After finishing The Pilgrim Hawk I couldn't help but feel as if this sparkling novel(la) was structured like an iceberg, its crystalline prose and theAfter finishing The Pilgrim Hawk I couldn't help but feel as if this sparkling novel(la) was structured like an iceberg, its crystalline prose and the sharp lines of its prosody creating shimmery effects somewhat akin to a diamond refracting sunlight.
It's all very impressive--or at least impressive enough--in and of itself. But an icebergs placidly floating across a tranquil bodies of water masks a larger reality: only about 1/10 of the iceberg is ever actually visible. The mass and bulk lurks far beneath the water line, unglimpsed, unseen, and nearly impossible to get a full handle on. Of course, one doesn't have to grasp or even be aware of the entirety of an iceberg to be awed by it; but the fact remains that what is rendered visible is buttressed by what remains necessarily out of view.
So yes, my thoughts on The Pilgrim Hawk are essentially a Formalist's nightmare, dependent on knowledge and information found outside the text itself. But my reading of the novel represents one of those situations where my knowledge about the author completely shaped and shaded my thoughts when experiencing the actual text for the first time. And it led me to believe that The Pilgrim Hawk is a text containing hidden, incalculable depths.
Though I've read quite a bit on Wescott's life--something I'll return to shortly--after reading Hawk I finally read some direct analysis of the novel that I had been putting off, namely, Michael Cunningham's introduction to the NYRB edition, and Susan Sontag's late essay "Where the Stress Falls," a reflection on Wescott's novel which transforms into a more broad analysis of first-person narration in 20th century literature. I was rather startled to discover that both of these writers, both who are gay, neglect to mention the fact that Wescott himself was a gay man, not even throwing it out as a possibility that might affect interpretation of the novel and its possible meaning(s). Which, okay, I can understand, especially since both writers in question are themselves often described as being ambivalent about their sexuality within public spheres. But Wescott, whose life spanned a large chunk of the 20th century, was not as circumspect, which is a major reason why he looms large in the gay canon despite leaving behind a relatively scant oeuvre ("he has a certain syrup but it does not pour," remarked friend Gertrude Stein in the infamous The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). I could write biographical information endlessly, but most pertinent is the fact that in 1919 Wescott met Monroe Wheeler--a book publisher who later became a major figure in establishing the MOMA--and the two men remained partners until Wescott's death in 1987. And while it's not hard to predict that this remarkable fact was left out of both men's New York Times obituaries, everything I have read attests to the fact their relationship was a well-known fact and they were "out" as romantic partners as much as the times allowed (which, it must be admitted, was the rarified and relatively accommodating transatlantic expatriate/New York City arts and culture world).
I drudge up these interesting but perhaps superfluous-seeming biographical details because I think it holds an important bearing on the volucrine symbol of the title. For indeed, the manner in which the titular hawk, a falcon named Lucy, is handled throughout the narrative seems to lay at the heart of most critiques (truth be told, that was my initial reaction too). Generally regarded as a heavy-handed symbol for a marriage of a particularly stifling and restrictive sort, when considered on that level it does come across as a perplexingly flatfooted flaw marring what otherwise comes across as a text of incredible linguistic and observational agility. But as I began thinking about the possible reasons why a gay man would take on this particular topic and what it might look from that particular perspective I found that what had initially seemed straightforward started becoming more and more elusive. A few scattered ideas that crossed my mind:
-Wescott was writing at a time when it was still a widely practiced social convention for not-straight men to enter into marriages, and a number of men in Wescott's circle did exactly that (Lincoln Kirstein, Carl Van Vechten, W. Somerset Maugham, Chick Austin, and Jared French, are several off the top of my head). From this angle, what had originally seemed like rather nondescript expository dialogue suddenly seemed pregnant with potential meaning. Consider: "some such hopeless attempt to escape, crazy fit of freedom, comes over all domesticated falcons at fairly regular intervals, [Madeleine Cullen] explained, especially in their first year or two… they never get over being wild" (26). Or this odd digression (allow me to quote it in full):
"Falcons, she informed us, do not breed in captivity… 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 for 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" (27-8).
Or what about Madeleine's later remark that "Lucy gives up her freedom and stays with me because it's a better life, more food and more fun" (49)? The idea of giving up and accepting "captivity" combined with the phrase "because it's a better life" sends shivers down my spine.
-Larry Cullen despises the falcon not only because she is the main object of his wife's attention and affection, but it also becomes clear that Lucy's presence literally prevents him from making direct physical contact with his wife. One of the most well-known facts about Wescott's life is the long-term ménage à trois relationship Wescott and Wheeler entered into with George Platt Lynes, who would go on to become a celebrated photographer. From the sections of Wescott's published journals that I have read, it is clear that Wheeler benefitted most from this arrangement, and that the beautiful, young, and effeminate Platt Lynes overwhelmingly preferred Wheeler as a sexual partner, which often left Wescott feeling excluded and dejected. Despite using the narrator as his very literal stand-in, I suspect the character of Larry was fully informed by Westcott's personal experiences as well.
