Some notes / questions-to-self made while reading The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, a novella by Glenway Wescott. This edition, published by NYRB Classics, includes an introduction by Michael Cunningham.
• Is it possible for a really short book to transcend the usual burdens of symbol? See, the eponymous pilgrim hawk is, as Michael Cunningham points so astutely in his introduction, the kind of narrative symbol that normally sends readers scurrying. It wanted to hell. From the moment that bird came in the picture—amid a Gatsby-esque setting—I dreaded. The falco peregrinus, whose “chief beauty was that of expression. It was 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 than absorbed every instant all their lives.” Symbol alert, ladies and gentlemen. Note that Michael Cunningham, in his introduction, hastens to assure the reader that Lucy (that’s the hawk) isn’t mere symbol—she’s as much a character as all the human players here. But, still.
• What makes The Pilgrim Hawk’s reliance on symbol particularly worrisome is its length. It already faces much challenge given the 108 pages it has to wiggle around in—novellas are pressured to be as precise as a short story, but as open to elaboration as a novel. But the symbolism works for me—but only with extreme patience on my [Impatient By Default Self] part. See, at its surface, The Pilgrim Hawk is about friends gathering for some tea, talking about the most innocuous subjects. Of course, undercurrents abound between the characters, their conversations. And there are a lot of characters. There’s the narrator and his best friend, the couple Cullens—the Mrs. of which is the owner of the falcon (strange but affective image of the classy Madame Falconer)—the maid, the footman, the Cullens’ chaffeur, and (okay, Mr. Cunningham) Lucy the hawk.
• But, I suppose, Wescott subverted the conventional uses of symbol—by overstuffing this tiny novella with them? That one will assign every character a certain facet of our Lucy, and, ultimately, let the characters transcend the categorization? That Lucy herself is, for the most part, the fount of symbol and metaphor and analogy—only to be revealed that, well, she can be such a bird sometimes, all squawk-y and flutter-y, and very much tangible?
• It works, though, it does. Because our intrepid narrator deliberately casts himself as an observer to this merry band of falcon-wielding, petty-jealousies-flinging tea-takers. With him in charge, with his eyes the lens by which we see this tea-taking, The Pilgrim Hawk becomes almost like a handbook—the narrations read like a catalog on how we love.
When love is diabolic, I thought, a triangle is the simplest form it can take; and a convenient form, if it cannot be endured. The lovers to be pitied perhaps are those who have no one to hate—what they long to kill, and what the killing would be for, incorporated in one and the same person, the one they love—where rough shooting can take place only in imagination and never ends.
After all, The Pilgrim Hawk audaciously (and quite rightly, ultimately) calls itself a love story. I shouldn’t mind. I quite like wielding my might highlighter, and scribbling little concurrences on the margins. I mean, come on, look:
Unrequited passion; romance put asunder by circumstances of mistakes; sexuality pretending to be love—all that is a matter of little consequence, a mere voluntary temporary uneasiness, compared with the long course of true love, especially marriage. In marriage, insult arises again and again and again; and pain has to be not only endured, but consented to; and the amount of forgiveness that it necessitates is incredible and exhausting. When love has given satisfaction, then you discover how large a part of the rest of life is only payment for it, installment after installment. . . That was the one definite lesson which these petty scenes of the Cullens illustrated. Early in life I had learned it for myself well enough. It was on Alex’s account that I minded. To see the cost of love before one has felt what it is worth is a pity; one may never have the courage to begin.
The shorthand: F. Scott Fitzgerald with a falcon. [That last sentence just proves that I need so much work on my Read-the-Subtlez,-Idiot! manner of reading. Because there is so much in this novella; I know I’ve barely scratched the surface.]