Sunday, 11 May 2014

Penguin no. 37: The Pilgrim of a Smile
by Norman Davey

The habit (or disease) of collecting things is common to a large number of people: and though the variety of objects collected is almost infinite, the basic impulse is the same in all collectors. The lepidopterist may think the sticking of postage stamps in an album rather a poor occupation, and the philatelist would no doubt regard the climbing of suburban lamp-posts an insane undertaking. An array of tram-tickets has delighted the hearts of grown-up schoolboys, and the hortus siccus brought an element of adventure into the routine of uneventful lives...For it is to be noted that although the choice of the thing collected may be temperamental and particular, the common joy in success which outweighs the tedium of so many failures is the joyous adventure of the chase and the heritage of all men.

Three intoxicated young men and their reluctant companion stand before Cleopatra's Needle, on London's Embankment, late one night. Matthew Sumner, 'a small man, of an insignificant appearance', would prefer to be anywhere else, and he tries to assert his need to leave and catch a train for home. But his drunken acquaintances impel him to stay, and he unfortunately lacks the wherewithal to disregard them.

His companions are intent on petitioning one of the Sphinxes which stand guard over the obelisk. The first, a poet, begins his plea with a kind of incantation and ends with an appeal to be granted the chance to love the world's most beautiful woman, and to be loved by her in return; the second, a painter, wishes to acquire the power to capture sorrow on his canvas, and through doing so to achieve success; the third, an actor, asks simply for money. At this point the petitioned Sphinx awakens and becomes luminous, revealing himself to be a God willing to grant their wishes, but only after the fourth man present has also made a request. But Matthew Sumner wants nothing for himself; he asks only to know the reason for the Sphinx's fixed, unfathomable smile.

What follows is an episodic account of the following two years of Matthew Sumner's life. The hero of these stories remains something of an enigma, for while it is his story we follow, we learn very little about him. We know that he is 35 when the story begins, and 37 when it ends; he lives in London, but he seems rarely to be there;  and whatever it is that he does for a living, it is clear that it requires a considerable amount of travel to interesting places, including Paris, the Riviera and Monaco. Matthew Sumner is always polite to strangers, but it is clear he prefers his own company, and yet people seem to seek him out everywhere he goes.

Some of the stories of Matthew Sumner's adventures are realistic, while others are fantasies, but like a collection of crime or ghost short stories, each story may tell a different tale but they all tend to conform to a common structure and theme. Someone generally seeks Matthew Sumner out with the intention of relating to him the story of his or her life, with the teller typically looking for sympathy and understanding. But the story related invariably dismays Sumner, while adding a little more to his knowledge of the spectrum of possible human failings, as the theme of each chapter is the imperfection of mankind.

In the course of his adventures he finds himself watching on, incapacitated by the need to protect his honour, as a man destroys things which are priceless and irreplaceable as an act of vengeance for personal grief, and with no care for their value to others; he watches as a husband and wife publicly and extravagantly display their affection for each other, but he soon realises that their gesture is an empty one, as each is secretly engaged in an affair; he reluctantly spends an evening with a renowned professor who dies in sorrow because he never indulged his licentious inclinations; he meets a man who breaks one engagement after another in fear of making the wrong choice; and he meets a wealthy man who recognises the genius of a struggling musician, and who uses the knowledge to benefit financially, but then acts to ensure that the musician remains undiscovered by others. The stories go on and on, each a tale about selfishness, self-obsession and self-justification.

At the end of the two years, Matthew Sumner is left lacking any faith in humanity, and he now understands the meaning of the Sphinx's enigmatic smile. And at this point we are given the opportunity of revisiting the other three young men in order to learn how they too have fared with the Sphinx's gifts.

You could never describe Norman Davey as being parsimonious with words; if there is a simpler word available he will invariably choose the more-complex alternative, and he never confines his descriptions to a sentence if he can stretch them out to fill a paragraph or two. This is a novel with long, long stretches of prose devoted to conveying fairly simple ideas, and it was difficult at times to avoid the temptation of skimming rather than reading; it was clear that nothing essential was likely to be missed.

It is an unusual book, and one which can become dispiriting to read with its relentless parade of stories of self-serving behaviour, but it is saved to some extent by its humour and the quiet appeal of its protagonist.

First published January 1921. Published in Penguin Books 1936.

Link: - download The Pilgrim of a Smile


  1. This sounds like another interesting book for me to pick up. The Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the on-line Encyclopedia of Science Fiction state that the author was born in 1888 and died in 1949 and that he was an engineer by profession. He wrote a science fiction novel Today (1924), about the secession of the Isle of Wight from the UK (change it to Scotland and he could republish it right now). He also wrote 2 other fantasies: Judgment Day (1928) and Pagan Parable (1936). The description given of the books makes all of them sound interesting. He doesn't sound like a full-time author, just someone who wrote as a hobby. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Doing a bit more research on seems to indicate that he also turned out a number of books on engineering topics, especially in relation to building materials.

  3. Author and book both completely new to me. It sounds intriguing - I think if I saw an old Penguin copy I would definitely pick it up....



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