Sunday, December 20, 2009

NYRB Challenge #16: A Strange Love Story. . .

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott is subtitled "A Love Story" but this is no traditional romantic tale. And though originally published in 1940, this beautiful novella is perhaps one of the most modern novels I've ever read.

The plot is simple. Our narrator, Alwyn Tower, is an American writer staying with his friend Alex at her house in the French countryside. One afternoon a wealthy Irish couple - the Cullens - come to visit along with Mrs. Cullen's pet falcon hawk Lucy. Alwyn observes them with fascination, along with their chauffeur and Alex's two servants, Jean and Eva. Over the course of a few hours a range of emotions will be visibly displayed by the actors in this domestic drama (or is it a farce?) ranging from jealousy and petulance to envy, anger and despair. Alwyn watches and judges and draws his own conclusions - and he almost always gets it wrong. It's such a delicious way of telling a story.

And Westcott has nailed the essential dilemma of love - perhaps even more of an issue in tiptoeing through today's relationship minefields. As the conversation centers on the life of a hawk in captivity, the parallel question of love versus individual liberty is inevitably evoked. How much of one's own individual pleasures and freedoms should one have to give up for your partner? And is it worth it? The Cullens certainly have their marital problems. But it's also significant that Alwyn, looking back on that afternoon from a distance of twenty years, is still single:

Unrequited passion; romance put asunder by circumstances or 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. . .

Michael Cunningham in his introduction gives the perfect comps for this book: The Great Gatsby, The Good Soldier and Henry James' novella The Aspern Papers. Do try and read it all in one sitting (it's 108 pages). And then keep it on your shelves; it's a story that will demand re-reading over the years, no matter whether you're in or out of love. A great choice for a bookclub.

1 comment:

Stewart said...

I really enjoyed this book when I read it, almost two years back. Not much, to be honest, has stuck with me but I'm sure that I gave it four or five stars back then. Reading over this has brought back some of the story, though, and that's a good thing. It reminds me I should track down Wescott's Apartment In Athens one day and give that a spin.