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The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story (New York Review Books Classics)
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46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2002
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A rediscovered classic currently being championed by Michael Cunningham (who wrote the introduction) and Susan Sontag (who wrote a lengthy New Yorker piece about it, as well as its forgotten author), this is a remarkably good short novel, full of wonderful writing and terrific perceptions. It's a thoughtful and profound study of the nature of marriage and attachments; I'm sure it's going to linger a great while in my memory. For those who care about serious fiction, this is well worth the time.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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This is an odd little book. The events take place in a single afternoon at the home of an American woman in France between the First and Second World Wars. The narrator, Alwyn Tower, and his hostess, Alexandra Henry, are visited by the Cullens, a middle-aged Irish couple. Mrs. Cullen has brought along her pet hawk Lucy whose presence dominates the remainder of the story (both symbolically and as another character). With its hood on, the hawk seems to represent the blindness of a class of wealthy internationals who live for food and fun, and who have made an uneasy peace with their captivity and lack of freedom.
Meanwhile, a trio of servants (Jean and Eva, the cooks; and Ricketts, the Cullens' chauffeur) plays yang to the aristocats' yin. For them, flirtation, jealousy, and passion are the defining mainstays of their existence. And they don't even need to turn to alcohol to release these life forces.
It's hard to know how seriously we are to take the narrator, a novelist twice failed in love. He is an astute observer and chronicler of the events, but his self-acknowledged failures as a writer certainly seem to justify the uncomfortable feelings he has toward Mrs. Cullen's captive carnivore. Although we know from page one that the Americans Alexandra and Alwyn would eventually return to America when tensions increase in Europe, at the novel's end it seems somewhat doubtful that either one will ever muster the energy needed to leave their perches in Alexandra's parlor.
This short novel has some of the biting class insights of Saki's better stories. Other than that, I find it hard to compare this book to any other I have ever read. Interesting in spite of and because of its brevity. Worth reading and rereading.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 14, 2001
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Westcott's short novel has been for years something of a cult work among novelists for its structural perfection. The interlocking erotic and sympathetic triangles among the characters, and the novel's complex explosion of the meaning of the eponymous peregrine (which is pushed as far as symbolic meanings go to the level of either Hawthorne's scarlet letter or James's golden bowl) is absolutely dazzling, and shows the tremednous talent within Westcott that never received its full due. However, the novel does remain somewhat chilly: it's hard to warm to any of the major characters, whose purposeful shallowness can seem somewhat off-putting.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2005
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The plot line of Glenway Wescott's short novel, The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, is quite simple; a wealthy Irish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cullen, spend an afternoon at the French home of an American friend, Alexandra Henry, and her American house guest, Alwyn Tower. The setting is the late 1920s, and Alwyn Tower is telling the story of the Cullens' visit from a supposedly objective distance, in the early 1940s. Clearly what occurred that day with the Cullens seemed so remarkable that Tower is still thinking of them twelve years later.

The surrealistic feature of the story (which was so bizarre to this reader as to be at first off-putting) is that Madeleine Cullen has a passion for falconry and is traveling with a full-grown peregrine falcon perched on her wrist, a bird which she must take with her everywhere. The "love" story is a triangle: Larry Cullen is in competition with a feathered being for his wife's affection.

Regarding the craft of the novel, the hawk, Lucy, is so palpable on the page that Wescott must have researched hawk behavior and falconry, i.e., hawk-human interaction. But research alone would not have been enough to make any bird a character in a novel; Wescott takes our feathered friends to a higher level of literary metaphor and character.

To have the novel work as a whole, the novelist must employ a structure of writing that maximizes the benefit and entertainment that readers expect. The characteristic quality of The Pilgrim Hawk is that the first-person narrator, Alwyn Tower, is so intelligently perceptive that his viewpoint is almost impossible to distinguish from the single, controlling observer, the omniscient narrator. Tower is the most compassionate of narrators as he sees into both Larry Cullen and Madeleine Cullen, the role of Lucy, as well as the household servants. Such an informed and knowledgeable narrator--who also reveals his own sensitive consciousness--makes me suspect that Alwyn Tower is Glenway Wescott himself. Employing the technique of interior monologue, Wescott reveals Tower's epistemological doubts as Tower filters other's dialogue through his single, though ultimately limited, consciousness. And Wescott's sentences are constructed with such care for the English language that one feels Tower is Wescott.

