EDITOR’S NOTE by Michael Cunningham
The first mystery, where novels are concerned, is how anyone manages, ever, to write a book that’s any good at all.
Sure, go ahead, simulate life, using only ink and paper. Take the words offered by the dictionary, the same words that are available to everybody who can read, and arrange them so strategically that they simultaneously illuminate and deepen the mystery of human existence.
Do so in a way that’s cogent and compelling, that grabs readers with the opening line and doesn’t let them go until the final one. Don’t make it too neat and tidy — that will come off as trivial. But don’t make it too messy and sprawling, either — that won’t feel like much of anything at all.
You don’t have to have written a novel to fully appreciate how nearly impossible that undertaking is. It helps, though.
This initial mystery — how does anyone, ever, pull it off? — is followed, over time, by a second one.
Why does history remember some novels, and forget others? Okay, because most novels are forgettable. But there are some, a handful or two, that brush up against greatness itself, and yet don’t seem to get a ticket on the literature train. Hence, Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk.
One summer day several years ago, I got a call from Edwin Frank, editor of The New York Review of Books Classics, asking if I’d like to write the introduction to a new edition of Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk.
Edwin told me that The Pilgrim Hawk was surprisingly good. Possibly even great.
I told him I’d never heard of it.
He assured me that hardly anyone had, which was a crime. Which was why he wanted me to write the introduction.
I confess that I thought, but didn’t say, If it’s that good, why doesn’t anyone know about it? Which is, of course, precisely how the sentence of obscurity, once imposed upon a book, is hard to get reversed.
What I said was, Thanks for asking. But I’d rather write novels than introduce them.
Edwin told me that the book was short. Quite short. Read-it-in-a-couple-of-hours short.
I hesitated. He moved in. He asked if he could send me a copy, just so I could take a look at it, no strings attached. I told him he could.
The book arrived a few days later. I knew, by the time I’d read its opening page, not only that I’d write the introduction, but that it would be an honor.
Like most significant books, the best way for a reader to appreciate The Pilgrim Hawk is, simply, to read it. Think of me as your own private, personal Edwin Frank, urging you to abandon whatever reluctance you may harbor, insisting that history’s verdicts are not always just or accurate.
I’m urging you to experience something like what I did, in consenting to read an obscure novel, an experience that involved not only the discovery of the novel itself but the attendant realization that the world is host to such novels — call them the “invisible classics.” Call them “Canon B.” It makes for a richer, more fabulous sense of what might be out there, beyond the titles one read (or pretended to have read) in college.
Like most good novels, The Pilgrim Hawk resembles nothing but itself.
It is, for one thing, a marvel of concision. There are seven characters, and one hawk (though the hawk is so vividly rendered, so thoroughly seen, that we really we should include it among the characters). There is just one setting, a villa in the South of France. It is, just as Edwin Frank assured me, quite brief — 125 pages, to be exact.
And yet, it has epic qualities. Think The Great Gatsby, or Henry James’ The Aspern Papers.
All of which raise the question a reader should ask of a good or a great book: How did the writer do it?
How did Wescott manage, in those 125 pages, as many layers and levels of romance and desire as there are in a Shakespeare comedy? How did he produce a book that, along with its compelling plot, encompasses fundamental human issues like domesticity’s capacity to be both life-saving and soul-destroying; the annihilating but animating powers of lust and jealousy; the secret war between social classes; and aging and mortality themselves, among many others?
There’s no reason to go into detail regarding the plot, beyond the fact that there is one (for which I, for one, am generally grateful), and that it involves a rich American heiress who lives in France, her visiting American friend (the narrator), and the unexpected arrival of the Cullens, a long-married Irish couple. The wife steps out of their car with a trained hawk on her arm.
“‘I brought my hawk,’ Mrs. Cullen unnecessarily announced.”
The deadpan humor of that line is typical of Wescott’s style. He is marvelously able to write with ease, and a certain lightness of heart, about matters of life and death.
As is the case with all major novels, the famous and the obscure, the writing itself matters as much as do the depiction of people and places and events. Wescott’s human characters will, of course, produce considerable episodes and developments. A small avalanche of them.
That’s enough from me. The Pilgrim Hawk is a small miracle of a book. It’s profound, it’s beautifully written, and it keeps surprising the reader, right up to its last line.
