Let’s allow author John Broderick to set the plot of The Pilgrimage in motion in his own words:
Stephen’s hand, knuckles poised, moved a fraction of an inch towards the door. There was nothing more to be heard. And then with an instinctive gesture he stopped himself. Mrs Glynn had not yet spoken. She was not usually so silent when her nephew was present. Father Victor, his voice squeaky with enthusiasm, began to speak again of the perfection of the arrangements for the pilgrimage which his Order was organizing to Lourdes. Suddenly, during a pause in a breathless description of the atmosphere of the Grotto at night, Mrs Glynn cut in. Stephen, holding the tray carefully away from his chest, leaned his head near the door. The voice was low, but clear and vibrant. Stephen could imagine her leaning forward, her full lips parted, her eyes sweeping from one to the other, husband, nephew, priest, contriving to give all of them her undivided interest.
‘Why don’t you come, Jim?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think that would be a good idea, Father? Michael, ask him to come. I know those foreign doctors are wonderful, but Michael has got used to you, Jim, and so have I.’
The Pilgrimage was banned by the Irish Censorship Board when it appeared in 1961 and caused a scandal in England. Broderick takes precious few pages to supply evidence why.
Sin number one would be his portrayal of the men of the Church, characterized by Father Victor, and the hypocritical respect they are given by community “leaders”:
Stephen put down the silver tray carrying the whisky and water on the table at the end of the bed. After nodding pleasantly in his direction Father Victor continued to talk about Lourdes. There was a polite fiction maintained that he did not see the arrival of the whisky, and refused to recognize its existence until it was handed to him in a glass with just the right amount of water added. This was done by Mrs Glynn when Stephen withdrew; her husband did not think it was edifying for servants to see priests displaying the appetites of ordinary men.
Father Victor always has three whiskys before Stephen drives him back to the Monastery but, from the Censorship Board’s point of view, that worldly indulgence is only an “apertif” to the greater sins that will dominate the book. They will centre on Julia:
There was always the necessity for haste. At first Julia had found this exciting: the brutal directness of such lovemaking had something of the anonymity of elemental sensuality. It was enough merely to hold that great body, never more than half undressed, in her arms on the bed, or more often simply standing against the locked door of the darkened room. And there had been the additional excitement of careful preparation. It was intoxicating to know, that underneath her thick woollen dress so correct, so respectable, she was naked.
The “great body” belongs to Dr. Jim; he and Julia alway end the weekly ritual with a quick bout of sex — Stephen is not only absent from the house driving Father Victor home but also, in a recent burst of innovation, Julia has added the Thursday shopping to his chore list to keep him away longer. The metaphor of the nakedness underneath the “thick woollen dress so correct, so respectable” is soon expanded and extended.
Julia and Jim’s affair actually predates her marriage to Michael. While Julia had a conventional upbringing, her adult adventures began when she started work at age 20 as a receptionist at “a large and garish sea-side hotel” outside Dublin, “a meeting-place for those who wanted casual adventures”:
At one time it had been a rendezvous for homosexuals, because of a beach near by where men could bathe in the nude; later that shifting population migrated to a newer and more garish bar farther along the coast: but this had taken place before Julia’s time. All the staff were members of a religious sodality for hotel workers run by Jesuit priests; and the owners were notable supporters of Catholic charities. Apart from its vulgar and ostentatious furnishings, which Julia only grew to hate during her last year there, it was a comfortable place, and the work was light.
The homosexuals may have moved on, but there is still a lot of convenient sex taking place at the hotel. Yet Julia “never felt the slightest urge to mock the hypocritical climate in which she lived” — until in her fourth year there, she met a divorced American, Howard Kurtz, started an affair and fell in love for the first time (yes, I do think Broderick was paying homage to Heart of Darkness when he chose the name). The affair was torrid while it lasted but ended suddenly when Kurtz was recalled to Washington — Julia wasn’t asked along and his letters arrived increasingly less frequently until a year later Julia read in a society magazine of his engagement to the daughter of a South American millionaire.
Julia soon moved on to Dr Jim Glynn (“quiet reserved manner”, “undemanding”) but she is anything but in love with him. She did not realize that through Kurtz “she had been educated in a very old tradition: that of the sensitive courtesan to whom the luxury of idle days is the very breath of life.” The affair with Jim is put on hold when he brings his forty-five year old bachelor uncle, Michael, to the hotel. Michael begins coming more often, takes Julia out and “at last, in an offhand but business-like manner” proposes to her.
Julia begins to realize her marriage is really one of false convenience on the couple’s honeymoon when the Glynns strike up a friendship with a young German, Helmut, whom Michael continues to correspond with after their return. She discovers the true nature of that relationship when she finds one of Helmut’s letters in a suit of Michael’s that she is sending to the cleaners: “Helmut could no longer write since he had gone to live with his great friend Kurt, who was insanely jealous, etc.” Michael consoles himself by taking up with a young engineer in his employ; Julia responds by renewing her relationship with Jim.
This comfortable, if twisted, arrangement risks becoming spectacularly unglued when “the first letter” arrives:
At first she did not entirely grasp its contents: it was like reading a foreign language one has not spoken for a long time. She looked at the end. It was unsigned. It was a complete and detailed account of her affair with Jim; or rather how they made love together. It made no comment as to the time or place at which these acts took place: it simply described them crudely and clinically, and without any threats or demands. It was like a passage copied from a badly written pornographic novel, except that, as Julia realized with a thrill of horror, she was one of the characters.
It is hard to summarize what The Pilgrimage is about (and I have only supplied the tip of the degenerate iceberg here) without making it seem like a soap opera of the first order: trust me when I say that it is anything but. I have included more excerpts than I usually do in this review because I wanted to supply examples of the icy absence of emotion in Broderick’s prose. The terror that his characters feel — and the fierceness of his attack on the hypocrisy of Irish respectability — is made even more concrete by the deliberate flatness that he uses in developing it.
The result is a compelling, engrossing short novel (only 191 pages in the Lilliput Press edition that I read). I referenced my fondness for Irish authors in my last post (of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto) and I am delighted to add John Broderick to my personal list (with special thanks to my Irish “reading guide”, Kimbofo at Reading Matters who not only drew him to my attention but also sent me a copy of The Pilgrimage). Unlike McCabe, who leans heavily on the comically absurd to make his point, Broderick is relentlessly realistic in his portrayal of what he sees as the falseness of conventional Irish society — in that sense, he is much more like another KfC Irish favorite, John McGahern. The Pilgrimage was his first novel and he went on to write 11 more. I look forward to further exploration of his work; nobody does “dark” the way the Irish do and this novel alone convinces me that he stands in the first rank.
(The Pilgrimage is out of print in North America but clicking on the cover at the top of the review will take you to the Book Depository listing for the book, with free shipping included.)