Monday, January 28, 2013

Pilgrim by Timothy Findley

I do not remember the last book I enjoyed so much  I did not want it to end. With age, experience, and a certain level of skepticism I find I am able to maintain a certain distance between myself and a book. I may enjoy the story thoroughly. I may be able to appreciate the author's craft. But lose myself in the author's world? That almost never happens.

I'd never heard of Timothy Findley until a friend loaned a DVD with a documentary about him. He is a best-selling Canadian writer, a former actor, and the author of eight previous novels. I thought that what he had to say about writing, his own and others', was fascinating so I requested Pilgrim and The Piano Man's Daughter through an inter-library loan. I am afraid I found The Piano Man's Daughter, while exquisitely written, not sufficiently engaging enough to hold my attention. It seems to be a family saga set in the first half of the 20th century and I didn't find their lives interesting enough to read on. My failure, I admit freely.

Pilgrim is something else. It begins with a man called Pilgrim (family name? first name? we never learn) hanging himself in his London garden on April 17, 1912. His valet-butler Forster finds the body, cuts it down, calls the doctor, who pronounces Pilgrim dead. Six hours later Pilgrim revive although he's had no pulse and has not been breathing. This latest suicide attempt has failed.

The action shifts from London to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich where Pilgrim's friend, Sybil, Lady Quartermaine, has brought Pilgrim for treatment. Clearly he is insane. He believes he lived through the sack of Troy, knew Saint Teresa of Avila, painted La Gioconda, is friends with Henry James, Oscar Wilde. Because his history is so unusual and his accounts of his past life so vivid, Carl Gustav Jung becomes his doctor.

Is Pilgrim simply a exceptionally vivid fantasist? Or is he what he claims to be, someone ageless and sexless who has lived for more that four thousand years, cannot die, but wishes to die? Jung's own life—his relations with his wife Emma and his colleagues at the clinic, his thoughts and dreams—are affected by his interactions with Pilgrim. Who is Sybil Quartermaine? How can Forster rescue Pilgrim from the clinic?

As I said at this start of this, I didn't want Pilgrim to end. I was with Jung wanting both the comfort and security of my marriage and the sexual excitement of mistress. I was caught by Pilgrim's stories of his past, his frustration at being unable to die. Pilgrim is almost 500 pages, but for me it wasn't enough.

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