‘To Be a Pilgrim’ by Joyce Cary – Caution, Read at Your Own Risk

‘To Be a Pilgrim’ by Joyce Cary   (1942) – 451 pages     Grade: B-

41ZRQFFPS3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You know the routine.

I am supposed to say that I picked up this old novel that was written way back in the 1940s and that no one else has read in a coon’s age. Then I am supposed to say that I started reading this musty ancient tome, and, lo and behold, I was really quite amazed.  The book was beyond wondrous, a real gem actually.  You must drop anything else you were intending to do, useful or useless, and read this book.

Sadly the truth about ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is much more complicated. It is a very odd novel.

‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is the second volume of Cary’s first trilogy.  I read the first volume of the trilogy, ‘Herself Surprised’, a few years ago and quite enjoyed the lively high-spirited cleaning lady narrator of that story, Sara Munday.  However the narrator of ‘To Be a Pilgrim’, Tom Wilcher, is distinctly unlikeable.

Tom’s description of himself is “that life-battered gnome”.   Except for the time he spent with Sara Munday, Tom has never lived his own life. He spent his years as the lowly factotum and gofer to his brother Edward who was a big-time politician.  One of Tom’s tasks was to keep track of Edward’s mistress Julie and keep her in line. Tom is now in his mid-sixties and has returned to his family home, but he fears his young relatives will put him in an asylum.  He is waiting for Sara Munday to get out of jail for stealing items from his apartment. Although he is very devout in his religion and is given to making prim pronouncements about the younger generation, Tom himself is a dirty old man.  He has already attracted the attention of the police for his antics with young women in public parks.

“Do you think it is a good thing for girls to paint their faces like the lowest strumpets and go around in short skirts or even short trousers and drink and swear like bargees?”  

51vRli2pDQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One thing you won’t find in ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is an exciting plot.  Here we get flashbacks to many scenes from Tom’s tedious previous life over the years as well as his staid but troublesome current existence.  The life story of a rather passive person makes for a listless read.

The time I spent reading this long novel seemed interminable.  Nothing of the faintest interest seemed to happen, but still I kept reading.  I suppose that speaks to a positive aspect of the work.  Will I read the third novel in the trilogy, ‘The Horse’s Mouth’, which is supposed to be the best of the three?  Perhaps.

But if you value your time at all, you probably should not read ‘To Be a Pilgrim’.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on May 7, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    Ha! Thanks for the warning! I have looked at Joyce Cary books and wondered whether they would be any good for me but been unconvinced. Now I don’t need to bother. 🙂

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Just goes to show that not every novel published over sixty years ago is a lost treasure. If you do decide to read Joyce Cary, read his African novel ‘Mr. Johnson’ or ‘Herself Surprised’ or ‘The Horse’s Mouth’. Take a pass on ‘To Be a Pilgrim’. 🙂

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  2. Did To Be a Pilgrim and Herself Surprised each stand on its own? Or do they connect in an important way? I have the Horse’s Mouth on my TBR pile, not realizing it was part of a trilogy. Now wondering about reading it alone.

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    • Hi RareBird,
      The three novels in this trilogy are very much ‘stand alone’. Each has a different narrator and tells a story that is hardly related to the others. The only reason it is a trilogy is that the three narrators know each other, but the stories are totally separate.
      ‘A Horse’s Mouth’ does have a pretty good reputation and was even made into a movie. I liked ‘Herself Surprised’ a lot.

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      • Good! The Horse’s Mouth (and Mr. Johnson) were printed as part of the Time Reading Program series, which I collect and now form my biggest TBR pile (shelves, really). I will leave it in queue, and look eagerly for your impressions if you beat me to it. Thank you–

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    • Posted by robert wright on June 6, 2016 at 2:28 AM

      I would say that the 3 books are very much connected, even though the connection isn’t simple to characterize. You expect with a trilogy that they should be tightly interwoven, but these are not. The 3 characters overlap at points, mostly through Sarah Monday, but they don’t all experience the same things, or get to know deep truths about one another. They are however representatives of 3 different principles that Cary was deeply conscious of and wanted to try to say something about. So it would be a bit like writing a book whose main character is “id” and another who is “ego”, and who live in the same town and cross paths but don’t share a life story. The author in that case would be holding that comparison or complementary understanding in mind, even though at the level of the actual story there might not seem like an obvious connection.

