But write he certainly did — poetry, plays, and novels. Today we’re talking about The Spire.
This is the story of a man, a dean of a cathedral actually. This man, Dean Jocelin, has a vision: to build a huge spire to rise up out of his cathedral. But his cathedral has no foundations, and his vision is a folly.
A cathedral sounds like a vast place – towering and wide. But in The Spire it is extraordinarily claustrophobic. We rarely leave it. Its towers squeeze us and we, like Jocelin’s doubters, feel the spire sinking upon us. Jocelin’s unbending vision slowly turns to madness and illness, and the people under the growing spire are all brought low by Jocelin’s unbending vision. (This claustrophobia is masterfully drawn out by Benedict Cumberbatch, who reads the audiobook version of the novel, which I mention below.)
You may think that the story of a dean, a cathedral, and a spire would be overtly religious, but it’s not really. It is far more about vision and will than it is about faith. In fact, God seems strangely absent, or at least remote.
I recommend this book because its prose is worked without needless device, its plot is spare but affecting, and its lesson profound. It is not moralizing, but it is slightly cautionary.
I should say a word about the audiobook version of The Spire. I came to the novel because of a tempting article by The Telegraph: “The 20 Best Audiobooks of All Time.” Included in the list was Benedict Cumberbatch’s reading of The Spire. The Telegraph called his version “soaring.” Cumberbatch is remarkably agile as a vocal performer; he can indeed soar through pace, tone, and inflection. Still, there were points when he was too fast, for instance, and Golding’s words were lost to me. When Cumberbatch does reach the sublime is not when he is dramatically theatrical. No, he captured me at the end of the book. Here, with much of the action finished, does Cumberbatch gain a masterful hold on the reader.
If The Spire piques your interest, you might also enjoy the following ecclesiastically-themed novels:
Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James
One of James’ best mysteries featuring detective Adam Dalgliesh, this novel focuses on the murder of a student at a small theological college on the coast of East Anglia. James skillfully holds together a community of hidden passions and histories in the perfect tone: monastic, taut, and precise. You wouldn’t do wrong to read this over the summer because it’s easily read, but also satisfying in the quality of its prose and the intricacies of its plot.
An exceptional novel by American writer Willa Cather, this 1927 work circles around the trials of a Catholic bishop and his priest as they attempt to establish a diocese in New Mexico. It is both historically fascinating – a selection of characters are drawn from historical figures – and stylistically satiating. This is not the plot-driven narrative of Death in Holy Orders. Instead, events comes to the reader as episodes. I found this book to be a sensory-rich expression of place, to offer a depth of well-wrought characters, and to be infused with anuplifting tone.