The Double Tongue: William Golding

★★★

When William Golding died in 1993, he was in the middle of working on a new novel, which was left unfinished. At an advanced draft stage, it told the story of a young woman plucked from her miserable family life and offered the chance of a new existence at the ritual site of Delphi, where she becomes a servant of the god Apollo and, later, the mouthpiece for his words. The story was in good shape and so Golding’s editors and executors decided to publish it – and it became The Double Tongue. That title is apparently only one of those which Golding had tried out on the top of the manuscript, but it’s a very fitting name for a book which is all about the duplicity and sleight-of-hand that accompany the act of prophecy.

The book was a perfectly-timed discovery, of course. Since finishing The Inheritors I’ve been keen to read more Golding, and I couldn’t have found an historical setting or a narrator more congenial to my current mood – even if the circumstances of the book’s publication mean that it’s somewhat brief and disjointed. And, even though it lacks final reworking and polish, there are already sections of striking beauty:

As the shutters swung back it was as if the light burst in,
too much light, not direct light from Apollo’s sun but coming
from everywhere, dazzling from what I now saw were
buildings in white stone that seemed to lift and tumble up,
up rather than down, as if they were escaping the earth and
flying like a storm of birds into the sky. And as my eyes became
accustomed and distance deepened, I saw how the separate
buildings were picked out, adorned as a woman by jewels
with delicate patterns of colour which danced round architraves
and capitals or glowed in the shade of colonnades.
Then, beyond all and as if it held up the deep blue sky,
was the precipitous wall of the Shining Rocks.

Arieka is plain. It’s the first thing everyone has always noticed about her and it makes her father despair. Their family may be provincial aristocracy, but there’s no way he can raise the necessary dowry to convince a man to take his daughter off his hands. His only hope is their next-door neighbours’ son, but when Arieka manages to expose herself in front of an entire hunting party, even that avenue of possibility is closed off. But then something remarkable happens. Ionides Peisistratides, a friend of the family and Warden of the Foundation at Delphi, makes an incredible offer. Arieka has a reputation as one favoured by the gods, thanks to events that happened when she was younger and have since been blown out of all proportion, and Ionides thinks she might do very well as part of the household of the Pythias at Delphia. To her parents’ astonishment (and relief), she follows Ionides over the mountain to her new life – and a new world.

The chief pleasure of the book is Arieka’s narrative voice. Resolved to tell her story in order, she begins with her very earliest infancy and ploughs doggedly and breathlessly on through her childhood, with a skittishly light touch and plenty of self-deprecating humour (‘Generally people say that girls of my kind are redeemed by animation or a pair of beautiful eyes, but I wasn’t’). Golding captures her chatty voice perfectly, as she matures from angst-ridden and overly romantic teenager, to unworldly maiden faced with the political realities of religious power, and then to middle-aged woman, who finds the world decidedly lacking. Take, for example, her reaction to the cult statue of Pallas Athene in the Parthenon during her visit to Athens: ‘When you consider that the Winged Victory she holds in her right hand is life-size you get some idea of how appallingly bad the statue is.’ You can almost hear the disdainful sniffs; the campanilismo of ancient Delphi looking down on upstart Athens. The book feels less like a novel – with beginning, middle and end – than a playful experimentation in character, so it’s important that Arieka is engaging.

It seems that Golding’s main interest was not so much Arieka’s experiences with the god, as her affectionate relationship with Ionides, who blossoms into a very appealing character. Shrewd and gentle by turns, he has his bugbears (particularly the increasingly powerful Roman Empire: ‘Latin… is a language with too much grammar and no literature’), but he also has his deep, devoted loyalties. And those are to Delphi and to the women who channel the oracles of the god. That’s a hard devotion nowadays: the glory days of the oracle are past; the buildings are crumbling, despite their glamorous veneer (and there’s never enough money to repair them); and the Romans are on the horizon, with their armies and their precision and their practicalities, a world away from the mysticism and eloquence that gives Delphi its power.