      Cary’s characters are roughly art, devotion, and anima, but it’s not quite so simple as that because he gave his characters life, or they took it on themselves. As he wrote, his characters became real and didn’t just obediently act out ideas their author wanted to package up and publish. With the result that it all kept getting messy, and he would write reams of stuff that headed off in entirely different directions, that he’d eventually have to scrap. Castle Corner for example was a relatively bad book that was one little sliver of something like 40 file boxes of manuscript. He worked and worked and it all just kept metastasizing and falling apart. Which I love it for. I love the feeling behind the words of Cary struggling to find what he was trying to say and managing at least to intimate shapes and shadows.

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  3. Posted by robert wright on June 6, 2016 at 2:03 AM

    Hm. The thing is, The Horse’s Mouth, To Be a Pilgrim and Herself Surprised are sort of meant to be held in your mind together. They are ‘about’ subjective reality, you might say. The 3 main characters appear in one another’s stories, but it’s not at all the same story from 3 different points of view. But enough so that you can see that perceptions of the same events and people and narratives about self-understanding and motives can present entirely differently. To Be a Pilgrim is a somewhat dull book, because it’s about a somewhat dull and self-deluded man. Which doesn’t make for lively reading in the usual way, but which is quite satisfying in its own way, taken as part of the whole triptych.

    Cary has a lot to say, but he never just has a polemical theory that he wants to sell you. The characters have their own lives, and things keep getting a little out of control. Cary tends to reach for things that can’t quite be grasped, and the only way he ‘explains’ anything is just by showing you. But since what he’s showing is in a sense real and organic and not just action made to prove a philosophical point, you can’t easily just say “ok right, got it.” What you ‘get’ is in a sense as organic and personal as the action and the thoughts you’ve been shown. You don’t come away from To Be a Pilgrim saying “I have learned that the pious are really just hypocrites” for example, though Wilcher is a pious hypocrite. But, he’s also genuinely devout. Being an old lecher doesn’t make him a big old phony whom we’re happy to despise. It’s not so simple. He’s a ‘real’ person, not just something rigged together to make a point, and with real people things shift, co-exist across semi-permeable barriers, memories fade and are re-made to suit the emotional needs of the moment, self-justification gets framed first one way, then another, always with the same plodding conviction of saying what’s real.

    To Be a Pilgrim is dull, but it’s really wonderful when you see what it’s trying to portray, which can really only be done in the context of all 3 books.

    The Horse’s Mouth will surprise and delight you though. It’s about a mad, pugnacious, driven little man, so it’s lively and funny and much easier to just take at face value.

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    • Hi Robert Wright,
      I’m not sure if you saw my review of Joyce Cary’s ‘Herself Surprised’, but here it is:
      https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/my-novels-point-out-that-the-world-consists-entirely-of-exceptions-joyce-cary/
      I have a very strong positive view of ‘Herself Surprised’, and that may have increased my disappointment with ‘To Be a Pilgrim’. I see your point that the three characters appear in each others novels, but in some cases only peripherally. Sara Munday is such a lively character, I wish she were in ‘To Be A Pilgrim’ more. Both Sara and Tom Wilcher have a lot of faults, and I like the fact that Joyce Cary deals with the faults in the novels. Like you say they are ‘real’ people, and thus more complex than fictional characters usually are.
      I suppose I let a little too much time elapse between reading the two novels so that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the connections between the two novels.
      ‘Herself Surprised’ was such a strong novel, its difficult to see that ‘The Horse’s Mouth’ could be an even stronger work, but that seems to be the critical opinion and your opinion.

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