The Paper Men
The English writer William Golding – third in The Times 2008 list of ‘great British writers since 1945’ – needs no introduction, though I suspect that his 1984 novel The Paper Men might. The Paper Men was one of his late novels, published before the last two books from the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth (1987, 1989) and a posthumous novel, The Double Tongue (1995). Golding published 13 novels, though it is his first that everyone knows. Let me pass you the conch if you want to comment on any of Golding’s earlier works.
I found The Paper Men in a second hand bookshop in Katoomba and read it on the recommendation of a university professor after he had read a chapter of my current creative work in progress. Frank Kermode, reviewing The Paper Men in 1984, described it as ‘a concerto for piccolo.’ I am not usually in the business of quoting reviewers, but this is Kermode, and I am still trying to figure out what to make of the principal character, the alcoholic genius writer, Wilfred Barclay. Kermode sums up the tale and its range as the ‘meditations of a witty ruined immoral old writer, having to accommodate it to his sense of farce and his egotistic solitude and his coarseness.’ William Golding’s daughter Judy Golding, in introducing the novel, described Golding’s fear of becoming the subject of literary biography as ‘being mummified’. The novel she interprets as Golding covering his own sarcophagus with ‘silly drawings and rude words’. Golding’s Barclay takes on the post-structuralists head on. Not the passive ‘Death of the Author’, but the struggle to the death of self as author.
The novel opens in a farcical scene in which Barclay wakes in the night after a late drinking session to find a young American academic, Rick L. Tucker, ransacking his bin for secrets so that he might kick-start his literary biography on Barclay. Barclay is enraged: among the papers is evidence of an affair his wife would rather not acknowledge – beside the obvious betrayal of Barclay’s hospitality in hosting the American in his house. This is the beginning of the end of Barclay’s marriage and the start of his life on the road. He moves first to Italy where for a time he lives with a new woman until he is turfed-out. Soon after, he meets Tucker and Tucker’s beautiful wife in a Swiss mountain resort, where Tucker stages a fake rescue of the writer in an attempt to win over the rights to his private papers. Barclay escapes, and from here travels incognito and indulges in all sorts of immorality, staying away from England and – ostensibly – Tucker. To go much further than this would sum up the whole plot: this is a cat-and-mouse novel with a writer trying to escape his biographer, and take control of his future representation by whatever means possible.
Patrick White’s The Vivisector is one portrait of the artist as an unpleasant man, and White includes some interesting chapters later in the book when Hurtle Duffield has had a stroke and must learn to paint, and speak again. In Chapter XI of The Paper Men, Barclay is similarly struck down in a church, recovering and writing about his attempt to ‘relearn a foreign language, the one I am using now’ (126). Perhaps both White and Golding search for sympathy when great artist are so brought low. Around this point, Golding becomes more self-reflexive, with Barclay writing at the start of Chapter XII, ‘I haven’t the heart or courage to reread that lot’ (the previous chapter). Weighing up an unpleasant character, an unreliable narrator, a ruthless academic – I wondered about my professor’s recommendation. Did my manuscript suggest these features? I turned back to my notes and remembered that we were discussing the destabilisation of frames; the lack of mooring; debates between writers and academics – the sort of argument Kermode may have relished. There is plenty of that in The Paper Men. It isn’t a pleasant book, but then again, whoever said that the role of fiction was to provide solace? Tucker writes ‘I dissected myself into various portions that were once held together by the steel string’ (128). Not Pig’s head on a stick, then, but the writer's own, as the flies buzz, circle and gather.