Just read it. Okay?
– Michael Cunningham
The Pilgrim Hawk
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
NOW CULLEN HAD RISEN and was standing at his wife’s elbow, shaking his finger at the falcon teasingly. I thought that the bird’s great eyes showed only a slight natural bewilderment; whereas a slow sneer came over his face and he turned pale. It was the first revelation I had of the interesting fact that he hated Lucy.
He would willingly have sacrificed a finger tip in order to have an excuse to retaliate, I thought; and I imagined him picking up a chair or a coffee table and going at her with smashing blows. What a difference there is between animals and humans! Lucy no doubt would be disgustingly fierce when her time came; but meanwhile sat pleasantly and idly, in abeyance. Whereas humanity is histrionic, and must prepare and practice every stroke of passion; so half our life is vague and stormy make-believe.
Mrs. Cullen merely looked up at her husband and said in a velvety tone, “The trouble with Ireland, from my point of view, is that they don’t like our having a falcon. Naturally Lord Bild disapproves; but I don’t mind him. He’s so unsure of himself; he’s a Jew furthermore; you can scarcely expect him to live and let live. But our other neighbors and the family are almost as tiresome.”
Cullen thrust the teasing hand in his pocket and returned to his armchair. Her eyes sparkled fast, perhaps with that form of contrition which pretends to be joking. Or perhaps it pleased her to break off the subject of their Irish circumstances and worldly situation and to resume the dear theme of hawk, which meant all the world to her.
The summer before, she told us, an old Hungarian had sold her a trained tiercel. “I took him with me last winter when we stayed with some pleasant Americans in Scotland. There’s a bad ailment called croaks, and he caught that and died. They had installed their American heating, which I think makes an old house damp; don’t you? Then their gamekeeper trapped Lucy and gave her to me. Wasn’t that lucky? I’ve always wanted a real falcon, a haggard, to man and train myself.”
In strict terminology of the sport, she explained, only a female is called a falcon; and a haggard is one that has already hunted on her own account, that is, at least a year old when caught.
Except for that one deformed bit of one foot, Lucy was a perfect example of her species, Falco peregrinus, pilgrim hawk. Her body was as long as her mistress’s arm; the wing feathers in repose a little too long, slung across her back like a folded tent. Her back was an indefinable hue of iron; only a slight patine of the ruddiness of youth still shone on it. Her luxurious breast was white, with little tabs or tassels of chestnut. Out of tasseled pantaloons her legs came down straight to the perch with no apparent flesh on them, enameled a greenish yellow.
But her chief beauty was that of expression. It was like a little flame; it caught and compelled your attention like that, although it did not flicker and there was nothing bright about it nor any warmth in it. It is a look that men sometimes have; men of great energy, whose appetite or vocation has kept them absorbed every instant all their lives. They may be good men but they are often mistaken for evil men, and vice versa. In Lucy’s case it appeared chiefly in her eyes, not black but funereally brown, and extravagantly large, set deep in her flattened head.
On each side of the upper beak there was a little tooth or tusk. Mrs. Cullen explained that the able bird in the prime of life uses this to snap the spinal cord of its quarry, which is the most merciful death in nature. It reminded me of the hooked gloves which our farmers wear to husk corn; and so in fact, I thought, it must work: the falcon in the sky like a large angelic hand, stripping the meat of pigeon or partridge out of its feathers, the soul out of its throat.
I think Mrs. Cullen was the most talkative woman I ever met; and it was hawk, hawk, all afternoon. A good many inhabitants of the British Isles are hellbent all their lives upon killing some wild animal somehow, and naturally are keen about the domestic animals which assist them. Others, who know all about human nature, nevertheless prefer to converse about animals, perhaps because it is the better part of conversational valor. Mrs. Cullen’s enthusiasm was nothing like that, and it probably would have annoyed or alarmed the majority of her compatriots. As it seemed to me after listening awhile, she felt welling up in her mind some peculiar imagination, or some trouble impossible to ignore, which she tried to relieve by talking, with a kind of continuous double meaning. I think she would never have admitted the duplicity, and perhaps could not have expressed herself in plain terms. People as a rule do mean much more than they understand.
