Victoria Turvey-Sauron's Reviews > The Spire

The Spire by William Golding
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Mar 05, 2015

liked it

A claustrophobic and difficult experience listening to this. It's a stream of consciousness which whirls desperately towards its own doom.

The writing is extremely rich and dense which makes it difficult to experience as an audio book - I will probably want to have a flick through the paper version. I don't know enough about literature to recognise the genre but I feel that it has to be seen as part of a genre - perhaps modernist - to make sense of what it is doing.

It's a devastating experience, forcing upon you like a judgment its meanings and lessons about life, faith, sexuality, pride, lust, obsession, human folly and delusion, and the tragedy of human needs and desires trapped within society and religion, puny mankind strapped to their feeble minds and bodies as the vessel of their own destruction.

I have a problem with the depiction of the female characters but I can't decide whether the misogyny in the text is Jocelin's misogyny, or inherent to it. Goody Pangell as the unattainable Magdalene combining purity and sexuality is either a cowering victim of her own sexuality, floatingly divine or bloodily debased. Or she is a femme fatale having brought down all the men about her to their doom. Rachel is rejected throughout for nagging and circling constantly around the male characters, dogging them and annoying them.

While the narrative implicitly condemns Jocelin for considering himself justified in ignoring Rachel it is wearing to have a consistent caricature of a nagging fishwife as the only counterpart to Goody Pangell, who also fulfils almost caricatural roles of femininity. And I'm not sure what the narrative is concluding about Jocelin's attitude to Goody, only that Goody is just a device in this sense to define Jocelin's journey. Even the aunt is no more than a passing whiff of dangerously immoral feminine sexuality but again, in Jocelin's tormented eyes. I will have missed cues as to what point was being made by listening to the audio book rather than reading, so I am willing to be corrected on these points. I know Jocelin started to circle like Rachel and Rachel's circling may have symbolism I've missed or haven't yet considered.

Now to Benedict Cumberbatch's audio adaptation, which is the medium I have been using. BC employs his unsettling chameleon-like voice skill to make the reading into a one-man full cast dramatisation. His characterisation of Jocelin pays complete attention to the book's cues and interprets what amounts to stage direction in the text, givin Jocelin his wheedling cleric's voice, his stammering and the "high laugh". The characterisation of Roger Mason is likewise memorable along with the various accents and tones of voice of the other characters.

When I read, I read very fast, particularly descriptive passages in order to absorb the picture almost beyond conscious awareness of the words. I've always been aware of doing this. Listening to audio normally makes this almost impossible, but here, BC's use of pace helps along the dense language, not really suitable for audio, by modifying his delivery so that the descriptive passages manage to ripple along and not drag. I did get lost around the point where Jocelin is starting to become very ill after the great cataclysm of Goody Pangell's death, where the writing is probably getting more metaphysical and even with all BC can attempt it's hard to maintain what is actually happening from within the symbolism.

Having BC narrate probably has the effect of distancing the reader/listener from Jocelin as the otherwise omniscient unreliable source of information. Jocelin's voice characterisation is so different from BC's normal voice that it separates Jocelin and suggests there is an authorial presence above and beyond him which can see more clearly than he can. I'm not sure how this comes across in the book.

I think the audio is probably a different beast from the printed version - it always is, probably, but more so here than in other texts partly due to the nature of the text itself and partly due to the choice of actor to read it, as the unsettling phenomenon of BC's acting is what he pulls from a text, the performance becoming a critical engagement and that's why I would bother to seek out his work in this way.

Finally there's a very clever review of the novel here:

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