Waves and particles: An appreciation of Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann

Chris Bell

I have little religious knowledge but then, as the disembodied protagonist of this book says, “Theologians and fathers of the Church cannot confound me, they have no firmer ground on which to stand than I.” I know more about “quantum-jumping to the strange brilliance of total Now” because this book helped me to do it.

When I first read Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann in the early 1980s I still believed in a God who moved in strange ways, even if I was not egocentric enough to think He heeded prayers – an expanding Universe, meetings to convene and all that. I can no longer justify belief in a Supreme Being, but I do believe this book asks vital questions of those who still have faith; questions they neither often nor rigorously enough attempt to answer.

Pilgermann is no longer a man. He describes himself as a post restante, not distinct from anything else:

“I call myself Pilgermann, it’s a convenience … What I am now is waves and particles, I don’t need to walk around, I just go.”

It makes him an odd sort of protagonist, for sure, but it allows Hoban to have his virtual hero range through history; all Time can be Now to Pilgermann, a Jew who has cuckolded a Christian tax-collector and subsequently been castrated for his pains by the mob (like the rest of us, he’s already been castrated by mortality).

No longer having a body to worry about, Pilgermann is diffident about his sins and the risks he took while committing them:

“I bribed no servants, I asked no one how long he would be gone, I felt honour bound to take my naked chance. I came as one who seeks a miracle; caution seemed sacrilegious.”

Without undue or contrived abstraction, characters and events function as ciphers; the tax collector’s wife, Sophia, represents forbidden beauty, wisdom and all that the Haves deny the Have-Nots:

“A woman of regal buttocks and nervous, equine grace. A face of mercy and sweet goodness. That this man should have the management of such a woman is absolutely scientific in its manifestation of that asymmetry without which there would be no motion in the universe. Yes, such a coupling imparts spin to the cosmos, it creates action, it utterly negates stasis.”

He sets off with his worldly goods but only “the ghost of a penis” on what he thinks will be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but even as a eunuch he is unrepentant and his libido seems undiminished: “…orchards are pleasant even if one can’t climb the trees”.

This serves to makes him both more real and sympathetic. But a God that is “the raw motive power of the universe” has other ideas about Pilgermann’s Jerusalem – there is a Jerusalem of the mind and this is to become as important to him as any geographic destination.

An allegorical style is also convenient in that it allows pigs and bears to talk and for Death to appear in various guises, skeletal and otherwise. The novel frequently draws on biblical imagery, in particular Abram’s covenant with God:

“Then came the thick darkness after the sun went down, and in that darkness were the smoking furnace and the flaming torch that passed between the pieces. So here already was shown the main theme of the people of Abraham: the furnace and the torch; the consuming fire and the onward flame.”

And this is a challenge for first-time Hoban readers, or those who came to Pilgermann directly from Riddley Walker without first reading Turtle Diary, Kleinzeit or The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. Those allergic to bible stories may lose patience before assenting to set out with Pilgermann towards Jerusalem; which would be unfortunate, because covenants are intrinsic to the story:

“I am only the waves and particles of such as I was but I have a covenant with the Lord, the terms of it are simple: everything is required of me, for ever.”

The covenant between reader and writer is not quite so all-consuming, but you still need to get as far as Antioch to take in the patterns underlying this novel, and that requires reading at least as far as chapter 10. There are many dark interludes in the intervening pages, and it requires almost as much fortitude as the castrated Pilgermann needs on his journey of repentance.

When Christ appears to the castrated Jew, he knows things between him and God have reached crisis point – for this is no Jesus from the pages of a children’s bible; summoning his image from stone in the rood-loft of Naumburg Cathedral, Pilgermann says his gentleness is “the meekness of plutonium”:

“He was tall, lean, and sinewy. One of those fair Jews with his hair further lightened by the bleaching of the sun. Very light blue eyes, perfectly intrepid eyes drooping a little towards the outside of the face, the eyes of a fighter, the eyes of a lion … He was no one in whom I had any belief but there he was and there was no mistaking who he was.”

Pilgermann is audacious enough to question God’s will and the ongoing “conversion” of the Jews from life to death, but Christ shows him God’s will is incomprehensible to man. He expects Pilgermann to pay for his sins by letting go of everything. Drifting high above the action he has time to consider the main players in the drama of Christ’s life and death; to question the motivation of pivotal characters such as Pontius Pilate, personified in the Hieronymus Bosch painting in which Christ receives his crown of thorns:

“…he died by his own hand some years later – that same hand, probably, that rests on Christ’s shoulder in the painting. There it was on the end of his arm year after year: feeding him, writing letters, caressing his wife, holding whatever there was in life for him to hold. Suddenly it lets go of everything and jumps up and kills him.”

