A Moving Target
William Golding made his most profound impact on English literature with his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), which, after a slow start, vied in popularity with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s among students in England and America. Widely taught in high school and college courses, it has achieved the status of a “modern classic.” Since 1954, Golding has published seven additional novels, the best known of which are The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956), and The Spire (1964), and three novellas. The essays collected here, the second collection of fugitive reviews and articles he has published, are the restful meditations and descriptions of a writer who no longer has to prove himself. It is not really ungenerous to say that these pieces, pulled together from various public lecture performances, reviews, and articles for travel magazines, would never have been bound between hard covers had they not been written by William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies. This is not to say they have little to recommend them; it is simply to call them what they are—miscellaneous leftovers that justify publication in a single volume because they are by one of the “grand old men” of English letters, who, in 1983, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A Moving Target is divided into two sections, one entitled “Places,” which is made up primarily of travel articles, and the other entitled “Ideas,” which consists mostly of lectures Golding has delivered in America, France, England, and Germany. The travel articles begin with two brief and lyrical “home pieces” about Golding’s native Wiltshire and his affection for cathedrals, especially those two closest to him, Winchester and Salisbury. The dedicated student of Golding, looking for grist for the thesis mill, will find here an underlying basis for much of Golding’s fiction—his love of the prehistory of a place, a love which makes Wiltshire so appealing to him, for it has a time scale to compete with Egypt; Stonehenge is only one manifestation of the ages that lie beneath his native soil. In Golding’s description of Salisbury Cathedral, students will also find sources for his novel The Spire, and discover more about his typical British fascination for the antique, which he claims results from the belief that mana resides in the original stones and that old churches are full of this magical power.
A more traditional travel piece is “Through the Dutch Waterway,” in which Golding recounts a trip he made with his wife and a friend on his old (vintage 1896) converted oyster smack through the canals of Holland and across the Zuider Zee. In this long article, Golding evokes the sights, sounds, and colors of a culture in the familiar manner of the literary travelogue. He describes with real admiration the Dutch as they wrest land from the sea and takes a true lyrical delight in this “pastel country that seems woven of light itself.”
Two companion pieces in the travel section of the book, “Egypt from My Inside” and “Egypt from My Outside,” are Golding’s most personal travel articles, for Egypt has haunted his imagination since he was a child; it still does, for one can find references to Egypt in the most unlikely comparisons in other places in this book. Golding says that since the age of seven, he has been fascinated with Egypt; at that early age, he wanted to write a play about Egypt but then realized that his characters must speak ancient Egyptian and thus set himself the task to learn hieroglyphics. “Egypt from My Inside” is a meditative, imaginative, and lyrical essay in which Golding tries to explain his fascination with the pyramids, with the notion of time stopped forever. The center of the piece is a vivid account of an event that took place when he was a child and went to a museum to look at a mummy. The episode involves a kindly curator who allows the young Golding to assist him with the close examination of a mummy. It is only at the end of this fascinating tale of a boy’s dream come true that one discovers that it did not happen, that it was a vivid hallucinatory fantasy.
“Egypt from My Inside” was included in Golding’s earlier collection of essays, The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (1965), and is reprinted here to serve as a prefatory piece to “Egypt from My Outside,” a more recent article describing his actual trip to Egypt. The contrast is a striking illustration of the difference between romance and realism. In this latter piece, much space and concern is taken up with Golding’s difficulties (as quoted from his journal of the trip) in finding suitable rooms, with his claustrophobia in climbing up inside the pyramids, and with the imposition of beggars and throngs of peddlers. No one is more aware than Golding himself of the contrast here between his imaginative notion of Egypt and its reality; he concludes with his admission of the “quaintness of going to a country of forty million live Egyptians and expecting to confine your attention to the work of half a million dead ones.”
Many readers will prefer the “Places” essays in A Moving Target for their specificity and for the lyricism of the concrete experiences described. Many other readers, however, will find these pieces too ordinary and will instead prefer the second half of the...
(The entire section is 2234 words.)