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During William Golding's evening reception, he described the January 1988 gathering of 76 Nobel laureates in Paris, brought together to cast "new light on the 21st century." Of the five areas of study, Golding's was 'culture and society'. That evening in Malaysia, he quipped that the arts, as determiners of culture, could not compete with McDonald's. His comment hit me. Why? A common journal entry from my Malay students expressed their desire to take a bus to Kuala Lumpur, visit the huge new shopping mall, languish in its air conditioning, and eat at McDonald's.

"You've been wanting to visit KL," I said in my Indiana composition classes the day after the reception. "Join me Saturday morning at the British Council to hear William Golding." I hoped a few might show up. None did. But three of my Petaling Jaya students were there. I also taught at a private college, one instituted because Chinese and East Indians did not have the advantage of the government's scholarships, despite their high scores on national exams. Malaysia's affirmative action was unique, a program designed to benefit the two-third majority Malays. My PJ students were male and female in equal numbers: bright, cheeky, and eager to engage topics that Malay students shunned, such as the fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie, or the epidemic of hysteria among Malay females in residential schools and factories. One PJ student who showed up that morning at the British Council aspired to be a 'grade one thinker'; and Chang had with him his marked mimeographed copy of Golding's essay! The large room in the white colonial building (now no more) filled quickly; and I and my students were lucky to get seats together.

In 1989, I did not have an impression of Golding, which a cursory read of the internet might give today: of an "abnormally, thin-skinned" writer, whose personal literary preoccupation was an "inherently evil world." This was not the writer who addressed his audience that morning. His deep concern was "our" impoverishment of the only planet we have; and he spoke freely and passionately about his ecological beliefs. When he finished speaking, the audience was asked to submit written questions. The trio with me looked pleased when I waved at the fellow passing out cards. Then a British Council spokesperson on the dais silently read the submitted cards before handing a few to Golding. He read them, drew one, and laughed. What question had I asked the famous writer? How he envisioned engaging McDonald's in promoting the arts. He explained that 'this' question required backstory about a meeting in Paris of Nobel laureates. Yet why not a poem on every McDonald's tray, or in every bag and box?

The 'grade one thinker' beside me applauded Golding's idea, and the audience joined in. Buoyed by this response, Chang asked if I thought Golding would sign his essay. And that morning, Sir William did sign it with a bemused smile. While greeting his admirers, he appeared vital and healthy. Then four years later, in 1993, William Golding died from a heart attack.

For so many years from 1967 until 1978, I taught Lord of the Flies. At the time I did not know about the novel's countless rejections, that an editor at Faber and Faber called it "dull rubbish." But Golding was fortunate. A new editor at Faber, Charles Monteith, saw promise in the novel; and through eleven novels he remained William Golding's editor until the author's death.

Four summers ago, when my grandson was ten, I read Lord of the Flies aloud to him. He "got" the characters quickly: Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon. He had met all of them on playgrounds in several schools, especially the demonic bully, Jack. Now in real life Jack is no longer on William Golding's imaginary island. Jack eats McDonald burgers in D.C. and plays golf on his courses in the USA, the UK, and Ireland. What would Sir William say about the President who gutted the Environmental Protection Agency, as if the EPA were a pig in Lord of the Flies?

  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A bit daft my utterance to the knighted Nobel laureate that 1988 evening in Malaysia during a reception in his honor. Few women were there, those present garbed to the feet, and me in three-inch heels and a dress that exposed my legs, daring to join a few men near William Golding. I was forty-five, face not too time ravaged, body fit from daily competitive tennis in Kuala Lumpur (KL). I remember Sir William's bemused look at my greeting. Pleasantly flirtatious, he matched his Nobel photographs: gray bearded and balding, a bit red-faced, though not from drink that evening since the reception was one without liquor, given its location at an Islamic university.


A woman I knew from a book club, whose husband was on the faculty, had asked if I would like to attend the event. Ah, one of life's conjunctions! At the time my composition classes had just read Golding's essay, "Thinking as a Hobby." For years in secondary schools I taught Lord of the Flies, then later used some Golding essays with college students. I knew of the writer's background as a teacher before his literary success. And I assumed he was the cheeky adolescent narrator of "Thinking as a Hobby," the provocative essay I gave my Malay students at Indiana University's program outside KL, where I taught from 1987 to 1990.


