- Anne Geddes Bailey (Editor) and Karen Grandy (Editor)
Essays on Canadian Writing: Timothy Findley Issue. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Timothy Findley (Author)
Pilgrim. HarperPerennial (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Donna Palmateer Pennee
Novel (variation) number 9 (or 10, if you count two versions of The Butterfly Plague) from the pen of Timothy Findley takes us once again over very familiar ground— ground that is too familiar not to seem hackneyed, unless you return to Findley’s work precisely for the repeated frisson of royalty watching and other forms of europhilic nostalgia. If there is a difference here from the variations on themes that we’ve seen in his prolific (repetition-compulsive?) career as novelist, playwright, memoirist, short story and screen writer, it lies in the ambitiousness of the reach and the scale of the historical canvas (and after Famous Last Words, that’s saying something). In Pilgrim and its eponymous hero, I find a sort of hyper-economy of Findley leitmotifs (Thomas Mann offers one of the novel’s epigraphs, making explicit a debt that’s been in the wings by association at least since the naming of Minna): preoccupations spread across several characters in earlier works are now located in a single character—but one who is also a time-traveller in a much more extended sense than Kurtz and Marlow were in Headhunter. They were let loose from their nested space in Conrad’s novel, in Toronto public library holdings, in out-patient Leila’s consciousness, in millennial novel, in reader’s repertoire and so on: now, the evil attractions of genius show up in a prestigious Zurich psychiatric clinic where the trials of Freudian and Jungian therapies are domesticated, and where consciousness of evil shows up in a body that has been occupied by many people over many centuries, most famously perhaps the subject of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. En route to Zurich in the decades prior to WWII (and spread across the artistic and architectural wonders of European high culture about to go up in the flames of war), Pilgrim has been an intimate of Oscar Wilde, a shepherd who was visited by an angel (the woman who would become Saint Teresa), inter alia; he has cross-dressed as a twin brother, contemplated alternative names for Peter Rabbit, fed pigeons, been bosom buddies with Lady Sybil Quartermaine, acquired a butler named Forster and so forth (an embodiment and enactment of "the collective unconscious" which Jung will discover in Pilgrim’s journals).
The fascination-repulsion of "evil," and its embodiment in numerous historical personages, as well as the embodiment of critical consciousness of the same (frequently, but not only, in the figures of "maternal" types and friends of animals), continues to be central to Findley’s imaginings, but I found the moments of genuinely moving insight into this perennial problématique few and far between. I didn’t experience the pilgrimage’s time-space compression as an immersion in the collective unconscious; my reaction took more of the form of "oh, you must be kidding!" or "and what are we today?" The shifts were too many, too fast, too predictable, too often too boring. And I much preferred Pilgrim when he was silent, which wasn’t for long enough. Perhaps had I never read another Findley text, I would have been moved by the glimpses of pathos afforded by the narrative’s more finely imagined moments, or I might have been more attuned to, and therefore more appreciative of, what others might see as repetition-with-a-difference, but alas, I have read other Findley texts—even written about them—in my academic youth. Perhaps, like (a) Pilgrim and all those he represents across time and space, my faith has been tried—and is now wanting.
Not so the nine critics (and many others cited) in the 1998 special Findley issue of Essays on Canadian Writing. Featuring primarily new PhDs whose dissertations were inspired by Findley’s works, with two established Findley scholars (Lorraine York and Barbara Gabriel) and a couple of young veterans of the school of publish-something-on-everything-you-read, the collection only intermittently makes good on the editors’ claims "to provide. . . original perspectives." Had they (or any of the other contributors) pursued their parenthetical remark on "marketing" as one of the things that accounts for the sensationalist forms Findley’s narratives often take, then something original might have emerged. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t good work in the collection, just that for the most part it is ground that has already been well covered. Almost all of the papers fall into the subversion-containment model of critical argument. The essays represented in the "narrative" and "myth" sections of the collection are most reminiscent of earlier scholarship, and indeed Findley’s work requires ongoing engagement with matters both of narrative form and the attractions and dangers of myth. Catherine Hunter’s essay breathes creative life into commonplaces of narratological theory, though I wish the essay had made good on its subtitled promise (Findley’s Work of the Sixties). Tom Hastings’s argument that Findley has "adopted" the British literary tradition’s Great War myth of "generational conflict" interestingly works through aesthetic questions of coloniality, but perhaps underreads the material presence in The Wars of things "Canadian" in the production of that war (that is, Canada is implicated despite Findley’s use of the British "literary" tradition, not least of all through the very business by which Robert Ross’s father makes the family money, and the use of the railway to put down Canada’s "Indian" wars).
The best work in the collection occurs in the "performance" section, particularly in Barbara Gabriel’s essay where theatrical intertexts, the archived first manuscript of Famous Last Words, and the political terrains of "theatre" are reexamined through the semiotics of psychoanalysis—a method for reading that seems to me entirely appropriate to Findley’s repeated returns to the same historical sites and the same subjects for creativity. Karen Grandy’s essay on Findley as a playwright seeks to correct an imbalance in the scholarship in which "performance" is more often than not of the Judith Butler kind rather than theatre practices per se. Lorraine York’s essay on the use of the "racialized/ethnicized other" in Findley’s work likewise takes up (in a self-admittedly preliminary fashion), an under-read Findley-esque repetition. A similar study is needed on matters of class—and it may well have appeared in the interim. In any case, despite what is to me Pilgrim’s regress, the critical project on Findley continues apace.
- Alone with the Memory of Everyday by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: The Baldwins by Serge Lamothe, Sleeping on the Moon by Sylvia Adams, and Moving Day by Terence Young
- Exile and Return by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi and Aught from Naught: A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll by Roger Hyman
- Japanese Memories by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory by Lisa Yoneyama, Narrative as Counter-Memory: A Half-Century of Postwar Writing in Germany and Japan by Reiko Tachiban, O-Bon in Chimunesu: A Community Remembered by Catherine Lang, and The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
- Closing the Circle by Chelva Kanaganayakam
Books reviewed: The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet
- Lectures en miroir by François Ouellet
Books reviewed: Louis Hamelin et ses doubles by François Ouellet and François Paré
MLA: Pennee, Donna Palmateer. Pilgrim's Regress. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 138 - 140)
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