She informed us, for example, that in a state of nature hawks rarely die of disease; they starve to death. Their eyesight fails; some of their flight feathers break off or fall out; and their talons get dull or broken. They cease to be able to judge what quarry is worth flying at; or their flight slows up so that even the likely quarry gets away. Or, because they have lost weight, the victim is not stunned by their swooping down on it. Or when they have clutched it, they cannot hang on long enough to kill. Day after day they make fools of themselves. Then they have to depend upon very young birds or sick birds, or little animals on the ground, which are the hardest of all to see; and in any case there are not enough of these easy conquests to keep them in flesh. The hungrier they get, the more wearily and weakly they hunt. And the weaker they get, the more often they go hungry, in a miserable confusion of cause and effect. Finally what appears to be shame and morbid discouragement overcomes them. They simply sit on the rocks or in a tree somewhere waiting to die, as you might say philosophically, letting themselves die.
“I met a man on the staff of our great madhouse in Dublin last year,” Mrs. Cullen added. “I was curious to see what it was like; so he took me with him one afternoon on a tour of inspection. Some of the mad people reminded me of hawks, exactly.” The lethargically mad, sitting with their hands in their laps, imaginarily exhausted, unable to speak above a whisper, with burning but unfocusable eyes, unable to concentrate …
Cullen cleared his throat boisterously, perhaps to protest against the curiosity of women or against this folly of reading meaning into the ways of mere birds.
Falconers believe that hunger must be worse for falcons than for other birds and animals, Mrs. Cullen said. It maddens them, with a soreness in every feather; an unrelievable itching in their awful feet; a bloody lump in their throats, with the light plumage wrapped loose around like a bandage. This painful greed, sick single-mindedness, makes it possible to tame them and to perfect the extraordinary technique of falconry, which is more than any other bird can learn. You hear it in their cry — aik, aik — as Mrs. Cullen then imitated it for us, ache, ache — a small flat scream with a bubbling or gargling undertone, as if their mouths were full of scalding water. “I suppose human beings never feel anything like it.”
“But Madeleine, Madeleine, we’re never hungry,” her husband protested with a chuckle in which there was great satisfaction. “How can we tell?”
She begged him not to be silly. She had known people who had starved, Irish republicans hiding from the Black and Tans, Germans in 1922, and had inquired of them; and they had described it as rather a soft cool drowsy feeling.
I wondered about this. Although I had been a poor boy, on a Wisconsin farm and in a slum in Chicago and in Germany in 1922, I could not recollect any exact sensation of hunger, that is to say, hunger of the stomach. And I thought — as the relatively well-fed do think — of the other human hungers, mental and sentimental and so on. For example, my own undertaking in early manhood to be a literary artist. No one warned me that I really did not have talent enough. Therefore my hope of becoming a very good artist turned bitter, hot and nerve-racking; and it would get worse as I grew older. The unsuccessful artist also ends in an apathy, too proud and vexed to fly again, waiting upon withheld inspiration, bored to death … Naturally I did not speak of this to Alex and the Cullens. It seemed rude and somehow abnormal even to be thinking of it, while they sat exchanging information about real life, really starving nations and greedy species of bird.
Whereupon our present bird mantled, that is, stood a moment on one leg, shook the other leg and wing downward, and spread that half of her plumage in a long fan, gazing at me, blinking or winking at me. But because my writing had gone badly all spring I could not bear to give her more than a passing thought with reference to that. I began to think of her as an image of amorous desire instead. That is the great relief of weariness of work in any case; the natural consolation for its not going well. Or perhaps the Cullens’ feeling about each other suggested it to me. No doubt art is too exceptional to be worth talking about; but sex is not. At least in good countries such as France and the United States during prosperous periods like the twenties, it must be the keenest of all appetites for a majority of men most of their lives.
And highly sexed men, unless they give in and get married and stay married, more or less starve to death. I myself was still young then and I had been lucky in love. But little early quarrels and failures warn one; and in the confidences of friends and in gossip about other men, one discovers the vague beastly shape of what to expect. Life goes on and on after one’s luck has run out. Youthfulness persists, alas, long after one has ceased to be young. Love-life goes on indefinitely, with less and less likelihood of being loved, less and less ability to love, and the stomach-ache of love still as sharp as ever. The old bachelor is like an old hawk.
