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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'