This is my first ever William Golding! I am the only British person of my age who hasn’t read Lord of the Flies, I am not sure how I missed having it as a set text at some point at school but I did. Nor have I seen the film. I seem to have built up an enormous resistance in my head to the novel, I am not quite sure why (especially weird since I frequently confuse it with Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, which I haven’t read either, again the only British person of my age who hasn’t). However, the possibility of my joining the rest of my generation and actually reading it is now distinctly greater, and this is due to the amazing The Spire.
The Spire has languished on my shelves, along with The Scorpion God, for many a long year. (I believe that I bought them both when I was in my twenties and living in London, and I know that I was swayed by their lovely Faber covers.) It might still have been there had I not become convinced that the universe was telling me to read it. Now a while ago, some time last year, I donated a stash of books to a charity shop in Ipswich. Although I live in Belgium I prefer to bring my unwanted books back to Britain. I don’t think anyone would read them here, and even if I don’t want to keep the books any more (much) (I only give away any book because our house will collapse if I don’t keep the numbers down), I want them to find happiness with someone else and not just moulder away unloved. I realise that this may not be entirely sensible. Still, I took the books in and within a week was deeply regretting parting with Get in Trouble, Kelly Link’s latest collection of short stories. I had persuaded myself that I wouldn’t read them again – but I was wrong!
A couple of weeks ago I was again visiting my parents in Britain and I returned to the charity shop (it’s the Samaritans’ shop and it is brilliant) on the off-chance that Get in Trouble was still there. And it was! Interestingly, I am fairly sure that it is the same copy but it had been re-donated in February. Well, perhaps it wasn’t, but I like to believe it was. Maddened with glee I seized a great pile of other books and then went on a crazed charity-bookshop spree which lasted most of a morning. I bought so many books I couldn’t bring them back with me on the aeroplane, oops. Anyway, the point of this story is that on my spree I kept noticing copies of The Spire. And then I read one of the books I had bought, Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black, and lo and behold The Spire was referenced in there too! Clearly these were all Signs that I must immediately read The Spire. So I finally took it down from the nearly reorganised shelves (I’m up to the 1970s, so have almost finished!) and now we can actually get on to talking about it and not about the circumstances in which I read it.
(Illustration of the Tower of Babel, from folio 16r, Bible Historiée, c. 1250; French Ms 5, John Rylands Library, Manchester; found here)
On such a day, he [Jocelin] passed through the close from the deanery to the west door, hardly able to see his feet for fog; and though the nave was clear of it, like a sort of bubble, it was near enough pitch dark. He climbed [the tower], and came out of the corkscrew stair on to the beams, and in a blinding dazzle. For up here the sun was shining; and even those rays that pierced the chamber were faint against another light that blazed upwards, lit lead and glass and stone, lit the underside of the beam roof, so that the very adze marks were visible. Then when he climbed through this dazzle to the upper chamber, up the ladders and levels to where men were working with blue hands and came at last on the ragged top – then he was pained and blinded indeed, and had to press his alms to his eyes. For there was downland visible all round but nothing else. The fog lay in a dazzling, burning patch over the valley and the city, with nothing but the spire of the tower at least, piercing it. Then he was strangely comforted, and for a time, almost at peace.
The Spire was first published in 1964. Its setting is a little vague; England some time in the later Middle Ages. It concerns the building of a new spire on a cathedral. The spire’s design was revealed to Jocelin, the dean, in a vision, and is being paid for by Jocelin’s aunt Alison who intends thereby to atone for her wicked youth as a king’s mistress. Thus there is a vague feeling that the money for the spire is tainted. The project is contentious because calculations show that the spire will be too tall for the building below it to bear. Furthermore, not only the funds are mired in sin: the workers brought in to build the spire bully, rape and murder with seeming immunity from any sort of justice, while the master builder, Roger Mason, is embroiled in an adulterous affair. Even Jocelin, struggling for virtue, is unable to think of Goody Pangall without lust, nor to be courteous to Rachel Mason, whose ‘unfemale’ behaviour and constant chatter irritate him extremely. Floods and plague beset the project. However, Jocelin firmly believes that it is God’s will that the spire be built, no matter the unfitness of the instruments who do the building. The discovery that the existing cathedral has no proper foundations either, and is itself something of a miracle, only spurs him on.
(Illustration from folio 19 of Giuard des Moulin’s Grande Bible Historial, fourteenth-century manuscript, found here)
If the plot seems relatively simple, driving on like the spire through the air, it is filtered through the reader’s immersion in Jocelin’s increasingly fragmented and deranged point of view, as unstable as the spire. It’s not always clear what is happening, as Jocelin wills ignorance of some things and is prey to sounds and visions no one else is aware of. The writing is just masterful, both somehow textured and jagged, and extraordinarily beautiful. It is probably the principal reason why everyone should read this novel, a tour-de-force of what language can do. Every word is precisely the right word, every phrase perfectly calculated and working with its neighbours to create an effect that is a sort of lucid dreaming, almost hyper-real. Here is part of the description near the end of the novel of Jocelin fighting through a storm to reach the nearly complete spire:
He lifted his head a little and squinted into the grey light, across the useful grave; and at that moment Satan in the likeness of a cosmic wildcat leapt off all four feet on the north east horizon and came screaming down at Jocelin and his folly. The cloak burst at his throat and went flapping away somewhere like a black crow, but his hands held to the wooden cross. He lay there cunningly; until the wildcat had tired a little. After that he went from grave to grave, grabbing a cross and a lee, until he came to the biggest lee of all by the west door, and through the door, leaning his back against it and gasping for breath. Yet for a moment as he leant there he thought the cathedral had a full congregation. But then he realised that the lights were swimming inside his eyes, and the singing was the noise of all the devils out of hell. They swarmed through the dim heights, they banged and smashed and rattled at the windows in an extravagance of fury, they made the great window at the west end boom like a sail. But he minded them no more than birds as they swooped at him, for he was outside himself, awake and asleep at the same time, a man led. Wah! Wah! they howled, and howled, and Yah! Yah! they howled, beating at him with scaly wings then going off to batter at the singing pillars and the windows and the vaulting that shuddered over; and he heard someone, himself perhaps, imitating their cries as his body rang crouching up the nave through the semi-darkness. He could hear the groans of the arcades as they stiffened their stone shoulders.
