Pilgrim (1999): Timothy Findley


This was a re-read: a cautious venture back to a book which I was given for Christmas when I was sixteen and devoured on that same day, and about which I am completely unable to be objective. For that reason this post is going to be even more subjective than usual. Pilgrim was an inspired gift on the part of my parents, who had managed to find the one novel which encompassed all my interests at that time. The protagonist is an art historian, educated at Magdalen, who happens to be the world authority on Leonardo da Vinci. It so happened that, at the age of sixteen, these were my three greatest desires in the world (I achieved the first two, and learned better than to wish for the third).

There are cameo appearances from Oscar Wilde and Leonardo himself, and it is all set in the golden twilight of the Edwardian age, in the Burghölzi Clinic in Zurich, where an ambitious young psychiatrist named Carl Gustav Jung is making his first tentative foray into his theories of dreams and the collective unconscious. It couldn’t have been a more perfect match. But, for a reason I’ll explain later, my first encounter with the book left me so shocked that I haven’t dared come back to it until now. In retrospect, my shock seems very quaint, but I was more innocent then.

In April 1912 a new patient arrives at the Burghölzi Clinic. He is the distinguished art historian known only as Pilgrim, and he is accompanied by his concerned friend Sibyl, Lady Quartermaine. Initially he seems to be a straightforward case: he’s a traumatised failed suicide who refuses to speak. But then it transpires that he has tried to kill himself before, several times; and that, each time, he succeeded, only for his heart to begin beating again hours later. This is a man who cannot die: a man for whom death has become the only thing of value in the world; a man consumed by rage that the one thing offered so easily to those around him is denied to him.

Jung is captivated. He begins to spend more time with this silent, smarting patient, who is so desperate to be ‘delivered from the necessity of self‘, seeking the key that will let him unlock Pilgrim’s turbulent mind. And then Sibyl cautiously offers up Pilgrim’s private journals. Jung and his wife Emma, his amanuensis, find themselves faced with an incredible answer, which surely can’t be anything more than the fantasy of a troubled mind. An impossible tale of an immortal soul, passing from host to host throughout the ages – a tale stretching from the sacred groves of Ancient Greece to Troy and Chartres, Renaissance Florence and the arid grasslands of Golden-Age Spain.

Reading the book again now, it makes me think of other books, other flavours. There is something of Knowledge of Angels and also of Wings of Desire; the context of early psychoanalysis reminded me too, of course, of A Dangerous Method. It’s smart, rather playful, tragic and beautifully written. It celebrates the human capacity to create beauty, but notes that throughout human history we’ve tended to focus, not on creating ever more beauty, but on refining our taste for violence and destruction. Pilgrim finds himself (in 1912) tormented by prophetic dreams of cataclysmic war and destruction: proof, perhaps, that humanity is finally a lost cause and that all the great glories of art and architecture, to which he has been bound throughout his existence, are doomed to irrelevance.

There is a remarkable visual power to the prose: the main action seems to be all in white – the white coats of doctors; the snow around the Clinic; Sibyl’s silver Daimler – punctuated by glimpses of the past in full-colour. And, most satisfying of all, it doesn’t offer us a firm explanation at the end (although it can be a little frustrating that some much is left open to interpretation). Findley shows us the characters almost through a veil, teasing us with what they believe, but never quite showing his full hand and telling us what is the ‘truth’. We, like Jung, have to decide for ourselves how far we can believe Pilgrim’s dizzying, audacious story; and there is more than one potential explanation.

It’s probably not a book that will work for everyone: there’s a lot of talking and introspection and not a huge amount of actual action; but it certainly works for me. I’m very glad I came back to it and read it again. Few of the characters are actually likeable, but they pulse with life, Jung and Pilgrim in particular. The book is full of ideas, even if some of them float by without being fully explored, and it’s languid, dreamlike and very powerful. It’s definitely worth seeking out if you like curiosities or books which play with the boundaries between myth and reality.

So what was the problem the first time I read it? It sounds a bit silly, really. (Obviously this is a faint spoiler so you may or may not wish to skip this part; to be honest, it’s self-indulgence and has no bearing on the post as a whole.) At sixteen I was completely obsessed with Leonardo and I’d bought every book about him I could find. Of the few novels, most were old-fashioned and elaborate (Dmitri Merejkowski, I salute you). I probably wouldn’t have the patience for them now, but back then they offered a picture that was congenial to my quiet girls’-school upbringing: they seemed full of beauty and sincerity. I’d formulated a very clear mental image of Leonardo from these books: gentle, absent-minded, more interested in animals and birds than people, always half-distracted by his own genius.

And then I read the scenes in Pilgrim. All my cherished ideas exploded. Where was my abstract dreamer here? Findley’s Leonardo strode across the page in a flare of candlelight and arrogance and raw, terrifying sensuality, and I was left aghast – mainly because I realised, with a shock, that he was much, much more likely to have been like this. Those few pages have been seared on my mind ever since, and my concept of Leonardo as a man changed forever.

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