Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Rough Waters on the High Seas


William Golding's novel, Rites of Passage, bears all the marks of a classic tale, as befitting a book published much earlier than 1980. Experimental, it's not--and yet it packs a powerful old-fashioned punch.

In journal form, uneven narration from the rakish young social type, Edmund Talbot, focuses on the social and sexual verisimilitude of his fellow passengers in a gossipy, lighthearted way. Their ship forms a microcosm of English society, circa 1800, complete with all the rungs of social and authoritarian hierarchy.

At first we join in Talbot's rather flowery assessment of the ridiculous Reverend Colley, who looms larger and larger in Talbot's journal in the way a clown or an outcast can come to dominate the sensibilities of any group. Colley's all wrong: terribly lacking in social graces, yet absurdly eager to fit in. Colley's fate is sealed by his failure to appreciate the ship's rules, incurring the wrath of the captain, and his misplaced confidence in the power and dignity of his calling to grant him immunity from the rough society of the sailors on board. When the narrative switches to Colley's journal, Colley's version of certain events, known to us only through Talbot, flips our perceptions, as well.

It's a masterful piece of storytelling, although the theme is an old one. The veneer of civilization is thin. The rules are different at sea. And humans, given the chance, are just as likely to show their lower nature as any higher one they may possess.

Excerpt (from Talbot's journal):

However, in decency I could not back down now and I attended the service our little cleric was allowed to perform. I was disgusted by it. Just previous to the service I saw Miss Brocklebank and her face was fairly plastered with red and white! The Magdalene must have looked just so, it may be leaning against the outer wall of the temple precincts. . . . [But] when it was time for the service the candles of the saloon irradiated her face, took from it the damaging years, while what had been paint now appeared a magical youth and beauty! She looked at me. Scarcely had I recovered from the shock of having this battery play on me when . . . there entered to us--we standing in respect--five feet nothing of parson complete with surplice, cap of maintenance perched on a round wig, long gown, boots with iron-shod heels--together with a mingled air of diffidence, piety, triumph, and complacency.     

Note: I read this as part of the on-going quest to read all the Man Booker prizewinners, as well as for the Color Coded Reading Challenge and the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, and counted it as H (for "high seas") in the Where Are You Reading? Reading Challenge.  

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