It’s Ionides’ job to guide Arieka as she learns to speak for the god – and he also has to break the news that very often the god doesn’t speak at all. Answers usually come not from Apollo but from an astute understanding of current affairs (aided by a fleet of carrier pigeons) and the willingness to give favourable answers to people with deep pockets. Arieka is shocked, of course, and the pair of them wrangle gently throughout the book over questions of faith, blasphemy and honesty. Ionides can be wonderfully disingenuous:

‘Forgive me speaking so strongly. But I had a sudden feeling that
you thought the oracle was rigged. No, no, my dear. I speak with
the tongues of men. You should speak with the tongues of the
Holy Messengers. But -‘ and here he smiled his wonderful, sad smile, –
‘If we cannot have the one, let us at least have the other.’

The book is fresh and charming and light, like a good soufflé, but it doesn’t have the weight or the impact of a novel. Much of this must be due to the fact that Golding would almost certainly have made it longer if he’d had the opportunity, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re being treated to the highlights of a story which might ultimately have had more substance. I enjoyed it, but I’m curious as to what it might have become. For all that, it’s worth reading: there are worthwhile questions about free will and the role of religion, and if that sounds too ponderous then there’s the simple delight of spending a few hours in Arieka’s and Ionides’ company.

I should add that the writing style is very different to that of The Inheritors, but equally engaging, so my admiration for Golding has only been confirmed. Which of his books should I go for next, do you think? I’m tempted by Rites of Passage, but I’d love other people’s thoughts. Since Lord of the Flies is the obvious option, I think I’ll leave that until last. The floor’s open for recommendations – over to you!

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7 thoughts on “The Double Tongue: William Golding

  1. Adrian says:

    Thanks for such a great piece about what I think is a bit of a Golding ‘hidden gem’.

    WG is my favourite author, so I’m on my guard here against going on at too great a length – but I think it’s fascinating that you’ve immediately picked up the styles of the ones you’ve read being different but equally engaging – for me, that’s his ‘key feature’.

    I can see why you feel like leaving ‘LotF’ until last, but perhaps leave it until last of a ‘group of four’ – namely his early novels – ‘Lotf’, ‘The Inheritors’, ‘Pincher Martin’ (my pick) and ‘The Spire’. I think his ‘concerns’ remain constant – human frailty, deception and self-deception, a strong tragic sense (Greek tragedy influence), and an ability to suddenly shift the reader’s perspective and make events clear. But in each one he seems to turn his back on the style he used for the last book and try something radically different. In ‘LotF’ he’s sending up the derring-do Boys-Own adventures like ‘The Coral Island’ (he thought it ridiculous that stranded boys would behave like English gentlemen – he felt they would become savages), so it’s a swift read. ‘Inheritors’, as you know, attempts to illustrate a kind of proto-language (‘pictures’) for the Neanderthals, ‘Pincher Martin’ a very vivid but cool novelistic style, and so on.

    ‘Rites of Passage’ does along belong in this group, I feel, although it’s much later – its narrator is an aristocratic toff trying to write in the posh style of his own day, and the shifting viewpoints are still present.

    I’d better stop – could go on about WG for pages – but so pleased that you’ve picked up on this late flourish of real charm and ingenuity he left us. Many thanks, A.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you Adrian! Glad you feel that I did Golding justice. He really is an enjoyable writer – I’m just surprised it took me so long to ‘discover’ him. So, I will look out for The Spire and Pincher Martin, although realistically my next choice is likely to be whatever turns up in my local Oxfam (which reliably produces an excellent range of books that keep my bookshelves sagging). 😉

      So lovely to see such affection and enthusiasm for Golding as an author – and thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, as well as for your posts on Twitter. I always adore it when people take the trouble to comment here. It means other people can benefit from your recommendations too!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      It’s certainly worth a go! So tell me, what are the obvious choices? Lord of the Flies, I guess, but perhaps you would back up Adrian on The Spire or Pincher Martin? Any and all recommendations gratefully received!

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