-But why then, make Lucy a female hawk? It seems much more straightforward within the context of the story and all of its interpretations for the hawk to be a tercel (the term for a male hawk, as Madeline explains at one point). As is, it's a female presence at the root of the distance in the Cullen's relationship… and of course I'm going to follow up on the possible implications of that fact. Indeed, throughout The Falcon Hawk Madeleine Cullen continuously reveals unexpected dimensions: far from the frail-seeming woman tottering on "the highest heels" (6) that literally needs to be helped across the cobblestone driveway, we come to find out that in reality she is a healthy, lusty, vivacious, and incredibly driven woman who rides a horse magnificently, etc, etc. And isn't the idea of a "lady falconer" itself a rather bizarre one, an unexpected juxtaposition of traditional images of masculinity and femininity? All I'm saying is that symbolically there might be something to the fact that Madeline's affections are centered on a falcon than a tercel; could Lucy's captivity subtly mirror a possible type of imprisonment Madeline herself secretly experiences?
Even the title itself, it occurred to me after the fact, contains its own puzzling obscurities. Aside perhaps from wanting to avoid being confused with a certain, celebrated Dashiell Hammett novel, why a "Pilgrim Hawk" and not "Pilgrim Falcon?" By opting for a generalized term for his title, Wescott neutralizes gender particularity, opening up even more possibilities for interpretation.
I could go on and on along similar lines, but this has already started crossing that unwieldy space between "review" and "unanticipated term paper," and so I'll bring this to a close. Basically, the point I'm trying to make is that when taking into consideration Wescott's personal life--and make no mistake, Alwyn Tower is a stand-in for Wescott, a "character" that reappears throughout much of his work--and most particularly, his sexuality, we go a long way in starting to fathom the hidden 9/10s of the iceberg. And as a direct result, what at first glance comes of as a pretty but thin facade is effectively shattered, and whole chasms of possible meaning are suddenly, unexpectedly revealed. ...more
April is apparently the cruelest month, but my nomination would probably be those four weeks or so spanning the middle of October on up to ThanksgivinApril is apparently the cruelest month, but my nomination would probably be those four weeks or so spanning the middle of October on up to Thanksgiving; I can't speak for anyone else, but for anybody on an academic calendar it's an interminably long period with not even a single three day weekend for some kind of brief respite, and Thanksgiving break is reached more or less in a state of exhaustion. It was during this period that I realized that if I couldn't actually take a vacation I was going to take a literary one, and I took this off the shelf, which I had been saving for just such an occasion.
And it pretty much did the trick. It's a lovely novel, and I took a long, leisurely amount of time to read it, picking it up on occasions when I just couldn't bring myself to read anything else (even though there was always so much more that should and needed to have been read) or during bouts of insomnia caused by incessant thinking over what I still needed to get done. There's not much I feel like I can say about this novel, not that I feel much needs to be said; it's more or less how four British women, similar only in a vague but profound sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, on a whim rent a villa on the Italian coast for the titular month. But what seems like an indulgent lark quickly blossoms into four weeks of rapturous transformation for all four women (as well as several individuals they are close to). Once the women arrive in Italy the narrative is sustained through the type of problems such as "oh, how is Mrs. X going to respond to Mrs. Y doing Z?", but that's a great part of its appeal—it's not a matter of if a character is going to undergo positive mental, emotional and even physical transformation, but a matter of how much. Really, Von Arnim manages to do a whole lot with material that many other writers would have a hard time using to sustain a short story (though Von Arnim doesn't realize that a little landscape description goes a long way).
In a curious coincidence, in 1922 Eliot proclaimed April "the cruellest month," while the very same year Von Arnim declared it enchanted. Though the traditional literary canon would disagree, I have to side with Von Arnim on this one.
"Rose clasped her hands tight round her knees. How passionately she longed to be important to somebody again—not important on platforms, not important as an asset in an organisation, but privately important, just to one other person, quite privately, nobody else to know or notice. It didn't seem much to ask in a world so crowded with people, just to have one of them, only one out of all the millions, to oneself. Somebody who needed on, who thought of one, who was eager to come to one—oh, oh how dreadfully one wanted to be precious!" ...more
Disappointed to be let down by this one; it sounded so up my alley. Another reviewer here has astutely observed that "the pleasure is all in the voiceDisappointed to be let down by this one; it sounded so up my alley. Another reviewer here has astutely observed that "the pleasure is all in the voice," but unfortunately, as the narrative progressed I found the narrative voice less and less a source of pleasure and more and more of, well, active annoyance.
To be sure, O'Brien's wryly detached viewpoint combined with his clean, crystalline prose style makes for several extremely arresting opening chapters, and the staidness of his perspective in the midst of what is essentially an endless madcap farce is a great part of the initial appeal. For this particular "way of life" pretty much entails mayhem among the eccentric moneyed classes as they cavort through a series of glamorous backdrops (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Paris, Rome, and the like). In short, it's the is the stuff of the classic screwball comedies. But isn't part of the great fun of such stories is witnessing how the "straight man" (or woman, of course) get inevitably imbricated into the chaos swirling around them, to hilarious results? Think of, say, Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, Jean Arthur in just about everything she did--it's more or less the relational premise of a great number of the great classic Hollywood screwball comedies.
But O'Brien never allows for even the slightest hint of being swallowed into the swirling chaos--not for a single moment. And so a lot of really interesting characters, situations, and anecdotes are all experienced at one remove, filtered through the perceptions of a petulant--if extremely articulate--teenager. There are moments of interest and insight, to be sure, but in my experience the narrative plateaued pretty early on, and even at just over a hundred pages, I found it a chore to finish....more