There is a tone not of denial but of subtle hurt in William Golding's voice as he tells us of "a very old friend" who "accused me one day . . . of being more interested in things and places and ideas than in people." This seems a very odd thing to say about the author of "Lord of the Flies," "The Spire," "The Inheritors" and other novels that explore in unique depth the inner workings of people, the dark springs that activate man's behavior as a social animal. But Golding concedes that "This may very well be true"; and as if to support the accusation, he supplies us with a collection of his nonfiction--essays explicitly dealing with things and places and ideas, all of which he discusses in a fascinating style.
The book is divided into two sections, labeled "Places" and "Ideas," gently hinting that the reader is in for two of literature's most dreaded subgenres: the travelogue and the literary essay. One wonders whether a third section, "Things," was discarded for reasons of economy--or perhaps the title was rejected for being all-encompassing to the point of meaninglessness. No matter. The name of Golding on the title page is what lures the intrepid reader into such a book, and such a reader is delighted to find the mark of Golding throughout, including a very substantial and often penetrating interest in people.
Even in the lecture entitled "Rough Magic," where he talks specifically about the craft of the novelist (and justifies the cost of the book for those concerned with this subject), the focus is not so much on the novel as a thing but on the production of fiction as a transaction among persons. In contrasting the novelist's job with that of the playwright, his theoretical points assume charmingly humanistic forms--concrete as the fictional embodiment of the ideas that run like electricity through his novels:
"Within the covers of his novel the novelist is king and we his obedient subjects. He can bring on an earthquake with as little trouble as make a cup of tea. If a character gives him trouble he can have him shot. He is lord of birth, of love, of death . . . We invite him in and let him do what he likes. But observe. It is easier to put down a book than it is to leave the seat of a theatre. The novelist can doodle as much as he likes, but may come to with an awful start to find nobody is listening. The playwright can see his audience if he cares to look, count them and calculate, can assess their every response. But to the novelist the people who read his books are as remote as creatures of the deep sea."
This passage is cited not for its profound insights into the plight of the novelist (such things tend to yield as much profundity as one cares to bring to them) but to show the writer's orientation, which is toward people rather than techniques--the kind of thing that deeply concerns many writers' courses and seminars and that he dismisses as "dull daily stuff on the level of carpentry."
Golding's "places" are equally humanized. He visits mostly the past, and usually he finds the human soul, rank with cruel mystery, waiting to spring out and confront him. Even his native Wiltshire, apparently so calm and tame, where the forests have been tended by woodsmen for centuries, "has a particularly ancient and mysterious history that has left its mark in every corner," he assures us, and proceeds to demonstrate. He finds in Salisbury Cathedral not only history and folklore but the same kind of eerie, primitive power that he finds in Stonehenge and the shrine of the oracle at Delphi--a sort of residual magnetism, charged through centuries of belief, coexisting with the bland poses and assumptions of rationalism.
Perhaps the most striking travel piece in the book is "Egypt from My Inside," in which he journeys no farther than a museum near his home but ventures far in time and out into timelessness. It is paired with "Egypt from My Outside," a more conventional travelogue on the paradoxes of a visit to the Great Pyramid and other antiquities--outcroppings of mystery enduring the passage of time strangely in "a country inhabited by thirty-eight million Arabs, indifferent, amiable, hysterical." It is the somewhat mixed fulfillment of the childhood dream embodied in the earlier article, written when the Egypt in his mind was still uncontaminated by the Egypt of reality. In "Egypt from My Inside," he is a 10-year-old boy, infatuated with ancient Egypt, trying to understand hieroglyphs and studying the amulets in glass cases and memorizing lists of kings, when he comes into face-to-face confrontation with a mummy, and suddenly we are in the world of "Lord of the Flies": "I stand where I can see the naked bones of his head. He excites, moves, disgusts, absorbs. He is a dead body but on permissive show behind glass. So I stand, watching him; and I do not credit him with humanity, I do something far more mysterious and perhaps dangerous. I credit myself with his."
Mystery is not the whole burden of this miscellaneous collection. There is a sunny reminiscence of a boat trip through Holland and there are literary reflections on translations of Homer, the keeping of journals, the rough-and-tumble existence of a writer living by his wits and similar weighty topics, all worth perusal. But in his nonfiction as his fiction, Golding is at his best when he is looking behind the pretensions of what we call civilization.