The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott
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?
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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.
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The Most Dangerous Gamer:In a multibillion-dollar industry addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens, can true art finally flourish?
Like many wealthy people, Jonathan Blow vividly remembers the moment he became rich. At the time, in late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.” […]
Blow has decided to use his money—nearly all of it—to finance what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history, one that he hopes will radically expand the limitations of his chosen field. Although video games long ago blossomed into full commercial maturity (the adrenaline-soaked military shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, racked up $400 million in sales during its first 24 hours in stores last fall), the form remains an artistic backwater, plagued by cartoonish murderfests and endless revenue-friendly sequels. Blow intends to shake up this juvenile hegemony with The Witness, a single-player exploration-puzzle game set on a mysterious abandoned island. In a medium still awaiting its quantum intellectual leap, Blow aims to make The Witness a groundbreaking piece of interactive art—a sort of Citizen Kane of video games.
It’s a characteristically audacious plan for a man who has earned a reputation not just as the video-game industry’s most cerebral developer, but also as its most incisive and polarizing internal critic. To Blow, being labeled the most intellectual man in video games is a little like being called the most chaste woman in a brothel: not exactly something to crow about to Mom and Dad. “I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”
Braid is so, so great. Do yourself a favor and try it.
How many military bases in Afghanistan?
Back in early 2010, I got the military to count up its whole inventory of bases in Afghanistan and was floored by the total — nearly 400! With talk by the Obama administration of drawdowns, withdrawals, and shifting the fight to special operations forces, I decided to take another look at the state of base building. Have the numbers dropped? On the contrary, they’ve risen higher!
For a full accounting of the hundreds of U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan and the story of a new intelligence facility devoted to the drone war that military refuses to talk about (they cancelled an interview when they learned about my line of questioning), see my latest investigative piece on the Pentagon’s Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops.
Photo: A Predator drone inside a hangar at Kandahar Airfield. (USAF/David Carbajal)
The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.
- In this week’s issue, Adam Gopnik writes about mass incarceration and criminal justice in America: http://nyr.kr/A75iOm
Photograph by Steve Liss.
Why Can’t You Leave Religion Alone?
Religion permeates our culture, shows up on our doorsteps with literature, scriptures and threats of eternal damnation, influences our science books, contaminates our political systems, indoctrinates our children and postulates that its doctrine must be followed, lest we be destroyed in body, in soul, or both.
Non-believers are simply responding to the avalanche of religious messages that bears down upon us daily.
Religion gets carte blanche to be as vocal as it wants, to knock on our doors and accost us in our homes, in our places of work, in our personal and professional lives. Believers are charged with a life mission to preach, teach, disciple, shout it from the mountaintops and to “go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Religion…is everywhere.
Ask yourself. When’s the last time an atheist rang your doorbell with the Good News of Humanism? How often do you find Richard Dawkins books in the dresser drawers of your hotel rooms? When was the last atheist temple erected in your neighborhood? Have you ever attended an atheist revival? Has atheism demanded 10% of your household income? How many dedicated atheist television channels come through your satellite dish? How many atheist verses were you instructed to memorize as a child? When’s the last time someone thanked a FARMER (or even the cook) at the dinner table instead of God?
On a more radical front, what’s the name of the last atheist who sawed the head off of an “infidel?” Or sentenced a shrouded woman to death for displeasing an oppressive husband? Or strapped explosives to his belt in order to kill hundreds in a public square? Or publicly hung a gay person for his lifestyle?
It’s everywhere. Religion is a pounding drum that has gone mostly unanswered for a long, long time. And religion is not satisfied with merely existing quietly in the homes and hearts of the faithful. Its very nature compels the believer to proselytize, preach, promote, convince, convert and prevail. If you play on the team of the religious, your game plan is to stay, always, on offense.
Throughout our history, those who raise a simple hand of protest against these advances have been portrayed as the real problem. Religion has attempted to marginalize and defeat legitimate questions and concerns by indignantly portraying any resistors as misguided, immoral, rudderless, angry, miserable, lost and alone.
And when skepticism challenges wildly improbable (or impossible) stories found in the bible, the Qur’an and other holy books, the religious wail, “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
The irony is thick.
And religion impedes curiosity and inhibits learning, as the much-maligned Creation Museum proves. It stymies critical thinking. It stretches us to believe the unbelievable. And it poisons the foundational teachings we are using to train up the generations of tomorrow.
Pages like mine exist as a response… a counter-argument to ensure that the cacophony of superstition does not go unchallenged. And if your belief system is so undeniable, so factual, so provable, so real and so true, certainly it can withstand the opposing viewpoints presented here and elsewhere. Certainly, it can survive the acid tests.
Just remember. Religion began the argument. It amplifies itself before the world. And it threatens all mankind with punishment upon its rejection.
We are atheists. We are moral. We are reasonable. We are thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, happy, fulfilled and well-informed.
And as long as religion insists on fixing human beings who are not broken, we will respond with the evidence that we are not the problem.
The mural has been there for a year now. On first glance, the artwork, on a wall facing the two elevators, is a frightening mash up of a J.M.W. Turner painting and a storyboard for a scene from The Perfect Storm. It depicts a tumescent oceanscape, dominated by a wall of surf that is about to upturn a pitiful sailing ship.
The image was discovered by Google VP of product management Bradley Horowitz when he opened Google Image Search and typed “Emerald Sea” — which had just been chosen as the project code name. The first result, a depiction of an 1878 painting created by German immigrant artist Albert Bierstadt, so impressed Horowitz that he commissioned a pair of art students to copy it on the wall facing the fourth floor elevators. That way, the hundreds of workers contributing to Emerald Sea would draw inspiration as they headed to their computers to remake Google into a major social networking force.
The massive wave symbolizes the ways Google views the increasingly prominent social aspect of the web — as a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory. Beirstadt’s turbulent vision is the perfect illustration. “We needed a code name that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave,” Gundotra said last August, when Google first showed me a prototype.
Did he say drown? It almost beggars belief that the king of the search — the most successful internet business ever, with $30 billion in yearly revenue — would be running scared by the social networking trend led by Facebook, a company that barely rakes in a few billion. Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. As early as last August, I asked Gundotra whether he felt Emerald Sea was a bet-the-company project.
“I think so,” he replied. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way.”
Google still wants to organize the world’s information. But this time, it’s personal.