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The Spire by William Golding

The Spire (original 1964; edition 2002)

by William Golding

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7261012,927 (3.62)1 / 42
Title:The Spire
Authors:William Golding
Info:Mariner Books (2002), Paperback, 228 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:England, religion, obsession, cathedrals

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The Spire by William Golding (1964)

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Legacy LibrariesAnthony Burgess
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Jocelyn is the Dean of a cathedral, put their via nepotism rather than ability. His sense of self-importance, combined with his semi-delusional piety causes him to order the erection of a 404 foot spire. But the master builder informs him that this is impossible because the cathedral has no foundations. He sees with his own eyes that this is the case, but nevertheless he forces through his vision, even though lives are lost and the entire cathedral is put at risk. As the battles between his will and the master builder's escalate, along with the swaying and crumbling of the spire, the Dean declines both into madness and terminal tuberculosis.

This novel is by far not the easiest one to get into, because it is told from the point of view of the Dean, a man who is so self obsessed, so deluded, and eventually so insane, that reading the book is like peering through a triple fog. But in a sense that enhances the drama: will this spire actually be built? What is the nature of the more prosaic relationships of the staff within the Cathedral? And who actually is the Dean, deep down? These questions and more are motivation enough to keep reading. But more than this Golding conjures up an incredibly realistic mediaeval world, and very deftly highlights how superstition and religion can so easily be connected to insanity.

At the heart of the novel is a battle between religious conviction and practical rational engineering concerns, with no clear winner by the end.

It is told using an incredibly unreliable witness, who sometimes indulges in long streams of consciousness. The language at times is poetic and beautiful, but at the same time chilling. For instance, the idea of a building singing is striking, especially when you realise that the song is a song of impending destruction.

Even if The Spire is a lot of work to read carefully, the uniqueness of the style and content makes it very much worth the effort. ( )
  RachDan | Jun 25, 2015 |
Above a medieval cathedral, a spire is rising. The spire is the brainchild of the cathedral's Dean Jocelin, who saw it in a vision as representing the pinnacle of prayer. But he wants it built higher than anyone has ever heard of building, and the master builder is worried that the cathedral's foundations won't hold it. Other members of the cathedral chapter oppose the cost, the disruption, and the builders' bad behaviour within the church and in the town. But Jocelin ignores them all and orders the master builder to continue. As the spire rises, Jocelin's obsession grows - and when a couple of events make him question his judgement and faith, obsession begins to tip into madness.

Although told in the third person, there is something of the unreliable narrator about this book, as we follow Jocelin throughout - piecing the true story together from the occasional thought that he immediately tries to shut out, or the things that others say to him. The book starts in the joy of realising his vision and becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. We see the cathedral building almost as a living creature, as it grows the spire and as the pillars groan under the weight - and we also see glimpses of life outside the cloister, in the town.

There are hints that the building of the cathedral is bringing a sort of modernity to the town, which made me wonder if as well as being about pride and hubris, it was also about other kinds of change - the book is so expressionistic that you can see all sorts of metaphors in it. There are moments of real beauty and real horror, all seen through the darkened glass of Jocelin's mind. In particular, as his madness grows he increasingly finds peace by going to the top of the tower, and the descriptions of him looking down over the countryside around him, never before seen from this angle, are wonderful.