The NYRB paperback production makes this novel an edition you will want to own: The cover art, by Nam June Paik, is as sophisticated and enigmatic as the relationships in the novel. Aesthetic production features of other books in the NYRB series have included evocative colors on the inside front covers: magenta, peach orange, and royal purple. The inside cover of The Pilgrim Hawk is a hypnotic turquoise. I have never spent so much time gazing at the inside cover of any book as I have of this one.

Informative and insightful introduction by MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, who as the author of The Hours, a work about Virginia Woolf, is certainly qualified to write about Wescott's "hawklike" observations of human behavior. Cunningham writes, "Almost every page contains some small wonder of phrase or insight, some instance of the world keenly observed and reinvented" (xvii).
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
Several years back, I was given the first 100 of the New York Review Books for Christmas (a much-appreciated, very generous gift!). Sad to say, I have read few of them. But yesterday, browsing my bookshelf, I picked out 'The Pilgrim Hawk,' attracted, no doubt, by the slimness of the volume. After reading it, I have to say that it has been a long time since I have been so impressed by a book - it truly is an unknown classic. And, as an aside, the introduction by Michael Cunningham is wonderful!

I have no knowledge of Glenway Wescott and his other writing, but the execution of this book is flawless. The narrator is someone who stands a bit outside of life, observing. His detachment contrasts with the self-aborption and high emotion of the main characters of the book, an ever-travelling married couple from Britain (the husband is english, the wife is Irish). The entire book occupies just one afternoon, but it is rife with emotion and intense observations on life and love. And Wescott is a talented writer - I continually found myself admiring his phrasing. Here is a quote, which is admittedly depressing, but delights me none-the-less, in which Wescott describes the unfulfilled bachelor (or bachelorette!):

"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 stomache-ache of love still sharp as ever."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2010
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This is an excellent little novella. Right off the bat, let me say that you should not read the foreward by Michael Cunningham before reading the novella itself; he gives everything away (plot and ending) while claiming he doesn't want to give everything away. It would be better to read this without knowing what is going to happen.

The prose is sharp piercing poetry. Some of the images are stunning. Of course, the titular hawk is a symbol, and Wescott himself tells us from time to time that it is an important symbol. In fact, it takes on the overly-symbolic function of Melville's great white whale on a slightly smaller scale.

As I was reading, I kept wondering what kind of movie this would make. I actually wanted to see a young Maggie Smith staggering around the house in 3-inch heels with this hawk attached to her wrist, but then I realized it would look more like Monty Python than the Merchant Ivory film I was envisioning.

It's a quick and easy read, with lots of epigrams sparkling like the pendants on a grand chandelier. The relationships are very tight and strained and well worked out. The dialogue is often brilliant. Drunken cocktail chatter can often be that way, especially with a sharp-tongued narrator. Descriptions are vivid. You will learn more about hunting hawks than you thought possible. I recommend this one for the serious reader in search of beautiful Symbolist Art.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2014
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In 1965 or '66, one of my teachers taught a class that included Six Great Modern Short Novels, published by Dell Paperbacks. I couldn't take the class, but bought the book, finally reading Glenway Westcott's _The Pilgrim Hawk_ in the 1970s. I was drawn to it in part because I was living in my car, a 1968 Ford Falcon, and wondered if Wescott's pilgrim could speak to my pilgrim.

The story became an indelible part of my being with this paragraph:

"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 .... 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.' ”

And, if this _aik, aik_ passage was never far from mind, and if I often felt a need to reread _The Pilgrim Hawk_, I kept postponing: "Another time."