Hoban’s later books feature other paintings, classical music, song lyrics and interpretations of such works of art, but nowhere are they so intrinsically woven into the story and so massively and beautifully magnified as they are in Pilgermann. And here, Hoban sets a precedent for his later works when, in describing another Bosch painting, the central panel of the ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ triptych, Pilgermann says:

“It is not necessary to have seen this painting to recognize immediately what I am about to describe; I refer to it only as a convenient example.”

Unavoidably detained
One beauty of this novel is that good readers will leave its pages to make their own discoveries and to trace through the works of art mentioned the path of underground streams, to see if they might agree with Pilgermann when he says of the “preternatural brilliance” in the sky of ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ that: “…Bosch experienced that light by quantum-jumping to the strange brilliance of total Now.”

The waves and particles of Pilgermann the Jew go on attempting to converse with God, but even after the manifestation of Jesus he is not afraid to question the bible, and he blames God for his temptation with Sophia:

“I have done wrong and I know it, but how could you put Sophia into the world and expect me not to do wrong? It would be an insult to your creation not to climb ladders for that woman.”

Over time Pilgermann concludes “the will of God was simply that everything possible would indeed be possible”. Submissive and unknowing men and women would have given the Old Testament God little to work with:

“What if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten of the fruit of the tree, what then? No Holy Scriptures, no story to tell. Who’d have wanted to know about them? They’d have stayed in their garden obedient and ignorant, bored to death with life and each other and tiresome in the sight of God, they’d have been like a picture that is hung on the wall and after a time not looked at any more.”

There is an imaginary conversation through which Pilgermann tries to explain the continuous slaughter of Jews. It takes places between God as a He and Satan. God acknowledges that Pilgermann was bound to climb the ladder to Sophia’s bedroom, but that a mere thought from Him (a Bath Kol) would have been enough to stop the sinner in his tracks so he bets half of his congregation on it. Pilgermann’s story could not have been told plausibly if God hadn’t lost that bet. Without God repeatedly disappointed by Man’s sins there could have been no crusades in Christ’s name.

In God’s Creation, Pilgermann decides, “If there were no Jews they would have to be invented”, and sadly, no matter how he perverts events in his mind, the children of darkness could never have experienced things differently – not even in an imagined world in which Jesus is an Italian and Rome has a Jewish governor: “I listen and I listen but no one says, ‘The blood of him on us and on the children of us.’”

Set pieces
There are more Hoban set pieces in Pilgermann than there are in any of his other books – or perhaps it only seems that way because they are quoted so frequently:

“When one is a child, when one is young, when one has not yet reached the age of recognition, one thinks that the world is strong, that the strength of God is endless and unchanging. But after the thing has happened – whatever that thing might be – that brings recognition, then one knows irrevocably how very, very fragile; it is like one of those ideas that one has in dreams: so clear and so self-explaining are they that we make no special effort to remember. Then of course they vanish as we wake and there is nothing there but the awareness that something very clear has altogether vanished.”

Pilgermann and Hoban’s other masterpiece Riddley Walker are ‘road novels’; but where the latter was a journey of self-discovery for Riddley, Pilgermann is a novel of ideas (a truism if ever there was one; what are novels otherwise?): “An idea is an eye given by God for the seeing of God.” Hoban’s ideas are not disembodied like his protagonist; his set pieces are what make Pilgermann’s voice so sympathetic, although we know he’s not only fictional but doesn’t live even in the sense most fictional characters do.

An image recalled by Pilgermann that recurs many times in Hoban’s subsequent books – most notably in The Medusa Frequency – is Vermeer’s painting ‘Head of a Young Girl’ (today more commonly referred to as ‘The Girl With The Pearl Earring’). Pilgermann has his reasons for asking rhetorically if the fall of Jerusalem could have been painted by Vermeer.

One of the many pleasures of reading Hoban are these recurrent images – it might be a painting, a sculpture or an idea that is a motif in a previous book. I’ve likened this before to the way a jazz musician returns to the same melodic figure in numerous solos, or the way musicians with large bodies of work, such as Frank Zappa, quote themselves almost as a game – you either get it or you don’t – the thing about a resonant idea is that it’s worth repeating. Such as this one from Chapter 11 of Pilgermann:

“One wakes up in the morning and puts on oneself. Everyone has experienced this: the self must be put on before any garment, and there is inevitably a pause as it were a caesura in the going forward of things before the self is put on.”

Compare that with the opening of Chapter 12 in The Medusa Frequency:

“In the morning I came awake as I always do, like a man trapped in a car going over a cliff.”

I’m sorry, I’ll read that again…
When Pilgermann was published in 1983, reviews were mixed. Respected critics grumbled, others got it plain wrong. Even those as highly regarded Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the New York Times, seems not to have given the novel the attention Hoban deserved when he dismissed its narrative as “numbing”; it’s anything but.