His cheek was hard against the pinnacle and he knew he had not moved. But a sixth counter had appeared, had slid into view with another square of board under it. He knew he had not moved; but he knew that the tower had moved, gently, soundlessly up here, though down there the pillars might have cried - eeee - at the movement. Time after time, he watched the white counter slide into view, then disappear again; and he knew that the tower was swaying under him like a tall tree. Slowly he turned his eyes away and looked at the charcoal and drying puddles. I mustn't scream, or run, he thought. That would be unworthy of the vision. ( )
4 vote wandering_star | Jul 19, 2014 |
This takes a *long* time to get going. My wife started it and didn't finish it, she described it as 'inaccessible.' That's pretty much right. It's not difficult like Pynchon; it's not all that intellectually or aesthetically sophisticated like V. Woolf. It's just... well, it's about a Dean who wants to build a really tall spire for his church, the community that coalesces around its building and the destruction of that community. Only the first hundred pages are really, really slow. The second half, though, is much quicker. The priest goes insane, there's adultery and possible suicide and still-born babies and so on. It's a good reward for the 100 pages of impenetrable church-architecture speak. If I had to compare it to anything, it'd be the last volumes of Proust's Remembrance: the Albertine story is an awesome but also awfully dull investigation of one human emotion (jealousy), but the final volume is an intellectual, emotional and artistic triumph. Same thing here, only the emotions in this case are pride and repentance. Both books see the action, such as it is, through a single, intensely studied mind.
Otherwise, though, they're completely different. Golding's style is dense but straightforward; his characters are *intentionally* one dimensional (please, no more reviews of books complaining that the characters aren't 'round': there's more to literature than roundness, people). I have no idea who I'd recommend this to, but it's better than Lord of the Flies by a mile. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Oh the endless lessons with Mrs Cadwallader, trying to make sense of this book! Perhaps if I re-read it now I'd get a lot more out of it but when I was 17 it was just torture. The relationship between the priest, the stonemason and the woman just went completely over my head (I can't even remember the names of the characters). Why do exam boards inflict novels like this on teenagers? ( )
  mlfhlibrarian | Sep 20, 2013 |
It seemed to me that Golding was aiming to make this an intense book partly through considerable repetition of Jocelin’s tumultuous emotions. So many times Golding refers to Jocelin’s angel warming his back and the great weight of the angel on him wearying him. For me, though, this was tedious. I also disliked the way it’s told more or less in the third person but entirely from Jocelin’ point of view. This again is, I think, to add intensity but I found it limiting. I’d have liked some of Roger Mason’s thoughts or Goody Pangell’s in order to get more perspective. The effect of this being in the third person instead of the first is perhaps also to distance Jocelin from the reader but he’s already someone for whom I have no empathy. Perhaps this is because we’re largely in a post-Christian era and someone believing passionately in visions and miracles speaks to me more of the delusion of that person than of some great faith. Going against the advice of a master builder to erect a tower on a building with no foundations sitting on boggy soil seems the height of folly to me. Then there’s his clear physical attraction to Goody Pangell despite his deriding thoughts about the obscenities of sex. Given the Catholic Church’s appalling record of paedophilia alongside their discrimination against women, Jocelin’s thoughts here are convincing enough but again do nothing to draw the reader in – in fact, the opposite effect is achieved.

That the spire stands at the end of the book, albeit precariously, is perhaps meant to suggest something about the need for a belief in success against the odds. Again, though, I feel my hackles rise. So often today you hear young people being told that if they want to achieve something enough, they will succeed in this. Dangerous advice, I think. Perhaps too Jocelin is meant to show the better side of man as well as his weaknesses as exposed in his pride, such as thinking the dumb mason is carving the stone to make Jocelin seem spiritual and as if he would fly – like an angel, even though the dumb man’s response to Jocelin raising this concept is ambiguous. So, the better side is perhaps suggested in his achievement even if at the end even Jocelin recognises at what a cost this temporary edifice has come. And of course at the end we also find firstly that Jocelin’s angel is in fact his tubercular back so all his talk of an angels came from a malfunctioning body and, more damningly, it seems that Pangell was murdered by the army of builders and yet Jocelin neither prevented this nor did anything about it. Is the reader really left with any choice but to condemn this self-deluding man?

Is this also a book about religion? In ‘Lord of the Flies’ he categorically makes flawed every one of those boys, apart from Simon who with his knowledge of the future and what is in others’ minds is more like Christ than a boy. Every one of them, Ralph an Piggy included, want to destroy, but at the same time he does attract sympathy at least for Ralph and shows him as a well-intentioned and to some extent altruistic person. As discussed, Jocelin doesn’t have this concern for others. His kindness to others is just a reflection of when he’s feeling happy about his tower. I can see I haven’t answered my question which is one about how much his theme encompasses.

There are passages within the book, though, which show how evocative and skilful Golding can be. Although I found the repetition heavy going, if not soporific, individual parts stay in my mind, such as the opening which invites the reader to get involved in the novel and work out what is going on and the description of the dust in the building giving ‘rods and trunks of light the importance of a dimension’ as ‘individual grains of dust turned over each other, or bounced all together’. To me this not only captures so accurately the way, to use an inadequate cliché, motes dance in the sunlight, but also reflects the joy that Jocelin is feeling.

In the end, then, I was able to enjoy and admire aspects of this novel but without any sense of being held by it. Of course it’s highly complex with lots of symbols, such as that Eden-like apple tree, and I need to read it again although this is already a second reading of the novel for me (having read it first a long time ago). Somehow, though, I doubt if I’ll be reading it again. ( )
1 vote evening | Jan 19, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0571064922, Paperback)

The vision that drives Dean Jocelin to construct an immense new spire above his cathedral tests the limits of all who surround him. The foundationless stone pillars shriek and the earth beneath them heaves under the structure's weight as the Dean's will weighs down his collapsing faith. Meanwhile, the towering spire casts a shadow of dread on all those who behold it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:56 -0400)

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Dean Jocelin has a vision: that God has chosen him to erect a great spire on his cathedral. His mason anxiously advises against it, for the old cathedral was built without foundations. Nevertheless, the spire rises octagon upon octagon, pinnacle by pinnacle, until the stone pillars shriek and the ground beneath it swims. Its shadow falls ever darker on the world below, and on Dean Jocelin in particular. From the Nobel Prize-winning author of Lord of the Flies, The Spire is a dark and powerful portrait of one man's will, and the folly that he creates.… (more)

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