A voice from the void

Robert Winder reads William Golding's last, tantalising novel

The Double Tongue

by William Golding

Faber, pounds 12.99

William Golding's last, not-quite-finished novel is the memoir of the Delphic oracle, and no doubt about it, she makes a wonderful central character. She's a holy virgin in a war-battered world ruled by rough men, and a humble village girl in touch with the gods. She's part philosopher, part gossip columinist: a riddler, a medium, a scholar and a poet. Golding adds one less traditional qualification: the Oracle is also a fraud. But this remains by any standards an impressive CV, and a story that puts her at its heart is bound to grapple with good questions about the nature of authority, faith, and the supernatural power of words.

Whether she is the ideal protagonist for a William Golding novel is quite another question. She might have been better off with a postmodern trickster, a slippery pun-lover exhilarated by enigmatic paradoxes and double meanings. The grand, flinty Nobel laureate is hardly a writer of this sort. Early on he makes a few musclebound attempts to catch the tense balance of dynamic opposites that Pythia represents. "Women aren't free," she asserts, "not even the free ones". And a nurse cries out "with laughter which was also a reprimand." But these crashing equivocations soon fade away, and the story stretches out as clean and dry and clear as the beach in Lord of the Flies.

It is written as a monologue - a memoir, in effect - by Pythia herself (Pythia is the python Apollo slew: nothing to do with being pithy). A young girl is sold to a High Priest and told that she will one day become the Oracle. In career terms it is a fortunate break - no more toiling in the fields, no more botched encounters with the boy next door; but from here on it is all disillusionment and cycnicism. The high priest turns out to be a public relations spin merchant. The holy Oracle has been corrupted and is now a commercial enterprise, a tourist trap, and a holding house for political tittle-tattle. It is also a front for a "Home Rule for Hellas" campaign organised by Greek patriots against their Roman governors. These men know that knowledge is power; they use carrier pigeons to bring news from afar. At first the Oracle is astounded by the blatant cycnicism of the operation. "You are ignorant," her coach tells her, "and ignorance such as yours makes you look like a seer."

Spring is busy, he warns, what with all the tourists. And when she pushes him to be more respectful of the gods, he admits: "You see, I don't believe in them." When she protests that she does not wish to be fed questions and answers in advance she is patronisingly put in her place. "You've no idea how credulous the Romans are," they say. "That question could be worth millions."

As you can see, it is a fairly straightforward exercise in iconoclasm, a parable about how wicked men have hijacked the divine spark and are using it for their own measly ends. It's Quiz Show set on Parnassus - the Oracle turns out to be rigged, a cover for politicians and salesmen. You keep hoping the heroine will confound them all and turn out to be truly possessed, and Golding does drop a few hints that she has some innocent feminine contact with the spirit world, but in the end she is possessed in a more earthly fashion. She is blind-folded, dressed in "maiden garments" and led to meet her "celestial bridegroom." There, not to put too fine a point on it, she is raped. "Suddenly my whole body began to shudder... my knees struck the solid earth... my body worked like some automaton." Hellas bellas! It's all a bit nudge-nudge-wink-wink, but we get the picture, even if she doesn't.

As a vision of a corrupt, godless world, the episode has a certain rough power, but it won't surprise many modern readers to be told that the Delphic oracle wasn't really divinely inspired. We are dying for something uncanny to happen, but Golding seems reluctant to let it. Pythia herself is genuinely swayed - "I had spoken words and not known I had spoken them. They were the god's words." But the book refuses to let us share her faith. At the end she uses a special silver key to open the god's room and there, behind the door, is... well, it's not Dionysus, that's for sure.

One of the maddening things about a work such as this is that it is an incomplete draft, and speaks first of all to a biographical interest. It is a revealing example of a work in progress, with a moving sense of the deathbed about it; it also feels attractively provisional - we can only imagine what Golding might have done to stretch and enrich it. But as it stands, there are frustrating gaps. Essential matters are shrugged off as too boring to relate. "Why describe Delphi?" Pythia remarks, "All the world knows how it hangs on the flank of Apollo's mountain." As the Oracle herself might say: All that glitters is not Golding.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all