“The Way of the Pilgrim” is an anonymously written 19th century Russian book that probably would have been relegated to obscurity were it not for the fact that J.D. Salinger mentions it in “Franny and Zooey.” “The Way of the Pilgrim” has far reaching influences in Salinger’s writing. In fact, if I were an academic type (which I’m not) I would write a thesis about how “Catcher in the Rye” is written as a dystopic “Way of the Pilgrim.”
It is not known if the book is autobiographical, or if it is fiction written as autobiography. My impression is that “Pilgrim” is indeed autobiographical; there are clumsy narrative tropes that a fiction writer would not use, even if trying to make something sound autobiographical. As the books proceeds it sometimes sounds more like notes to self, than prose. The overall tone of the narrative is inconsistent, almost as though the writer grew tired of writing at certain points (in that respect, it almost reads like a proto blog). And the many snippets and vignettes of life in rural 19th century Russia are either too bland or too bizarre to be fabricated. The earliest known manuscript was present at Mt. Athos in the 19th century, and in the course of the narrative, the pilgrim encounters a monk from Mt. Athos. It is very possible that when the pilgrim finished his writings, he put them in the hands of this monk (who in the book, is fluent in Russian and Greek).
So what is the book about? It is about interior prayer, which, as you discover in reading this book, is no simple or small achievement. Just like yogis have to study endlessly and tediously to gain their wisdom, so does a pilgrim have study and pray endlessly and tediously to achieve enlightenment. “Enlightenment” here means prayer without ceasing– prayer that continues even in sleep– a sort of Christian nirvana state. At one point the pilgrim recites the Jesus Prayer 6,000 times a day until he achieves a state of “prayer consciousness.” But this is not good enough, and he wanders years (and six more chapters) beyond this point to achieve greater understanding, humility, and perfection in prayer.
The book can get repetitive and abstract but somehow manages to remain interesting. However, the book is so complex and philosophical that I would have to share my meager thoughts and observations on a chapter by chapter basis, which I hope to do in the near future.