We’ve been waiting for this day. Electric Lit’s Recommended Reading has chosen one of our books! It’s Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk, and not only do you get an excerpt from the book, but you can read how we bullied Michael Cunningham into writing the introduction, and why he accepted (not because of our bullying, because the book is really good, and perhaps because it’s so short). A longer post than normal but we think it’s worth it.
Vol. 5, No. 3
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?
Excerpted from the novel by Glenway Wescott
Recommended by Michael Cunningham
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.