Friday 13 November 2015
Review by Robert Richardson of "The Spire" by William Golding
When he died in 1993, William Golding was in possession of major establishment honours: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and subsequently knighted; also, in 1980, Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize. Nevertheless, he seems destined to be known for his first novel, Lord of the Flies, and its premise that civilisation is flimsy, with savagery just below the surface.
It is known that Lord of the Flies was heavily edited, and, despite its justified success for being one of those novels that seems inevitable, there is a stylistic blandness about it, and maybe this came, partly at least, from so much editing. His fifth novel, The Spire, is far more idiosyncratic and awkward: a less easy read, but this, I think, is a better fit for Golding’s ability to steer us away from the comfortable and smug.
The book is set in medieval England and centres on Jocelin, a Dean obsessed with adding a spire to his cathedral. It is third person stream of consciousness, but with the added basic device of "he thought, 'I …'" This allows Golding to write occasional passages in the first person. With such a point of view novel, the question arises "why not totally first person?" Maintaining a mainly third person approach was perhaps a way Golding could better include very powerful descriptions, and at times the writing is impressive in its crunching poetic prose.
Other characters are, because of Jocelin’s authority as Dean, drawn into his mission from God. The result is suffering and death, and this eventually becomes his own fate. Towards the end, Jocelin asks another priest, Father Adam, to read an account Jocelin wrote immediately after what he interpreted as the divine message to build a spire. Father Adam responds to this by saying "But was this all?" and of Jocelin’s training as a priest many years before: "They never taught you to pray!" Golding’s argument seems to be one of favouring reflection, rather than a headlong rush to actions that can, too easily, prove destructive to others. Although The Spire takes place in an age long disappeared, we have only to turn on the news to see the agonies caused by obsessive and blinkered beliefs, whether religious or secular. Golding as a novelist, though, deals in ambiguity, and is challenging us with the additional position that obsession may also lead to achievements posterity will admire, like the building of a cathedral spire.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).