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I have just finished Rites of Passage, the first book in Golding’s trilogy,To the Ends of the Earth. In these books, he is writing about the same world as that so ably described by Patrick O’Brian, in his wonderful series of books about the Royal Navy in Napoleonic times, and some have suggested that the comparison is damning to O’Brian. Golding is a great writer, and his work is completely engaging, but I do not find it so much better than O’Brian’s work.

Quite the contrary.

Of course, it could be that Golding is so very dark and discouraging–constantly harping on the wickedness of man–as opposed to the more sunny and affable O’Brian. Golding appears to despair of mankind, and does not find anything admirable in his characters–he does not seem to like them. Or anything else. He does not welcome in the reader. Perhaps it is exactly this quality that gives readers the feeling that this is great literature–that it is harsh and unforgiving? In Rites of Passage, there is the further distancing from the reader that comes from the device of the antique journal –the book purports to be a journal of a passenger in the early 1800’s, and not only is the language carefully archaic, but the actual look of the text has an old-fashioned aspect. It is very well done, and no one can deny that it is the work of a master. It is undeniably worthy reading.

But, I will never read it 5 times over, as I have the O’Brian books. O’Brian’s world is vastly wider and full of fun. It comforts me in times of sorrow. His nimble and fluent language–so witty, so learned–continues to charm. His love for and delight in his characters shines through all the books. Golding’s sour vision, on the other hand, I find grim and repellent.

Perhaps that is more a judgement on me than on Golding, however. As I have said before, when a book and a head collide, and one of the sounds hollow, is it always the book?In any case, I shall persevere through the other 2 books in the trilogy! Excelsior!

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