Appropriate to a novel set in the Middle Ages is the richness of its imagery – which, like everything else, is unstable and shifts during the course of the narrative. I think you can see that richness in the passage I quoted above (once I start quoting from this novel it’s hard to stop...). The spire is the central motif. Early in the novel, the cathedral is envisaged as the body of a man with the spire at the centre, thrusting phallically into the sky. As a symbol of human ambition, it recalls the Tower of Babel. When Jocelin climbs it to survey the countryside, I couldn’t help thinking of that scene in the Bible (Matthew 4:8) where Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth from a mountain top and offers him power over them; here Jocelin’s prideful ambition in his ‘folly’ is intertwined with his belief that he is about God’s work, a belief which gradually and monstrously takes him over. His inability to perceive his own motivations is reflected in his unwillingness to recognise the stone heads carved by the dumb stonemason as being portraits of him. And yet there is also a beauty and a spirituality about his desire.
The cathedral-as-body replicates Jocelin’s physicality. At first, he and the building are quite separate; as the spire rises, so Jocelin increasingly ignores the needs of his body (washing, eating) to satisfy his mania for the spire. He spends most of his days in the cathedral and then up in the spire itself, it is consuming him. Meanwhile, the old pillars, which now must carry the weight of the spire, bow, and their stones sing. The body of the cathedral cannot bear the weight of the huge outgrowth of the spire any more than Jocelin’s body – and most of all, his spine – can bear the demands of his will. And significantly, the cathedral lacks proper foundations, just as, it transpires, Jocelin’s poor backbone and indeed faith do.
(Fifteenth-century carving of a stonemason on a flying buttress at Sint-Janskathedraal, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands; found here)
In an attempt to support the extra weight of the spire, the builders drive a band of steel into the stone:
There was a new shadow [...] of the tower and as it slid down away from the chancellor’s house, Jocelin saw a kind of quivering indecisiveness about the end of it. [...] When he turned on his heel and looked up, he saw that smoke was rising at the tower top. Wherever he went, circling and pausing, and whenever he stopped to look on that day, he saw how the smoke rose, never thickening but never ceasing, so that the sky trembled. When the shadows of the cathedral had crept out in the other direction the smoke still rose; and as darkness came, he could see a glow round the head of the tower [...] So he went to sleep; but was called out of his bed by a strange peal which came from the tower [...] Streams of sparks were falling from the head of the tower [...] Through the bland night the tower glowed and sparked and smoked diminishingly among the stars. Then, an hour before dawn, the peal of tuneless bells rang no longer. Instead of sparks there came jets of steam shooting up, colourless as the unsunned stones and seemingly a continuation of them. The airy furnaces, dribbling charcoal and water, crept down the fields of glass to where parties on the roof seized them, and took them in.
In this passage you can see a lot of the themes of the book, the dark and light, the fire and violence, pain and wonder, beauty and danger.
Forcing the steel on the stones is a sort of brutality, which echoes Jocelin’s brutality to his own body, driving it onwards, occasionally hurling it against stones. Violence haunts The Spire. The great mass of stone lowering above everyone’s heads threatens more and more; even Jocelin begins to refer to it as ‘the stone hammer’, poised to crush. The atmosphere of threat from the workers is palpable and at one points erupts in an attack on Pangall and his wife which Jocelin witnesses but is unable to ‘see’. That attack may include rape, but this is unclear.
Jocelin is prey to sexual desire for Goody Pangall. He arranged her ‘false’ marriage, he watches her and afterwards is often attacked by his ‘devil’, and this desire becomes part of his desires for the spire. The angel that is at his back, supporting him in the building work, gradually merges with the devil who torments him. Towards the end of the book he has a vision of the tower with a ‘golden thread’ ‘woven through’ it, and the thread becomes ‘a plant with strange flowers and fruit, complex, twining, engulfing, destroying, strangling’. The purity of the work is irretrievably corrupted – and yet the image he uses is of something fertile and alive rather than the inanimate thread or tower. And the story itself was inspired by the remarkable spire of Salisbury cathedral, which never did fall but remains standing seven hundred years later. Perhaps we should step outside Jocelin’s consciousness and see the tower not in binary, moral terms but as a work of art which embraces all that has gone into it and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
I am really bowled over by this novel and plan to read some more William Golding soon and I urge you all to do the same.