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Pincher Martin by William Golding

Pincher Martin (1956)

by William Golding

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When Golding won the Nobel (in the 80's?), I read several of his books. (Of course it seems that everyone has read Lord of the Flies as part of their schooling, but many of Golding's other novels are not as well-known.) Pincher Martin was one of the books I read then, and I didn't care for it, or, I now know, appreciate it. This time around I found myself liking it very much, and admiring Golding more and more.

Pincher Martin is an officer in the British Navy during World War II on a boat patrolling the North Atlantic. As the novel opens, the boat has just been torpedoed and Pincher is struggling for his life in the icy waters.

"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 or air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
When the arc had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place--burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt."

After seemingly hours Pincher finds himself clinging to a barren rock. Barely alive, he remains battered and inert. As he begins to recover, still frightened but no longer in an animal panic he thinks:

"I won't die.
"I can't die.
"Not me-----

And that's what this book is about--the will to live. Is that will in our body or in our mind? Do we have a core personality devoted entirely to our self-preservation? Can nature destroy that personality? This is not a Robinson Crusoe story, although we follow Pincher as he takes steps necessary to save his life--finding food and water, doing what he can to alert potential rescuers of his presence should anyone be searching. The entire book takes place in Pincher's mind, and frequently we don't know if Pincher is hallucinating; sometimes he himself does not understand his actions or where his body ends and his environment begins. When he is lucid he thinks logically:

---must keep body going--drink, food shelter;
---must expect to fall sick;
---must watch mind and not go mad;
---must help myself be rescued. Be visible.

He views his struggle as being his wlll against the rock: "You have no mercy, but you have no intelligence. I can outwit you. All I have to do is endure." Throughout his life on the rock, we learn of his prior life--his "personality" as evidenced by his actions and relationships, and we are left to ponder his actions then as they affect his actions now. This was a fascinating read. It just cannot be read as an adventure story, which is the way I tried to read it the first time around years ago. ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | Apr 25, 2017 |
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.

To read the rest of my review, and yes there are spoilers including The BIG ONE at the end, please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/01/30/pincher-martin-by-william-golding/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Jan 30, 2017 |
Golding does well to keep your interest in a book that basically has very little plot, and only one character to remain concerned with. Could have been a better short story, arguably. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
Wild, austere, and haunting, Pincher Martin is an easy book to admire and a hard book to love. I was most impressed with the way scene and style give way to scene and style, not ostentatiously or pastichewise, but: the panic of the water; the growing awareness of existential evil on the island; the sickening drop into the past and hallucination; the reemergence of the survivalist thread now as a clownish, tragic hero-narrative centered around Martin's efforts to, like, poop, or chase away crabs that are actually his hands (crabs are the worms of the sea, and I sort of got that before but never felt the horror of it till now--my kind of sailing isn't as high risk as being on a destroyer in the North Atlantic in World War II, clearly), to the twist ending that hits you in waves, like a burn that blisters only minutes or hours later. Fear giving way to fear.

Another thing I really admired was the rendering of hallucination and insanity--so often we romanticize or exoticize it, making it something almost psychedelic in the succession of colourful freudian whatsit--but it strikes me that in "real" life it would be a lot more terrifying and a lot less satisfyingly symbolic--sick horror at the realness of the unreal, at the return of the darkest parts of the past, at your own responses, with moments of ironical humour at what you've become, floating flotsam that you cling to never long enough. It also strikes me suddenly, obviously, that the reason we go insane when we're on our own long enough is probably just to have some company. If at all possible, read this on the water. ( )
3 vote MeditationesMartini | Aug 6, 2012 |
OMG.......this book; forget the flies; i was affected viscerally for weeks ( )
1 vote markalanlaidlaw | Apr 10, 2012 |
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He was struggling in every direction, he was the center of the writing and kicking knot of his own body.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Pincher Martin" was also published as "The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin".
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 057106809X, Paperback)

'Pincher Martin' is an elemental adventure story, a tale of frightening suspense. It is also, as all great literature must be, a story of man's ultimate struggle - not so much with fate and death as with himself. Pincher Martin , sole survivor of a torpedoed destroyer, is miraculously cast up on a huge barren rock in mid-Atlantic. Pitted against him are the sea, the blaze of day, the biting cold of night - and the almost unimaginable isolation of one man alone facing ever-present, unpredictable death.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:45 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Drowning in the freezing North Atlantic, Christopher Hadley Martin, temporary lieutenant, happens upon a grotesque rock, an island that appears only on weather charts. To drink there is a pool of rain water; to eat there are weeds and sea-anemones. Through the long hours with only himself to talk to, Martin must try to assemble the truth of his fate, piece by terrible piece. From the author of Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin is a terrifying and unforgettable journey into one man's mind.… (more)

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