"That essay has been anthologized all over," Golding said, waving a hand as if asking others to give us a few minutes alone. Who was I teaching and how had the students responded to "Thinking?" I said my students were mostly rural and male, interested in math and science, studying in country for two to three years before transferring to American universities. Then I added, speaking softly, that a vice of religious indoctrination clamped most of their heads. Which is why I had given the students his essay and pasted a drawing of Rodin's famous sculpture on the last page. A man came over and said it was time for Sir William to speak. Before turning to leave, he asked if I knew he was delivering an address at the British Council on Saturday morning. Might I bring a few students and we could continue our conversation then. And I did…


To be continued…but let me add this now. Yesterday I reread "Thinking as a Hobby" (easy to find on the internet) and I also enjoyed reading William Golding's 1983 Nobel Prize speech. I smiled when he asked his illustrious audience in Sweden that he "be excused a touch of frivolity." He obviously excused mine!


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Early yesterday, July 26th, I reread a novel that I taught often in Napa Valley during the 1970s, and which later I read with my daughters. On Sunday, I once again loved Knowles' novel, beginning with its insightful statement on page one ("the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought") to the novel's long final sentence on 204 about Phineas.

Thinking back to last week's Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield recounts recent events from a hospital bed in a mental ward, describing experiences without understanding what they mean. His sarcasm does accord with what narrator Gene Forrester says in A Separate Peace, that "sarcasm is the protest of people who are weak." Yet Gene, unlike Holden, has the vantage point of fifteen years to understand his "sarcastic" years and the story that begins the summer of 1942. Upon returning to Devon, a boy's school modeled on the author's own, Phillips Exeter Academy, Gene unravels what happened in 1942-43, when he caused an accident that leads eventually to the death of his best friend, Finny.

I must add something here. In the past, no student (or daughter) ever told me, " I don't want to read about rich white boys in a prep school during WW2." They might have added: At least there are girls in Catcher! Not a girl in A Separate Peace. Only a few "old" marginalized female nurses and mothers. There is a cast of "boys," named in the fashion of Charles Dickens: Leper, Quackenbush, Brinker, plus others. But I will not discuss them or summarize the story.

The question is: Why read this novel?

For the heart…and because the core of A Separate Peace is a four-letter word. One of the seven deadly sins, which does not give a rat's ass (as Holden might say) about class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or culture.

What is the word? ENVY, a spark that sets fire to the human heart, as Dante wrote. And envy appears impervious to whether someone is in the dark forest of adolescence, middle-age, or even decrepitude.

Gene tells us, fifteen years after the fact: "I was not of the same quality as he (Finny)." These words in 1942-43, were spoken from envy. Fifteen years later they are Gene's acknowledgement of "something ignorant, crazy, and blind" inside him, and in us. In the late 1950s, Gene knows from experience that wars are not made by generations and their special stupidities, but by something ignorant in the human heart. Only later, as a grown man, can Gene see his tragic flaw: the certainty that Finny's actions were rooted in rivalry and envy, which kept Gene from trusting Finny and believing in his friend's inherent innocence and goodness.

Ah, Phineas! An unforgettable character: his joy in movement, a continuous flowing balance in his body before the accident, his joyful abandonment of rules, his naked exposure of honest emotions, his crazy Blitzball, in which there are no winners or losers, his Winter Games and their choreography of peace, his belief that what's in the heart is what counts, and the added commandment in his personal decalogue: To never accuse a friend of a crime if you only have a feeling about it. To his core Finny believes, "when you really love something, then it loves you back in whatever way it has to love." Gene's ignorant, blind heart at sixteen can only repay Finny with Envy's impulsive spark on the limb of a fateful tree on a small river near Devon.

Two poems came to me early Sunday morning, related to Finny. I felt that John Knowles knew well A.E. Housman's, "To an Athlete Dying Young," "carried aloft and stricken" like Finny. The other poem was a simple one from Langston Hughes.

I loved my friend

He went away from me

The story ends

Soft as it began

I loved my friend.

But in reciting these words, I remembered a telling line at the end, when Gene says," I could not use the past tense," for Finny.

It is not loved. Finny lives in present tense. And that is true for me, too.


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