Remember how I bought a copy of The Pilgrim Hawk (1940) in the US, all proud of myself for finding a beautiful NYRB Classic? And how it turned out I already had it, also from NYRB, with a different cover? Yep. And NYRB know what they’re doing; I can’t bring myself to part with either of them. But I did decide that it was about time that I actually read the book – especially since it’s only 108 pages long.
Truth be told, that brevity was almost the downfall of Wescott’s novella – because I carried it around at work, reading it for a few moments while waiting for a friend to buy lunch, or on the bus, etc. Basically, I read about 20 pages in 20 separate dip-ins (having read a handful earlier, on holiday), and that isn’t at all the way to treat The Pilgrim Hawk. Structurally, it is actually probably more like a long short story than a novella, and (as such) should be read in one sitting. Thankfully I cottoned onto that, and read the final 70 or so pages that way, at least.
Alwyn Tower narrates the story; he is an American would-be writer, visiting his friend Alex near Paris, when an Irish couple drop by. They are Madeleine and Larry Cullen; he is a little taciturn and embarrassed, while she is moderately vivacious and a little exasperated by her husband. Also with them is the love of her life, for the time being at least: Lucy the hawk.
For one thing, the bird charmed me so that nothing else mattered much. And it served as an embodiment or emblem for me of all the truly interesting subjects of conversation that there very sociable, travelling, sporting people leave out as a rule: illness, poverty, sex, religion, art. Whenever I began to be bored, a solemn glance of its maniacal eyes helped me to stop listening and to think concentratedly of myself instead, or for myself.
Lucy is the focal point of their marriage; the meeting place of his exasperation and her distracted attention. Madeleine shows her off, explaining the habits and nature of hawks – how they never mate in captivity; how they periodically still try to escape, even though they come back when let loose to hunt prey – while Larry shows how uninterested he is, and how this obsession is both symptomatic of their disintegrating marriage and a cause of it. Alwyn the narrator, meanwhile, keenly observes their dynamics – and both Wescott’s prose and the conversation of those present suggest ways in which the hawk can be a metaphor. And, cleverly, Wescott then undermines this process through Madeleine’s reaction to it:
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 so peculiar to those who talk too much.
There are only really two moments that could be called dramatic, and both happen towards the end of the short book – one of them off the page. The rest follows a gentle curve of observation and exploration, using the extremely unusual figure of the hawk to highlight and unravel the very ordinary dynamics of a failing marriage. Wescott has the poignancy and nuance of Katherine Mansfield, if not quite her genius.
What makes this novella all the more sophisticated, though, is the moment when Alwyn outs himself as an unreliable narrator. Not a malicious one, or even a deliberately misleading one, but a narrator who cannot help filling in the gaps in his own observations, which cannot be faultlessly complete from an external perspective:
Half the time, I am afraid, my opinion of people is just guessing; cartooning. Again and again I give way to a kind of inexact and vengeful lyricism; I cannot tell what right I have to be avenged, and I am ashamed of it. Sometimes I entirely doubt my judgement in moral matters; and so long as I propose to be a story-teller, that is the whisper of the devil for me.
This gives an interesting blend of narrator and author – for Wescott is, of course, proposing to be a story-teller – and has created the characters in some form that is not available on the page, if the depiction we see through Alwyn’s eyes is somehow a distortion. This confession gives the whole short work a different feel, and adds a layer to an already rich work.
I bought this novella on at least one of the occasions, perhaps both, partly on the strength of an introduction from Michael Cunningham. The association didn’t let me down. The authors come from the same stable of beautiful writing and close attention to character detail. And The Pilgrim Hawk is, indeed, a lovely, thought-provoking, and exquisitely crafted little book.
Which cover do you prefer?