Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pincher Martin by William Golding

"So long as I can want these things without finding the absence of them unendurable; so long as I can tell myself that I am alone on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic and that I have to fight to survive--then I can manage." 
One of Martin's hallucinations is that his hands are lobsters
We all read Lord of the Flies in school, didn't we?  Ah, those days when the best possible joke was to say "Sucks to your assmar!" to a fellow student.  Reading Lord of the Flies was maybe the first occasion when I really understood what the teacher was going on about when she talked to us about "symbolism."

Well, here is another novel by British writer William Golding, 1956's Pincher Martin. I found this Capricorn edition (CAP 66) at Half Price Books among their ever-fascinating selection of old paperbacks.  Lord of the Flies was about shipwrecked kids, you will recall--well this baby is about a shipwrecked naval officer!  (Golding served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and much of his fiction involves the sea.)

Pincher Martin is no easy read!  Most of it feels long and slow, as Golding describes in detail every single thought and every smallest action of the protagonist, Lieutenant Christopher Martin, the only survivor of a torpedoed destroyer that was on convoy duty.  In the first three chapters Martin, dazed and exhausted, drifts on the waves, then is washed ashore onto a small rock island and drags himself out of the surf onto dry ground.  Golding devotes many words, paragraphs and pages to each sight, sound and sensation of our poor sailor: the pebbles crushed to his face, the cry of a gull overhead, the tide lapping at his legs, and on and on.  Here's a taste from page 32:
As the eyes watched, a wave went clear over the outer rock so that they could see the brown weed inside the water.  The green dance beyond the pebbles was troubled.  A line of foam broke and hissed up the pebbles to his feet.  The foam sank away and the pebbles chattered like teeth.  He watched, wave after wave as bursts of foam swallowed more and more of the pebbles and left fewer visible when they went back. 
Golding chronicles each agonizing inch of Martin's progress, which gets kind of tedious after a while.  Things get a little more engaging around page 50, in chapter 4, as Martin regains much of his faculties and does things more interesting than crawling. He hunts the island for water and food, and we hear all about his foraging efforts-- there is no real vegetation on the island, nor are there any land animals, so Martin has to resort to eating things like raw mussels and poisonous anemones.  Yuck!  He piles up rocks to act as a beacon, and we read all about each stone he adds to his man-like cairn, which he calls "the Dwarf" because it is only three feet tall.  He even tries to make, in hopes of alerting aircraft to his location, a giant "X" out of seaweed.  Most alarming are the scenes in which Martin, who says to himself, "I haven't had a crap in a week," contrives a way with the scanty equipment he has available to give himself an enema.  Yuck again!

Relieving the monotony here and there are Martin's unbidden thoughts of his past life, which he thinks of as "film-trailers."  These manifest themselves, for us readers, as brief flashbacks to his Royal Navy service and his civilian career and relationships. The Martin we learn about is not an attractive character!  Before the war he was a mediocre stage actor and an unsuccessful writer, as well as a total jerk off!  A womanizer, he slept with his friends' and colleagues' wives, and used threats to get women to succumb to his lust.  Hypocritically, he was violently jealous when a friend married a woman who had rejected him.  Ruthless and callous, Martin was not above putting his friends in physical danger to achieve his petty desires (like winning a cycle race) or even plotting the murder of that guy who married the girl he had an unrequited crush on!

On this blog I have expressed my interest in naval warfare and my preference for literature about human relationships, so you won't be surprised to hear that my favorite parts of Pincher Martin are these flashbacks; the protagonist's service on a warship, difficult sexual relationships and remarkably caddish behavior are a lot more interesting than his efforts to collect molluscs or push rocks up an incline.

