Pincher Martin is a most disconcerting book. First published in 1956, it was William Golding’s third novel after his wildly successful debut novel Lord of the Flies (1954) and while it likewise depicts the human condition in extremis it is not, as Wikipedia describes it, merely a novel that records the thoughts of a drowning sailor.
To explain why, I need to depart from my usual practice and consider the plot, spoilers and all. You have been warned…
I read the first few pages both enthralled and appalled: the third person narration describes the desperate struggle of a sailor fighting for his life in the cold waters of the Atlantic. The blurb had told me that he was the sole survivor of a torpedoed destroyer and I could hardly bear to read his frantic efforts to breathe:
He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place – burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. He hutched his body towards the place where air had been but now it was gone and there was nothing but black, choking welter. His body let loose its panic and his mouth strained open till the hinges of his jaw hurt. Water thrust in, down, without mercy. Air came with it for a moment so that he fought in what might have been the right direction. But water reclaimed him and spun so that knowledge of where might be was erased completely. (p.1)
Even knowing from the blurb that he ends up stranded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic didn’t alleviate the power of this prose to make me think the sailor was going to drown. (It reminded me of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide where Aljaz Cosino is a river guide, trapped in The Cauldron on the Franklin River as the water rises). Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin’s struggle to clamber onto the rock is epic, as you can see that it would have been, from this 1943 RAF photo of the rock with waves breaking over it. (Golding himself might have seen this rock during his war service in the Royal Navy; it would be an unforgettable sight even from a distance, as I’m sure most prudent navigators would have ensured it was). I am indebted to a reader at Goodreads for the discovery that this rock is thought to be Rockall, and to Wikipedia for its exact location between Ireland and Iceland, which makes it clear just how icy the waters would have been.
Not knowing at the time of reading just how small this rock actually is, I breathed a sigh of relief that Martin wasn’t bashed to death against it.
He went under into a green calm. The sea no longer played with him. It stayed its wild movement and held him gently, carried him with delicate and careful motion like a retriever with a bird. Hard things touched him about the feet and knees. The sea laid him down gently and retreated. There were hard things touching his face and chest, the side of his forehead. The sea came back and fawned round his face, licked him. He thought movements that did not happen. The sea came back and he thought the movements again and this time they happened because the sea took most of his weight. They moved him forward over the hard things. Each wave and each movement moved him forward. He felt the sea run down to smell at his feet then come back and nuzzle under his arm. It no longer licked his face. (p.18)
But his troubles are just beginning. He is badly injured from being hurled against the rock by the waves, and he is exhausted. His clothes of course are soaked, and he is freezing. He has to climb from where the waves have deposited him to higher ground and his hands are too cold to feel his way with handholds in the rock. He has nothing in the way of resources, just a knife, his lifebelt and his oilskin. He has to find some source of food and water, find something in the way of shelter, and deal with the threat of his own madness brought on by his total isolation.
And all this is utterly convincing. Even as Martin’s mind deteriorates under the stress and loneliness of his situation, Golding makes it completely real, and what’s more, he sets up the reader who has to juggle empathy for Martin’s ghastly predicament with the revelations through his fractured memories that he is actually a truly horrible person, guilty of dreadful crimes and utterly unrepentant even now that he fears for his life.
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
And then there is the final chapter which tells us that Martin’ body is being recovered to take back to the mainland. The text makes it clear that Martin drowned as soon as he hit the water and that there was never any hope of his survival.
Mr Campbell took his eyes away from the stretcher.
“They are wicked things, those lifebelts. They give a man hope when there is no longer any call for it. They are cruel.” (p. 222)
The reader is utterly baffled by this turn of events…
Philippa Gregory in the Afterword puts it like this:
This is an afterword, rather than a foreword, because any study of this extraordinary novel has to consider the ending: the most important section in the novel. Read at their simplest, the final pages are a ‘twist in the tail’ like the playful reverse of a traditional short story, but these pages are far more than this: they are a shocking revelation to the reader that the whole novel has been an illusion of the narrator Pincher Martin. In place of illusion we suddenly see a snapshot of the real world, and a suggestion of what has really taken place.
The ‘twist’ is the total inversion of the story. We readers thought that we were reading a story about survival, in which the survival of the material world, of the mind and body of a profoundly materialistic man whose very nickname, ‘Pincher’ implies grabbing, is the drama and chief concern. It seems to be a novel rather like one of the earliest novels ever written: Robinson Crusoe – a novel about marooning and survival. Shockingly, in the last pages we learn in a few brutal phrases that the story was not, as we thought, about life, but was all along about dying a death so fast that the narrator did not even have time to kick off his seaboots and swim, but was dragged down to drown, and the story which we have followed was nothing more than his last anguished thoughts, as drowning men are said to have. (p.225)
Like Philippa Gregory, who freely confesses that it is a very puzzling novel, I found aspects of the story very confusing indeed, even as I found it utterly compelling in its vivid depictions of Martin’s delusions. Like her, I found one reading inadequate, and like her, I found two were not enough. I’d love to hear from other readers who have tackled its mysteries.
William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.
Author: William Golding
Title: Pincher Martin
Publisher: Faber & Faber, Faber Modern Classics edition, 2015, first published in 1956.
Review copy courtesy of Faber & Faber via Allen & Unwin Australia