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The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – January 31, 2001
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"...a slight, peculiar masterwork of 20th century letters....a cocktail of aphorism, acuity, and self-doubting narration, a novel that refuses to behave itself. What is so wonderful about The Pilgrim Hawk—and what remains jarring seventy years after its original serialization in Harper’s—is that it constantly goes against the grain of fictional narration...In The Pilgrim Hawk, Wescott suggests that when it comes to the most vital questions of life and love, it may be more worthwhile to ask rather than answer them." —Ingrid Norton, Open Letters Monthly
About the Author
Glenway Wescott (1901-1987) was the author of the novels The Grandmothers and Apartment in Athens, in addition to several collections of stories and essays. His life—as revealed in his published journals and a joint biography of him and his lover, Monroe Wheeler—has been the subject of increasing interest in recent years.
Michael Cunningham is the author of the novels A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, The Hours (winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award & Pulitzer Prize), and Specimen Days. He lives in New York.
Top customer reviews
I have to say that the book/novella isn't what I quite expected but that does often happen with the New York Classic books I've read to date. It's an unusual story. I couldn't say with any conviction that I could empathise with the characters as I felt they came across as arrogant and egotistical at times. Still it was an unusual novel and I could not foresee the ending.
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.
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).