or hideous danger were what ruled life. Their leader carried out within limits the orders that were sent him but was relieved even to tears and shudderings when the telephoned weather forecast indicated that a raid was impossible.

  So there they were, listening to the drone of the departing bombers, estimable men who were beginning to feel that though everything was indescribably awful they would live for another day. They stared together down the shuddering street and the bookseller, who suffered from a romantic view of the classical world, was thinking that the dock area would look like Pompeii; but whereas Pompeii had been blinded by dust here there was if anything too much clarity, too much shameful, inhuman light where the street ended. Tomorrow all might be dark, dreary, dirty, broken walls, blind windows; but just now there was so much light that the very stones seemed semi-precious, a version of the infernal city. Beyond the semi-precious stones, there, where the heart of the fire was shivering rather than beating, all material objects, walls, cranes, masts, even the road itself merged into the devastating light as if in that direction the very substance of the world with all the least combustible of its materials was melting and burning. The bookseller found himself thinking that after the war if there ever was an after the war they would have to reduce the admission fee to the ruins of Pompeii since so many countries would have their own brand-new exhibitions of the broken business of living.

  There was an episode of roaring, audible through the other noises. A red curtain of flame fluttered near the white heart of the fire and was consumed by it. Somewhere a tank of something had exploded or a coal cellar had just distilled out its own coal gas, invaded a closed room, mixed with air, reached flashpoint—That was it, thought the bookseller knowledgeably, and now safe enough to be proud of his knowledge. How strange that is, he thought, after the war I shall have time—

  He looked round quickly for wood; and there it was, a bit of lath from a roof and lying close by his foot so he bent, picked it up and threw it away. As he straightened up he saw how intently the musician was attending to the fire with eyes now rather than ears and beginning to mutter again.

  “I’m not happy. No, I’m not happy—”

  “What is it old chap?”

  The rest of the crew were also staring more earnestly into the fire. All eyes were aimed, mouths drawn in. The bookseller swung round to look where the others were looking.

  The white fire, becoming pale pink, then blood-coloured then pink again where it caught smoke or clouds seemed the same as if it were the permanent nature of this place. The men continued to stare.

  At the end of the street or where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world—at that point where the world had become an open stove—at a point where odd bits of brightness condensed to form a lamp-post still standing, a pillar box, some eccentrically shaped rubble—right there, where the flinty street was turned into light, something moved. The bookseller looked away, rubbed his eyes, then looked again. He knew most of the counterfeits, the objects that seem endowed with life in a fire: the boxes or papers stirred into movement by localized gusts of wind, the heat-induced contractions and expansions of material that can mimic muscular movement, the sack moved by rats or cats or dogs or half-burnt birds. At once and violently, he hoped for rats but would have settled for a dog. He turned round again to get his back between himself and what he was sure he had not seen.

  It was a remarkable circumstance that their captain was the last to look. He had turned from the fire and was contemplating his wrecked machine with the kind of feeling that kept his chin still. The other men drew his eyes to them by not meaning to. They turned away from the fire far too casually. Where there had been a whole set of eyes, a battery of them staring into the melted end of the world, that battery now contemplated the uninteresting ruins from a previous fire in the other direction and the failing jet of water in the crater. It was a sheer piece of heightened awareness, a sense sharpened by dread that made the captain look at once not where they were looking but where they were not.

  Two-thirds of the way down the street, part of a wall collapsed and spilt rubbish across the pavement so that some pieces went bowling across the road. One piece struck, of all things, a dustbin left standing on the other side and a metallic clang came from it.

  “Good God!”

  Then the others turned back with him.

  The drone of the bombers was dying away. The five-mile-high tent of chalky lights had disappeared, been struck all at once, but the light of the great fire was bright as ever, brighter perhaps. Now the pink aura of it had spread. Saffron and ochre turned to blood-colour. The shivering of the white heart of the fire had quickened be
yond the capacity of the eye to analyse it into an outrageous glare. High above the glare and visible now for the first time between two pillars of lighted smoke was the steely and untouched round of the full moon—the lover’s, hunter’s, poet’s moon; and now—an ancient and severe goddess credited with a new function and a new title—the bomber’s moon. She was Artemis of the bombers, more pitiless than ever before.

  The bookseller contributed rashly.

  “There’s the moon—”

  The captain rebuked him savagely.

  “Where did you think it would be? Up north? Haven’t any of you got eyes? Do I have to notice everything for everybody? Look there!”

  What had seemed impossible and therefore unreal was now a fact and clear to them all. A figure had condensed out of the shuddering backdrop of the glare. It moved in the geometrical centre of the road which now appeared longer and wider than before. Because if it was the same size as before, then the figure was impossibly small—impossibly tiny, since children had been the first to be evacuated from that whole area; and in the mean and smashed streets there had been so much fire there was nowhere for a family to live. Nor do small children walk out of a fire that is melting lead and distorting iron.

  “Well! What are you waiting for?”

  No one said anything.

  “You two! Get him!”

  The bookseller and the musician started forward. Half-way down the street the delayed-action bomb went off under a warehouse on the right-hand side. Its savage punctuation heaved the pavement across the road and the wall above it jerked, then collapsed into a new crater. Its instantaneity was dreadful and the two men came staggering back. Behind them the whole length of the street was hidden by dust and smoke.