The Guilt Laureate

Frank Kermode

  • The Double Tongue by William Golding
    Faber, 160 pp, £14.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 571 17526 0

A publisher’s note explains that when William Golding died he had written two drafts of this novel, and was about to begin a third. The signs are that this might have been longer than the second, but not substantially different. Some necessary editing has been done, on the basis of notes made by Golding in his journal, and there is a page of typescript missing in the middle of the book. It sounds as if the novel is in a form less close to the final than, say, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, but still close enough for readers to feel confident that they have before them what they need to make a reasonable guess at what Golding was up to; for they will assume that he was, as usual, up to something.

It should have proved possible to come up with a better title than The Double Tongue, something less suggestive of oral technique in the brass section, or the forked tongue that wicked white men were sometimes said to speak with. The allusion, however, is to the forked tongue of the Python which Apollo inherited when he killed the beast, and so to the phenomenon of oracular ambiguity. Macbeth, having at last rumbled his oracles, says they palter with him in a double sense, and early Christian writers believed something like this of the pagan oracles; to them the old gods and their communications were simply demonic. The pagans themselves were of course aware that oracles spoke ambiguously, though not, as a rule, with the object of harming the questioner.

The name, Pythia, was given to the priestesses chosen to relay the oracles of Apollo at Delphi. The Pythia sat on the sacred tripod, suffered violent quasi-rape by the god, and prophesied. As a matter of business she might be required not only to convey the messages she received in her trance but also to satisfy the requirements of important people who might have come a long way to benefit by the divine predictions and were willing to pay the agents well for the service.

Golding always thought strenuously and accurately about detail, but behind its screen he is often obscurely allusive. He is sometimes keen to create a subtext that turns out in the end to have concealed the main point of the narrative, hitherto no more than hinted at. Occasionally he took pride in making this point by a revelation on the very last page. In his earlier work this could take the form of a surprising allusion to some book in which he had found the seed of his fiction, and generally the effect was to reverse the assumptions of that source. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island is explicitly mentioned on the last page of Lord of the Flies. A story by ‘Taffrail’ called ‘Pincher Martin, O.D.’ makes possible the ingenious final sentence of Pincher Martin (Golding’s Martin, unlike his more honourable namesake, never even got his seaboots off before he drowned). H.G. Wells’s story ‘The Grisly Folk’, as well as The Outline of History as quoted in an epigraph, prompted the remarkable switch of perspective at the end of The Inheritors, by means of which, after for so long looking, hearing and feeling with the Neanderthals, we are suddenly obliged to see them from the point of view of their evil successors, us. End-games like this remind one that Golding was a good chess player.

These ingenuities and the terminal coups de théâtre they provide can be seen as hallmarks of the earlier Golding; the later novels also have elaborately contrived endings but this particular combination was not used again. Of course he often has some earlier book in mind, though without using it in quite this way, literally as a means to an end that snaps down satisfactorily on the narrative like a lid on a good wooden box. Not, that is, until now: for in this last novel we come on the last page to the shock of an ending very much in the old style.

The story is set in Greece at the end of the first century BC, and the beginning of the new era. Golding, a keen Classic, preferred Greek to Latin. He once asked me if I was keeping up my Greek, and when I confessed that I wasn’t, asked what I would do all day in retirement if I couldn’t read Homer. But he liked the tragedians even more than Homer, and Euripides above the others. One can see why The Bacchae appealed to him; he was obviously fascinated by ecstasies, whether in the individual or in the mass, and the plot of that play is quite like some of Golding’s, the rationalist bully Penteus standing little chance against the whole female population of Thebes on a Dionysiac rampage, and none at all against the god himself. However, this book, perhaps surprisingly the only one set in ancient Greece, is about the Delphic oracle, so the more appropriate play is the Ion.

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