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Cumberbatch reads The Spire

Canongate’s audiobook production of Golding’s 1964 novel The Spire, is read, superbly, by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch has been involved with Golding’s work for some time; he played Edmund Talbot in the BBC’s adaptation of Golding’s ‘Sea Trilogy’ (Rites of PassageFire Down Below and Close Quarters ), renamed as To The Ends of the Earth, and read passages from Golding’s unpublished journals in the Arena documentary The Dreams of William Golding. His voice is perhaps his most distinctive feature, demonstrated by bringing the terrifying dragon Smaug to life in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. A real strength of the audiobook are the voices Cumberbatch allocates for each character – there’s the indignant arrogance of Father Anselm, the simpering sarcasm of Father Adam, and the quiet tragedy of Pangall. Pangall’s words, ‘They have made a game of my whole life’, are heartfelt and arresting.

The Spire is a complex novel; although it’s written in the third person, the events are all seen through Dean Jocelin’s eyes. Jocelin is the epitome of the unreliable narrator – his unwillingness to see what really happens, and his eventual descent into madness means the reader is often unsure of quite what has happened. Cumberbatch’s energetic reading adds to this uncertainty. His voice for Dean Jocelin moves between joy, madness, and anger with some dexterity. Jocelin is condescending, and Cumberbatch animates his snorts of derision when someone doubts his vision, which he delivers with breathy enthusiasm. As the novel progresses, and Jocelin loses his grip on sanity, the narrator makes good use of alternating speeds to portray this. For example, Cumberbatch’s reading gets faster and faster when Jocelin is remembering the builders approaching Pangall, one of them with the spire model jutting ‘obscenely’ between his legs, and the flash of the red hair of Pangall’s wife Goody. We feel Jocelin’s mind disintegrating.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this audiobook is Cumberbatch’s reading of the relationship between Jocelin and master builder Roger Mason. Both voices are at once both Cumberbatch, but also, remarkably, both feel like completely different people. We have Roger’s irritation and burgeoning horror at Jocelin’s plan to force him to build higher and higher against Jocelin’s cheerful exhortations that they are following God’s plan. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Roger’s desperation and fury comes through most strongly in Chapter 6: ‘Sooner or later there’d be a bang, a shudder, a roar. Those four columns would open apart like a flower, and everything else up here, stone, wood, iron, glass, men, would slide down into the church like the fall of a mountain’. The fate of Goody Pangall sparks a further change in Dean Jocelin’s character – his thoughts and words repeat nonsensically and his voice is much more feverish. Roger is entirely defeated by these events and begins to drink, leading to quiet resignation, punctuated by anguished shouts, or enforced joviality. Their final encounter is breathtaking.

Listening to this audiobook made me realise just how brilliant a film adaptation of The Spire would be. Sure, Cumberbatch is a bit too young to play Jocelin right now, but on this form, he would be excellent…