Civilized human beings have learned how to avoid literal starvation and the fear of death and real enslavement; so at least it seemed in the twenties. They have this kind of thing instead: fear of old age, loss of charm, lack of love. Therefore I caught myself gazing at my young unmarried Alex anxiously, sentimentally, and at her Irish guests with idle envy. But the Irish wife’s uneasiness and the husband’s captivated but uncomfortable look reminded me that I was making a false distinction. There is not as much sweet safety in marriage as one hopes. Hunger and its twin, disgust, are in it too; need and greed; and passage of time, the punishment. Of course true love and lust are not the same, neither are they inseparable, nor indistinguishable. Only they reflect and imitate and elucidate each other.
Looking back upon that afternoon’s talk and thought, I am inclined to hold Mrs. Cullen responsible for this daydreaming of mine, personal worry and exhilaration, which made me inattentive to what she said now and then. In a woman as energetic and attractive as that, the hint of hidden emotion and the sense of double meaning naturally are exciting; and the excitement leads in one’s own private direction. But as it were in a mirror, looking at myself, I could see something of her character and plight before the circumstances of the afternoon betrayed her. I think that was what she instinctively wanted.
Meanwhile she had gone on answering Alex’s questions: something about the craftsmen who outfit falcons, generation after generation of avian haberdashers especially in India, and which bell resounds the clearest through the grass and bushes and breezes, and what hood is least likely to ulcerate the waxen lids and lips; and something about an ancient Persian text with a thrice-hyphenated title which is still the best handbook of falconry. I wanted to know all this, yet I failed to pay attention.
Then Lucy bated, that is, threw herself headlong off the fist. The leather jesses around her legs and the leash looped through Mrs. Cullen’s fingers held her ignominiously, upside down. It was a painful sight, like an epileptic fit or an insane fit. There was no possibility of the thongs breaking; I half-expected her lean bright legs to snap instead. I expected her to scream, aik! But the only sound was the jingling of her bell and the convulsion of her plumage, air panting through her plumage. The tail feathers and the flight feathers, shooting out rigidly, threshed against herself and against her mistress from head to foot. Mrs. Cullen, not the least disconcerted, raised her left arm straight up over her head, and stood up and stood quite still, only turning her face away from the flapping and whipping. Her equanimity impressed me as much as her strength.
In a minute Lucy gave up little by little. It was extraordinary: you could see her self-control returning, recurring in one feather after another. Then she hung peacefully like a mere turkey or goose hooked up in a butchershop; only for an instant. The long wings began again, but in a different exertion: hugging the air, bracing against the air, until her talons got a grip on the gauntlet and she succeeded in pulling herself up again where she belonged. There she stared or glared at us, blinking the rush of blood back out of her embarrassed eyes and pulling her plumage together.
With a sigh and a half-smile Mrs. Cullen brought her burdened and shaken arm down, and seated herself again in the straight chair. Some such hopeless attempt to escape, crazy fit of freedom, comes over all domesticated falcons at fairly regular intervals, she explained, especially in their first year or two; all their lives if they have not been well manned. “They never get over being wild. It’s like malaria or that other intermittent fever, the one you have to be so careful about in the Orient.”
Lucy happened to be an unusually frank, active bird, so that you could often tell when her trouble was to be expected; by a soft repeated tinkle of her bells or a steady pull at one of her jesses. The leather might of course be loose or worn out. “And instead it pinches her, which makes her angry, and everything seems hopeless,” Mrs. Cullen concluded. “She can’t help it, can’t bear it. It’s like committing suicide.”
“Give me liberty or give me death, ha, ha,” cried Cullen, seeming to expect special applause from us because we were Americans, or perhaps because Alex’s name was Henry like the American who first expressed that sentiment. His wife gave him that look of hers which was the opposite of applause; and he took it as usual. His hazel eyes stood out like jewels; the tip of his tongue brightened his lips.
Meanwhile she was slowly caressing Lucy’s lower plumage and tired feet. She might have been a trained nurse and Lucy her patient, after a bout of illness or craziness. Or she might have been in love and Lucy her beloved, pleasure absent-mindedly ebbing … And every word she uttered added a little to the confused significance. “Sometimes I can prevent her independent fits. The way a governess gets to know a child, and can see its tantrums beginning and distract it somehow … Being stroked like this often does the trick. At first I used a dried pigeon’s wing as you’re supposed to, but this suits Lucy as well.”