At least Kakutani read the book, which apparently the unnamed critic at the New Yorker did not; perhaps deciding it was safer to attempt to summarise the book through reference to Kakutani’s review. Briefly noted in a paragraph, the writer says Hoban “compares raisins to celestial bodies”. What Pilgermann in fact says is that he sometimes thinks of life as a sort of raisin cake with vast distances between the raisins, adding that the battle of Manzikert was “one of the big dots, one of the juicier raisins”. Unless you consider either life or a battle to be a celestial body, nowhere in Pilgermann is such a comparison made.

For all the weight of history and the bleakness of the imagery Pilgermann must recall to tell his story – child crusaders raped by skeletons on the road to their small Jerusalem, for instance – the book is not without humour, with Hoban displaying his trademark observational skills. About to set sail for the Holy Land on a ship fatefully called the Balena, for example:

“When it was time to sail the seamen all lurched aboard fit for nothing but vomiting and sleeping. Some did one, some did both. When woken up to raise the sail and haul up the anchor they all began to sing. Their singing had that peculiar falseness sometimes heard in the choruses of provincial opera companies; it made one lose all confidence in any kind of human effort whatever.”

The captain of the Balena, it transpires, is in cahoots with pirates and has struck a deal for the disposal of his pilgrims. The appearance of the pirate captain (whose name is Prodigality) prefigures a fabulous piece of Hoban business involving the sale of pilgrim-slaves to one of the book’s key characters, a Turk with “heroic moustaches”, Bembel Rudzuk, who is destined to become Pilgermann’s best friend.

Jerusalem pilgrims are a valuable commodity; after all, what could be luckier? Prodigality tells Bembel Rudzuk in the kind of sales pitch a modern agency hack would be proud of (Hoban himself was once in advertising):

“Only think! Possessed by their Christ, driven by a mystical force, they swim rivers, they climb mountains, they strive with brigands who would take their lives, all to travel to Jerusalem! Buy a Jerusalem pilgrim and all this mystical force can be yours.”

After some bartering, pirate captain, customer and slave ultimately decide it’s not a good look to be seen profiting from slavery:

“‘Allah wills what Allah wills,’ said Prodigality. ‘Let it be altogether circular.’
‘I am obedient to the will of Allah,’ I said, and put the gold back into the hand from which it had originally come.
‘Let it be noticed by all who have eyes to see,’ said my new friend as he received the gold, ‘that Allah has taken notice.’
‘It’s a pleasure doing business with you,’ said Prodigality. ‘It’s spiritually refreshing. It’s only a pity I can’t afford this sort of thing more often.’”

Contiguous with infinity
I was already a convert to Hoban when I discovered this book. I continue to be in awe of his ability to conjure in short passages a sensory impression of a scene that’s akin to transportation, time travel or out-of-body experience:

“Towards morning it began to rain, and it was in the grey rainlight that Suwaydiyya offered to us the shapes of dawn all dark and huddled, the low waterside buildings curtained with rain, the water of the harbour leaping up in points to meet the downpour, the dawn boats rocking to the morning slap of the water on their sides, furled sails wet with dawn and rain and still heavy with night, crews sheltering under awnings, the smoke of their breakfast fires ghostly in the rain.”

Pilgermann’s new friend Bembel Rudzuk lives in Antioch and wants to avail himself of the action of Pilgermann’s mind. He asks him to devise a pattern to decorate a tiled plaza. Bembel Rudzuk explains at the outset:

“Patterns cannot be originated, they can only be taken notice of. When a pattern shows itself in tiles or on paper or in your mind and says, ‘This is the mode of my repetition; in this manner can I extend myself to infinity,’ it has already done so, it has already been infinite from the very first moment of its being; the potentiality and the actuality are one thing. If two and two can be four then they already are four, you can only perceive it, you have no part in making it happen by writing it down in numbers or telling it out in pebbles. When we draw on paper or lay out in tiles a pattern that we have not seen before we are only recording something that has always been happening; the air all around us, the earth we stand on, the very particles of our being are continually active with an unimaginable multiplicity of patterns, all of them contiguous with infinity.”

Well, that’s the theory. Pilgermann gives his pattern the name “Hidden Lion” while already foretelling that we don’t always know what it is that we’re putting names to. Their apparent innocence in wanting to create a pattern contiguous with infinity and to observe “Thing in Itself” becomes gradually corrupted by conflicting intentions, beliefs and expectations – as is so often the case in life when groups steer well-meant projects. Bembel Rudzuk eventually admits: “…‘this that we do here is only a kind of foolishness, a kind of vanity. It is done to be looked at.”

