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The Pilgrim Hawk (1940)
by Glenway Wescott
Books Read in 2006 (11)
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This was the story of a weird love between Madeleine Cullen, a wealthy, middle-aged, Irishwoman and her pet hawk. She ignored her "wild children" and Irish aristocrat husband in favor of her hawk. The entire story takes place in 1929, in just one afternoon in the garden of Madeleine's friend, Alexandra, a wealthy young American living in Chacellet, France. I did not see a lot of plot, the story is told through the dialogue of the characters. This was pretty boring! I gotta stop reading novellas and/or short stories! But hey, am cleaning off those shelves. The cover is also odd, and I've spent too much time trying to connect it to the story. 136 pages ( )
Very nicely done, the sort of thing that'll appeal to people involved in crafting something, while also causing them/we to feel a little ripped off. As even the introduction points out, making a hawk into a symbol isn't much of a novelty, nor is the Anglos-abroad (Wescott does make me want to read Henry James, which is a mark in his favor), nor is the ever so slightly farcical country-house plot.
So, to justify my own enjoyment of this, I'm forced to interpret the book thusly: the hawk is not, in fact, a symbol for anything, and the point of the novel is the narrator's failure to discover anything worthy to be symbolized by the 'symbol'. The hawk exceeds all of Alwyn Towers' life experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings; the hawk certainly exceeds the experiences, thoughts and feelings of its Irish keeper and her husband. Any romantic, idealizing, transcendentalist attitudes fail to capture the real danger and magnificence of the animal. In short, this is a short novel about the writer's failure to produce a work adequate to its subject--while, at the same time, it's a perfect little gem of a book.
I read this book on a whim and recommendation from 'Lost Classics: Writers on Books Loved and Lost', where Jeffrey Eugenides wrote beautifully about 'The Pilgrim Hawk' and Glenway Wescott.
There was something in the blurb about Wescott that struck a chord in me. I read 'The Pilgrim Hawk', looked up what I could about his life, and have been seeking out his other books ever since.
'The Pilgrim Hawk' is a slim novella that covers a single afternoon in France in the late twenties. I've always read it in almost a single sitting, but it is so artfully crafted, and so much can be read into the actions of the small 'cast' of characters, that one wonders how Wescott kept the book so short.
Reading this again now has only confirmed my memory of it, and my admiration of its author, a talented man who after 1945 for some reason never published fiction again, despite living another forty years.
I will not go into more of the plot, I simply recommend this book to any who are curious and have a quiet afternoon to spend.
Brief, elegant, edgy, and profound, I found myself enraptured by this little gem. I was quickly taken in by the narrator's voice, and while not much happens, there is an incredible tension in all this not-happening. A masterpiece of restrained narration.
A quiet masterpiece; a single afternoon, drinks, conversation, scandal, and a hawk. Maugham admired Wescott's prose, and reading this you can see why.
My YouTube review is here: https://youtu.be/XCZyivmZ07k
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This powerful short novel describes the events of a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and sometime novelist, is staying with a friend outside of Paris, when a well-heeled, itinerant Irish couple drops in-with Lucy, their trained hawk, a restless, sullen, disturbingly totemic presence. Lunch is prepared, drink flows. A masquerade, at once harrowing and farcical, begins. A work of classical elegance and concision, The Pilgrim Hawk stands with Faulkner’sThe Bear as one of the finest American short novels: a beautifully crafted story that is also a poignant evocation of the implacable power of love.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.52Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1900-1944
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2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.
Editions: 0940322560, 1590174577