Originally published in 1964, The Spire has been reissued as an unabridged audiobook for the first time, read by Sherlock star, Benedict Cumberbatch, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Golding’s most famous work, Lord of the Flies. And, much as when you review a graphic novel, you have to assail it as if it was a common or garden book, only to then have to factor in additional judgements, on the quality of the art for example, so it is with an audiobook – where if you are new to a book (as I was new to The Spire, despite a familiarity with other Golding books), you are on one level interacting with that, even as you are interacting with the mode of address, on this occasion Benedict Cumberbatch’s sonorous voice. So there’s a question, of course. Do you review the whole? Do you separate out the constituent elements?
The Spire, for the uninitiated, is the story of Jocelin, the Dean of a Cathedral who we first meet as the eponymous spire begins construction. To get to this point, Jocelin, a devout and zealous man, has had to fight colleagues, and he has made enemies along the way, like Father Anselm. He also has to contend with the likes of the master builder, Roger Mason, a man who believes (quite possibly rightly) that the Cathedral does not have the necessary foundations in order to withstand a 400 metre high spire. Jocelin also has to deal with Pagnall, a man whose family has lived and worked in the Cathedral for generations, but Pagnall is for the most part an irritating gnat that Jocelin ignores. Pagnall’s wife, on the other hand, the red haired Goody, is a source of deep and profound worry. He is drawn to her, and his feelings are undoubtedly sexual, and so when she embarks on an affair with the Master Builder, it greatly contributes to Jocelin’s fall (The Spire is the record of a man, aspiring for greatness, tumbling to defeat). Jocelin also feels he is watched over by an angel, torn at by devils, and it isn’t until the conclusion of the novel that we come to understand that Jocelin has been ill all the while, that his angel and his devil were merely symptoms of a greater malaise. Frank Kermode called it, ‘An entire original… remote from the mainstream, potent, severe, even forbidding’ and his words resonate as you read. Golding writes, at times, in a stream of consciousness – we inhabit Jocelin’s head, are witness to his doubts and vacillations – and it makes for a powerful and unsettling ‘read’ (even as we listen).
Benedict Cumberbatch reads all of this tremendously well. He delineates between the voices – Jocelin, breathy, Roger Mason, firm and forceful, Father Anselm, dutiful but seething, even when his seething breaks the service – in a way that makes it almost instantly apparent as to whether we are inside or outside of Jocelin, or listening to one of the characters speak. The undercurrents of The Spire – the battle between the angel and the devils, the whistling of the stones in the Cathedral – roil, moving between all of the interactions of character like smoke. Perhaps best of all, there are scenes – such as when Jocelin is brought short before an assemblage of his superiors almost at the climax of the novel – when the audiobook works as the best books do (you are no longer listening to Benedict Cumberbatch read The Spire, you are inhabiting a world in which Father Jocelin is struggling to see his vision realised). We haven’t engaged with the whole audiobooks thing to a great extent, but it is experiences like this, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch read The Spire, that make you think: this is something I should do more of.
Any Cop?: Whether or not you would consider yourself familiar with The Spire, there is still a great value to be had in engaging with a masterful interpretation, as is the case here.