Cantles

Frank Kermode

  • A Moving Target by William Golding
    Faber, 202 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11822 4

William Golding is evidently a bit fed up with being the author of Lord of the Flies. It was greeted with proper applause when it came out in 1954, but soon became the livre de chevet of American youth, and, worse, a favoured text in the classroom in the years of the great boom in Eng Lit, when a sterile popular variety of the New Criticism was encouraging all manner of dreary foolishness; whereupon the cognoscenti turned away, and called the book naive. Yet it was indeed a noble and a novel performance, to be followed in quick succession by two even more remarkable books, The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956). Suddenly famous, the author was now compelled to satisfy public curiosity by giving interviews and slogging round the lecture circuit. The powerful, idiosyncratic voice came through again – always on new and unpredictable subjects – in Free Fall (1959) and The Spire (1964). But there was less excitement than before, and also the rate of production slackened. In 1972 there were, among the three novelle of The Scorpion God, two of Golding’s best things, exhibiting his extraordinary blend of intensity and remoteness, that central inexplicitness within the explicit for which he is always trying. And Darkness Visible, three years ago, seemed to indicate a continuance of the old powers, perhaps augmented (as sometimes happens) by an audacity that comes as a grace to some artists in old age. Like Matty, hero of Darkness Visible, in his happy time, Golding holds that there is nothing hid which shall not be manifested, and nothing kept secret but that it should come abroad. He will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world, as many of them as he can: for this is what he takes novels, like parables, to be for. The effort involved is extraordinary; he has grown more willing to discuss it, but no more able to say exactly what it entails.

This new book is his second collection of occasional pieces, and in the Preface he remarks that when asked to speak about his own work he has always tried to resist, but ‘has always given way in the end so that at last I find myself talking about myself with the grossest liberality’. But his own work is not the only subject of this book, and some of the other pieces – though not, by any means, all of them – give one no less useful insights into his unique yet traditional talent. For one always senses behind the novelty of Golding’s achievements something that is not quite of his moment.

In reviewing The Spire, I was trying to get at this quality when I compared the novel to Vaughan Williams, and especially to Job, and I still think the comparison useful: Blake’s rifacimento of the Bible itself transformed in an idiosyncratic modal music with saxophones thrown in. But the tone of these essays has less heroic antecedents. It brings to mind the Forster of Abinger Harvest: ‘the moment we landed two Nubian gentlemen in full ethnic costume leapt out from their place of concealment and began to sing, the one meanwhile playing a gusli, the other beating a drum. We paid them to stop, which they did.’ A bit joky, but it isn’t so committed to the facetious that it can’t modulate at once into seriousness.

The book starts with a collection of pieces on Places: Wiltshire, Salisbury Cathedral (the spire ‘a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child’s play’), Dutch canals, Delphi, Egypt. The second section is labelled Ideas, though Notions would have suited some of the essays better. There is a rambling meditation on journals and diaries; we are given an ‘unforgettable sentence of Pepys’ (‘I am in a strange slavery to the beauty of women and music’), and then, in case we have forgotten it, have it served up again as an ‘unforgettable sentence’ five pages later. But we shouldn’t expect this kind of thing to have undergone the savage scrutiny appropriate to the novels, and anyway the writing here is often more than agreeable. Reviewing a book about high-altitude photography, Golding remarks that ‘if the whole round earth did not appear, still great cantles of it ... became visible’; and my guess that ‘cantle’ had probably not been used in precisely that sense since Antony and Cleopatra III.x is confirmed or anyway supported by the OED.

And indeed this review is a remarkable piece of writing, very properly saved from oblivion. One of Golding’s strengths has always been that he strives to see the individual human being against long perspectives, cultural, geological, cosmic. And so he ends his high-altitude review with a genuine O altitudo, touched by his characteristic religious feeling: ‘Surely, eyes more capable than ours of receiving the range of universal radiation may well see her [the earth], this creature of argent and azure, to have robes of green and gold streamed a million miles from her by the solar wind as she dances around Helios in the joy of light.’ He has the same sense of numinous remoteness in contemplating the statuettes of the Earth Goddess at Delphi, far older than the oracle; or a footprint in a cave in the Auvergne, or a lateen sail of a Nile riverboat; or Homer, who is repeatedly and lovingly invoked or remembered.

Wonder is Golding’s mode of knowledge. ‘The bare act of being is an outrageous improbability,’ he says, describing himself as a man prone to ‘a sense of continual astonishment’ – rather like St Mark. And at his most serious: ‘What man is, whatever man is under the eye of heaven, that I burn to know and that – I do not say this lightly – I would endure knowing.’

The novels are his way of finding out: ‘Man tested like a building material ... used to destruction; man obsessed ...’ For ‘life is central to the cosmos, and ... there are some times for some people when the depths of that cosmos like the deeps of our minds open out.’ The reason why he can freely discuss the craft of his writings but say nothing much about the secrets they may make manifest is that this form of knowing is not the same as understanding; like the spire in his book, the novels, if they are any good, get their glory from elsewhere.

Of course the mason or carpenter must know his job, but the glory is beyond him. The novelist will detect a truth or a relevance; it may be indicated only by an enigmatic sentence that ‘will lie in the bed of the river of words like a stone, itself invisible but making a swirl on the surface’. It is the power to make such sentences that gives the great novelists an affinity with the saints; and that affinity explains why it cannot be talked about. The truth of fiction lies, says Golding, not in its representation of the phenomenal world, but in its ‘fitness with itself, like the dissonances and consonances of harmony’. Seen from a long way off, it might appear a creature of argent and azure.

This is a mystical view of the novel, one which is as different as possible from the long perspective of Shaw (the final section of Back to Methuseleh ‘is called “As Far as Thought can Reach”; and has left at least one reader thinking that if that is as far as thought can go, the sooner it comes back the better’). Golding wants to be here as well as elsewhere, out in violet space or in a future which produces men from eggs.

He is a conservative anarchist, he says, stuck in his human time and place, but dealing in human creativity, which he takes to be an aspect of an ‘ultimate Creator’. For our creativity, he says on his last page, is ‘a sign that beyond the transient horrors and beauties of our hell there is a Good which is ultimate and absolute.’ He is better at his religious exercises than at being a theologian; better at the holy than at the idea of the holy. But in the end A Moving Target tells one more about this one-man marriage of heaven and hell than we might think we have any right to know; and for all its obviously secondary quality it deserves the study of all who value proximate creation.