Recently I noticed that it had been separately published, and wondered if the new edition had any emendations. The time had come.

I found no discernible changes, but at about midpoint, perhaps stopping to marvel at the grace and insight of Westcott's prose, I finally glanced at the cover, and was struck by the graphic as a major non sequitur: two seemingly male mannequins in an embrace (_Manikins_ by Paul Cadmus). Since the story concerns the wobbly marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Cullen, and the role Lucy the falcon plays in this failing marriage (with a subplot of a male and female servant attracted to each other), I don't get the mannequin connection.

Perhaps the editors decided to hint Westcott's personal life. If so, it's false advertising, having nothing to do with the story within. The suggestion also betrays Westcott's artistry: his quite compassionate glimpse of a crumbling man-woman marriage.

It is my hope that _The Piglrim Hawk_ will be blessed with infinite editions, but that the next edition will feature on its cover something to suggest the true nature of this wonderfully haunting story.

I might add that a recent viewing of _Blackfish_ -- the story of Tilikum's capture and treatment as killer whale, a toy for human pleasure -- altered my reading of many passages in _The Piglrim Hawk_. Westcott's artistry leaves most responses to Lucy's captivity to our imagination and judgment, but in this reading my empathy for the pain of Lucy's captivity was far greater.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2009
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This is an American masterpiece. A must read for any and every true lover of literature.
Sonia Meyer
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2010
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This is an outstanding work. It takes places in a short period of time and reveals a tremendous understanding of how people operate during this period of time. It has justifiably been compared to "The GReat Gatsby" for the quality of the writing and the intensity of the experience.
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on January 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
"The Pilgrim Hawk" is a deceptively quiet novel, an elegant Jamesian study of three characters: an Irish man, Larry Cullen; his English wife, Madeleine; and her hawk, Lucy. The narrator, Alwyn Tower, is staying with his friend Alexandra in Paris when one afternoon the threesome drops in. Barely filling a hundred pages, the novel describes the events of a few hours: an unusual visit portrayed as a comedy of manners and a series of revelations culminating in a drunken act of jealousy.

Although Alwyn Tower keeps his own romantic interests close to the vest, there is never any doubt about the relationship between this "confirmed bachelor" (to use the polite euphemism of yesteryear) and Alexandra; indeed we find out at the beginning that she will one day become his sister-in-law. Tower instead functions as an astute yet timid observer, a budding novelist who wears his insecurities on his sleeve: "Sometimes I entirely doubt my judgment in moral matters, and so long as I propose to be a story-teller, that is the whisper of the devil for me." In reality, his lack of confidence and moral ambiguity makes him the perfect chronicler for the arrival and departure of this odd couple and their hawk. His sympathies are scattered, and so are ours.

The hawk, as Michael Cunningham points out in the introduction, shouts its symbolism at the reader; we are never even sure whether the title of the book refers to the bird or to the any one (or all) of the expatriates. "In the twenties," Tower relates, "it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as to you, your peregrination just crossing theirs." A "peregrine" is, of course, a hawk, so there, right on the first page, is a comparison of these four acquaintances to the bird in their midst--and he continues to call up similarities, both explicitly and subtly, as the novel progresses. "It was hawk, hawk all afternoon," says Tower about the irritating and fascinating focus of the party.

In spite of the disconcerting strangeness of the hawk's presence, the afternoon is pleasant enough--until the loutish Mr. Cullen has a few cocktails. "Alcohol is the great leveler," comments Tower, and soon what has been obvious all along comes out: Cullen hates the damned bird. What ensues is both darkly funny and excruciatingly pitiable, and we find out the uncomfortable truths behind this "aristocratic" marriage. The outcome of the Cullens' visit is hardly predictable, but it is clearly inevitable. Yet we also discover that Tower has misread the effect of the couple's visit on his friend, and the revelation in the final sentences ironically underscores his own insecurities as a novelist. Given that Wescott himself wrote only three short novels in his eighty-plus years, the closing is just one of many indications of how much of the novelist is in the narrator.
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