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by Timothy Findley

Strange and ambitious and engaging are the adjectives that come most readily to mind after reading Timothy Findley’s new novel, Pilgrim. The eponymous hero is encumbered with a mythic, folkloric liability. Pilgrim can’t die, no matter how hard or how often or how inventively he tries. This failing makes him edgy. On April 15, 1912, Pilgrim once again attempts to off himself, and once again fails to sever the stubborn link between flesh and spirit. His friend, Lady Sybil Quartermaine – a beautiful and mysterious woman of seemingly unlimited means – packs him off to the Bürgholzi Psychiatric Clinic in Zürich. There, Pilgrim is delivered into the care of Carl Jung. It falls to Dr. Jung to wrest from his patient – who is mute at the time of his arrival – the particulars of his complex psychopathology.

Findley – famously an actor before he began his prolific life in letters – is perhaps our most unabashedly theatrical writer. He is not one to shy away from the grand gesture. Witness his passion for populating his plays and fictions with the late and the famous. Ezra Pound and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Noah have all been conscripted in the past. In Pilgrim, Jung joins a cast that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, St. Teresa of Avila, and Henry James. They have all intersected with Pilgrim, whose incarnations (not quite le mot juste, but let it stand for now) have seen him embody rich and poor, male and female. This, at least, is what Jung reads in his patient’s journals. Who is Pilgrim, then? Madman? Or avatar?

There is much to admire in Pilgrim. It is a novel of historical breadth and big ideas. It’s energetic. It’s full of invention and insight (particularly into Jungian analysis) and fascinating fictive excursions which use historical events or personages as a launch pad. However, there are times when the narrative seems too ungainly an engine to hold to the rails. The reader gets the impression that the author just has not been able to resist shoehorning in one more nifty particular that he happens to know or has just discovered, and this does not always work in favour of Pilgrim’s trajectory. Even so, the novel manages to be both impressive and haunting, a fin de siècle fable and a prophecy from one of our most resilient writers.


Reviewer: Bill Richardson

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $35

Page Count: 384 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-224258-3

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1999-8

Categories: Fiction: Novels