Idly she went on with it: two dimpled fingers with long tinted nails and heavy rings just brushing the spent feathers. “Or if I notice it in time, I lift her over my head for a moment. She likes to perch as high as possible, so she can look down upon everything around her. I think it must frighten her to see things higher than she is. We’re like that sometimes ourselves, aren’t we?” she added, smiling gently.
Time after time her transitions like this — from hawk to human, objective to subjective — startled me. To be sure, any woman greatly in love must know how a flattery in time saves trouble, how the illusion of superiority counteracts the illusion of inferiority, as well as any governess. But it had not occurred to me that her love for Cullen was great in that sense: cunning, instructive, curative.
Falcons, she informed us, do not breed in captivity. Various attempts have been made to induce them to, but with no success. Thus, the entire sport has to start again from scratch for each falconer, whenever he trains a new playmate. Little by little the perfectly wild creature surrenders, individually, in the awful difficulty of hunger. But surrender is all, domestication is all; they never feel at home. You can carry male and female side by side on the same cadge year in and year out; nothing happens. They will cease to fight but they stay solitary. Scorn of each other for giving in, or self-scorn, seems to break their hearts. They never build a nest or lay an egg. Not one chick or eyas is ever reared in bondage. There is no real acceptance or inheritance of the state of surrender.
Mrs. Cullen mentioned, as a kind of exception, the make-hawks: old good-natured birds which some professionals use in the training of the young wild ones. But even their influence must be in the way of a rationalization of necessary evil, inculcation of vice, making the best of a bad bargain. For they too are born in the vacant rocks or uncomfortable trees; and they too keep sterile.
“Like schoolmasters,” crowed Cullen. That appealed to my sense of humor. But Cullen’s smile was a leer if I ever saw one, and evidently embarrassed his wife and Alex; so I kept from smiling.
Mrs. Cullen then quoted Buffon’s famous sentence about falcons: “L’individu seul est esclave; l’espèce est libre.” Buffon had been her father’s second-best author, after Scott. Her French accent was incorrect but very pretty. Only the individual hawk is a slave; the species is free …
Then Alex spoke up, in what was a loud voice for her: “Oh, dear, it is the opposite of human beings. We are slaves in the mass, aren’t we? Only one man can hope to free himself; one at a time, then another, and another.”
“Oh, I dare say,” Mrs. Cullen assented. “Yes, perhaps.” But she smiled patronizingly. I think she was congratulating herself upon knowing a freer and stronger type of humanity than our pampered, subtle, self-questioning American type; and perhaps she did: Irish republicans, wild Hungarians with hawks, Germans during their defeat.
“But it is true, isn’t it?” Alex insisted. “The man who really loves freedom is the exception.”
“Oh, quite. How right you are,” our lady falconer dubiously murmured.
But her husband disagreed. “No, Alex! What a disgusting idea! Love of liberty is the deepest instinct we have — if you will excuse my saying so.”
We silently considered this for a moment; the three of us, it seemed, regretfully. Alex wanted freedom more than anything; and if others as a rule did not, she might have a lonely life. In any case it would take a better man than Cullen to dispel her young misanthropy. I myself regretted never having been able to decide what to think: how much liberty is a true human motive, and how much is wasteful and foolish? And for the first time that afternoon Mrs. Cullen gazed at her husband sadly, that is, weakly. She agreed with him, I felt sure. But there are circumstances in which it may be obvious that at least one human being requires freedom; and you bitterly regret that it is so: because you need to keep that one captive.
“Why, hang it all,” Cullen still sputtered, “why, independence is the only thing that is human about hawks. Don’t you agree, Madeleine?”
She slightly turned her back to him and contemplated Alex and me rather unkindly. It was the careful absence of expression, absence of frown, that you see on a clever lecturer’s face when the irrelevant questioning or heckling begins. There was also a sadness about it which, if I read it aright, I have often felt myself. She did not want us to take her hawk, her dear subject-matter, her hobby and symbol — whatever it meant to her — and turn it this way and that to mean what we liked. It was hers and we were spoiling it. Around her eyes and mouth there were lines of that caricatural weariness which is peculiar to those who talk too much.
Indeed our sociability as a whole had gone off; something a little sour and dark had developed in it. We had been sitting there too long. Alex, I fancied, was counting the minutes until they departed.