Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009: Timothy Findley - Pilgrim

To Kessler it seemed that two wind-blown angels had tumbled down from heaven and were moving towards the steps. The figures of these angels now stood in momentary disorientation, reaching out with helpless arms towards one another through windy clouds of snow, veils, shawls and scarves that altogether gave the appearance of large unfolded wings.

In case you somehow didn't know, there are a lot of novels out there. For someone who likes to read but cannot make decisions, this isn't good. When I was in elementary school picking out books wasn't a problem at all. I thought I'd be like Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, going down the library shelves one by one until I read everything in there. This is a lot less intimidating at a small private school. I didn't read them all, but I'm sure I got through more than, say, a third by the time I transferred out. It'd be nice if I could bring myself to do this again.

The other problem is that there's something about book jacket blurbs that just seems to repel me. It's not always like this. There are a few subjects that can pretty reliably hook me (sopranos, fairies and dystopias, for instance. That would be amazing: a fairy dystopia with lots of singing. Or maybe it'd be an opera if I could compose opera. Which I can't. If you're reading this and you're a composer, get on it and I'll be your biggest fan.)

But most of the blurbs out there trot out stories about family reconciliation or father-son bonding or whatnot. There have been timeless stories written about these things, but laid out on a blurb of a book I've never heard of, it all seems like the shell of a writing exercise.

So in order for me to read something, I need a hook. It doesn't matter what. A good deal of my reading choices are leeched off other people's blogs. Some come from reviews, Amazon recommendations, and the like. The Guardian posts an excellent Top 10 Books series which has provided quite a few. If I find an author I like I'll be loyal to him or her, but that requires a starting point.

To my knowledge, only one book "recommendation" came from song lyrics: Timothy Findley's "Not Wanted on the Voyage," from a Christine Fellows song. If her taste in books was anything like her taste in music, I figured, I must like it. And I did, to say the least. But the novel completely, completely changes the song from quirky and irreverent to downright haunting.

There weren't that many books by him at our library, which isn't surprising considering he's best known in Canada. Of what they had, Pilgrim seemed most interesting. And I'm impressed, again.

This is a big book, not in the sense of pages (although it'd make a pretty good doorstopper) but in the sense of scope. You have lots and lots of characters in the main story and so many more in Pilgrim's journals. The premise: The protagonist, Pilgrim, is admitted to the Burgholzi Psychiatric Clinic after he attempts suicide but fails. Eventually, he becomes the patient of Carl Jung. Pilgrim, as he calls himself, claims to be immortal, not by choice but by circumstance. He's kept journals of all the people he's met during his lifetime: Henry James, Leonardo da Vinci and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. Some are as they are in real life. Many are monsters. But despite all the atrocities he's seen, he can't escape; something won't let him. In one of the more chilling scenes, he wakes up from a dream about World War I, which hasn't happened yet. He dreams up trenches and airplanes and all the horrors the world has yet to see, and he knows he must witness those, too.

There's a hook there that I wasn't really anticipating. One of my friends is convinced that within his lifetime, scientists will have achieved immortality with nanotechnology. (I'm really skeptical of this, but that's beside the point.) He couldn't wait; in fact, he was afraid governments would outlaw it and he'd have to find it on the black market. There'd be no dying then, no rushing to accomplish things to soon, no being behind.

That's the positive side of it. But I'd never want to be immortal, I told him. It's something with no escape clause. If there's an apocalypse, would you want to be around for the aftermath? It's a weak argument, sure, and quoting a fictional book as argument isn't much better, but I imagine Pilgrim would have some things to say on the matter.

Of course, the book's equally about Carl Jung. He's certainly characterized - masterfully so, I'd say - but he isn't the most compelling character to me. This has everything to do with my own memories and probably nothing to do with Findley's book, but I found Tatiana Blavinskeya, the ballerina who thinks she's an expatriate from the Moon, to be infinitely more compelling, along with her nurse Dora Henkel. Her sections have some of the prettiest prose, and it's fitting; her existence might as well be carved out of crystal. She dresses in her old ballet costumes, all taffeta and wisps. And then there's Dora, wispier still, in love with the Moon and with her. It's all romanticized, yes, but if you've ever felt like a body is a useless lump and you'd much rather be a breeze or a painted picture, there's something quite beautiful to it all. The Countess does have a backstory - a rather sad one - and her story arc is both inevitable and absolutely heartbreaking.

A nitpick: Towards the end, the book turns into what's almost a crime caper, rather suddenly. It has a definite point, but it's still a bit jarring. This is minor, though.

Also, there's apparently an opera based on the book. My first reaction is that the characters are all wrong. This is about as knee-jerk as knee-jerk can get, though, and the creators clearly have a better sense of the book than I do. So there you go.

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