Insanity of warfare
Hoban is especially good on the preparations for war, the “ponderous labour” that must take place in order for the crusades to proceed.  This book brings alive the Middle Ages in a way a history book cannot because Hoban gets behind the action to look at motivators, brings mundane detail to life, underscores ironies and absurdities in language historians generally don’t employ:

“Decades before the first battle must the first engines of war be brought into play: the first engines of war are men and women, they are the hammer and anvil that in the heat of their action make soldiers.”

The fall of Antioch to the Franks is especially brutal – Christians and Muslims sacrificed to prove a point, human heads stacked in mule carts for use as cannonballs – and as though Hoban is capable of zooming in it, as if into a  high-resolution Breughel painting, picking out detail we otherwise wouldn’t notice:

“How strange, I thought, to be a horse; one might be carrying on one’s back anything at all to anything at all: chaos to order; betrayal to trust; defeat to victory; death to life.”

During the siege of Pilgermann’s observations put the obscenities of war into stark focus:

“These dead horses on the other side of the river, each of them may well have carried a man to his death last night; now each will give life to many men for several days. The shocking thought arises: how much better off everybody would be if the Franks would go away somewhere and butcher their horses and live quietly on the meat.”

Then, out of the smoke of history rides the inevitability that is Bohemond, crusader Prince of Taranto, “an ardent forwardness”, to end the siege and conquer Antioch. Although a cipher, an “un-Christ” and a larger-than-life warrior (Pilgermann tells us he can offer nothing sure about him, only intimations), Hoban succeeds in making him terrifying, believable and a truly irresistible force:

“…Bohemond’s lineage is more than human, it includes generations of horses; the line of Bohemond goes back to Eohippus, the dawn horse, the very beginning of all chivalry.”

Pilgermann can’t help himself; even in his faithlessness he’s unfaithful. He can’t quite bring himself to abandon the idea of God as a He – one we can better sympathise with because he needs us to experience life on his behalf:

“…there is a mystery that even God cannot fathom, nor can he give the law of it on two stone tablets. He cannot speak what there are no words for; he needs divers to dive into it, he needs wrestlers to wrestle with it, singers to sing it, lovers to love it. He cannot deal with it alone, he must find helpers, and for this does he blind some and maim others.”

Divine comedy
At one point Pilgermann notes as an aside, “When God was He there was nobody like him for jokes”, and as I’ve been writing this, a still small voice has been forming in my mind. It’s asking if reading Pilgermann contributed to my conversion – from believer to sceptic to unbeliever (I assume irreversibly).

Certainly the God who’s been described by the time we reach the end of this book –the one Pilgermann concludes is neither operating as a He nor damning sinners to drink molten brass – is harmonious with what I consider a plausible alternative to a Godless Universe. Expecting such a deity to act in our petty self-interest, to answer our prayers, is embarrassingly selfish – to appropriate a word from Hoban’s vocabulary, solipsistic.

“‘Our first lesson,’ said Bembel Rudzuk: ‘the heart of the mystery is meant to remain a mystery.’”

A great book articulates and crystallises your thinking but generally doesn’t change your life all on its own. Pilgermann is the closest I’ve experienced to a life-changing novel so far. I can offer no higher praise.

Further reading: 
Chris Bell 2011
First published on wordsSHIFTminds, 28 August 2011

Chris Bell was born in North Wales in the autumn of the 20th Century. Shrugging off this early setback, he moved from Holyhead to Hamburg via London in a futile search for the trappings of rock stardom, before arriving in New Zealand where, having gone as far as he could, he now works as a writer and editor. He has also written a novel, Liquidambar, winner of the UKA Press ‘Search For A Great Read’ competition; and a novella, Saccade, which is currently shopping for a publisher. His website has been evolving since the internet was a primordial soup. On Twitter you’ll find him tweeting as @ChrisBellNZ. He describes himself as “a glass-two-thirds-empty sort of a person”.



Nine years have passed since you wrote this essay, Chris. You might be waves and particles by now - but I only just read it - and connected wit the you that you were then in that moment those years ago - and just wanted to say that I enjoyed it very much and agree wholheartedly with your take on it. I've only just joined this online community - and realised how much I needed a Russel Hoban bubble in my life. Two thirds empty is quite a way down the glass for a Kiwi. Myself, I seek refuge in Russel's uncompromising, always on the way to Jerusalem, philosophy with an appreciation of his god who is no God. Currently working with my friend Felix Cross who swans between Oz and The Smoke on a theatrical retelling of The Book of Job set in the sixties with a big twist on the bible ending. Reading Isaac Singer just now - quite a different kind of Jewish Pilgrim with a different Jerusalem when he gets there.


Martin Riley

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