In the last quarter or so of the book Martin loses his struggle for sanity and is overwhelmed by hallucinations.  He comes to think the Dwarf is an old woman and/or a reflection of himself, and he has a spirited dialogue with this apparition; this oblique and opaque conversation seems to be about free will, religion and the afterlife:
"You gave me the power to choose and all my life you led me carefully to this suffering because my choice was my own.  Oh yes!  I understand the pattern.  All my life, whatever I had done I should have found myself on that same bridge, at that same time, giving that same order...."
The final chapter, chapter 14, reveals that there was never any island, never any mussels and anemone diet, never any MacGyver enema (if only I could forget it!) Martin, we learn, died almost immediately after his ship was hit by that German torpedo.  Those two hundred pages we just read were all a split-second dream (like in "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge"), or perhaps Martin's experience of cleansing in Purgatory or punishment in Hell.  "Because of what I did I am an outsider and alone" Martin realizes on page 181.

As you can see, the back cover of my edition of Pincher Martin is covered in accolades from respected individuals and institutions.  Dare I disagree with these august judges?

Most of the books I talk about on this here blog I am eager to read.  When I'm washing the dishes or driving the Toyota Corolla or watching the TV with the wife I am wishing I was, or am at least looking forward to, reading my current book.  But reading Pincher Martin felt like a chore, a task to be put behind me.  (U. of Sheffield students, I feel your pain!)  I don't feel like I can really recommend a book which I saw more as an obligation than a pleasure.

But let's look on the bright side: the book is obviously a well-crafted piece of art, a sort of machine made up of components that work closely and smoothly with each other, and numerous of these components are interesting and memorable.

I liked how Golding addressed the mind-body problem.  Note, in the quotation from page 32 above, the odd locution "the eyes watched...," as if his eyes have a separate, discrete existence apart from Martin.  When Martin talks to himself we get lines like "His mouth quacked" and "The mouth went frantic."  From the beginning of the book Golding stresses the distinction between a person and his body, again and again describing Martin's movements in such a way that we think of his body as a sort of vehicle*:
There was a noise by his left arm and water scattered across the look-out. He made the exterior face turn into the wind and the air pushed against the cheeks.
*Vehicles are a theme of the novel, and Martin commits all his worst sins while steering a vehicle, be it an automobile, a cycle, or one of His Majesty's destroyers. 

The "true" Martin is an entity, sometimes called "the centre," that lives inside his skull and looks out at the world through the "windows" of his eyes or the "arches" of his eye sockets.  Near the end of the book (page 176 of the 208 pages of text in this edition), this body-mind distinction is made explicit: "I was always two things, mind and body.  Nothing has altered.  Only I did not realize it before so clearly."  This strong distinction between the soul (though Golding never uses that word) and the body, a distinction that is customarily made by religion and dismissed by science, bolsters the theory that the island is Martin's Hell or Purgatory.

Also memorable is an extended metaphor involving a creepy bit of cuisine attributed to the Chinese.  The Chinese chef is said to bury a fish in a box; the fish is devoured by maggots, and when the fish is gone the maggots eat each other until only one huge maggot is left.  In this metaphor for our lives on Earth, Martin sees himself as one of the last maggots, a way of justifying his crimes.  

Maybe I can recommend Pincher Martin to all you hardcore modern literature types. This is a novel ripe for dissection by grad students in the humanities.  You could contrast it with the optimistic Robinson Crusoe, in which Western man with his ingenuity masters the natural world.  (In the afterword to this edition E. L. Epstein argues that the novel is about Nature overcoming Man.)  You could do a psychological analysis of Martin (there are vague hints of something that happened to him in his childhood, maybe in a basement.)  I've already mentioned the religious and philosophical angles.  There are also women's studies and queer studies angles--we learn about Martin's character largely through how he treats women, and there is a passage in which the phallus is described as a sword which made me wonder if Martin had been exposed to or had participated in some kind of homosexual abuse--the theatre and the Royal Navy are famously associated with buggery, aren't they?

I'd be exaggerating if I said I enjoyed reading Pincher Martin, but reading it and ruminating on it is an experience I do not regret embarking upon, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.


  1. Just finished reading this book and I found it somewhat confusing. Your post really cleared some things and I really liked your observation about the cars! I might do a small essay on the identitary evolution between Robinson Crusoe and Pincher Martin, thanks for the idea.

    1. I'm glad my little project here proved to be a worthwhile read for you! Good luck with the essay!