JUDY KRAVIS

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Saturday, 25 January 2020

American writers who spent time in France in the early to mid-twentieth century have an observational composure in their writing, a perceived european quietude whose formality and dignity suit the handling of passions that others are undergoing. The writer is involved and not involved, honing by observing, observing by honing.

Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk, in its clear, quiet, one hundred pages, principally focussed on an Irish couple called Cullen during a single afternoon in a country house outside Paris, is one such. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is another. Both writers revolved around the distracted rich who fed and watered and bickered in Europe then. In the end you're not sure if it's the story or the involvement of the teller that's more moving. No, you are sure, it's the latter. The story is its telling, its estrangement.

As well as the writer/narrator, there is another observer. The hawk, called Lucy, after Walter Scott and Lucia di Lammermoor, who spends the afternoon of the novel sitting on her mistress's arm on a gauntlet 'stiffened and discoloured by a hundred little sanguinary banquets', is the narrator's most evident companion, his avian alter ego and a means of considering the meaning of events. 'People as a rule do mean much more than they understand.'
(the hawk's) 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 of their lives.
Plenty of hawk vocabulary lends an air of expertise and familiar access. These tastes of hawk life resonate strangely, especially if you're reading in the middle of the night: 'Whenever I began to be bored, a solemn glance of its maniacal eyes helped me to stop listening and to think concentratedly of myself instead, or for myself.'

The narrator, Alwyn Tower, like the narrator of The Good Soldier, is so sensitive and discriminating that the Cullens seem to retreat behind fine touches of psychology and observation, and we end having no idea who they are after they have carried us through the story's natural length. And that is what Ford Madox Ford and Glenway Wescott are so good at: displaying a story in its natural length and no more.

As we approach the end of the afternoon, and events between the Cullens come to a head, the narrator watches Mrs Cullen rushing on her high heels across cobblestones with the hawk on her arm, and sees the absurdity of it all.
It was absurd. Even her little blind headgear with parrot feathers seemed to me absurd; it matched the French hat which her mistress was wearing at so Irish an angle, except that it was provided with secure drawstrings. In spite of my bewilderment and alarm, I began to laugh. It struck me as a completion of the cycle of the afternoon, an end of the sequence of meanings I had been reading into every thing, especially Lucy. The all-embracing symbolic bird, primitive image with iron wings and rusty tassels and enamelled feet, airy murderess like an angel; young predatory sanguinary de luxe hen—now she was funny, she had not seemed funny before.
For an hour or so after I stopped reading I felt as if I were the hawk, peering about into the darkness, sleep well-nigh impossible.

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