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Year with Short Novels: Love, the Limits of Narrative, & The Pilgrim Hawk

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The Pilgrim Hawk

By Glenway Westcott
Originally published in 1940
Reprinted in 2001 by New York Review of Books Classics

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

The novel’s opening page promises calm, close-hewn observation. “The Cullens were Irish; but it was in France that I met them and was able to form an impression of their love and their trouble,” Tower, the narrator, begins with lapidary authority. The setting is Chancellet, France. Tower is a long-term houseguest at his friend Alexandra Henry’s beautiful maison. It is 1928 or 1929, the spring before “we all returned to America.” He is describing a more easeful time from a decade’s distance. “In the twenties,” he explains, “it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as you, your peregrination just crossing theirs; and you did your best to know them in an afternoon or so; and perhaps you called that little lightning knowledge, friendship.” Tower’s tale will purportedly center around exactly such a chance meeting, drawing out character traits and flashes of intimacy amid a setting of interwar languor. To evoke it, Tower launches into a detailed description of Alex’s beautiful house and garden, abutting a village street so closely “that the reckless French traffic practically brushed the walls.”

But the entrance of the Cullens interrupts Tower’s descriptive torpor. Tower answers the door and discovers a huge Daimler town car taking up the entire cobbled space between house and highway. A heavyset Irishman, Cullen, repeatedly rings the doorbell and then turns to help his wife out of the vehicle with the aid of their dapper chauffer. She is clad in an elegant gown and “the highest heels” Tower has ever seen. A “full-grown hooded falcon” perches unsteadily on her wrist, hunching its wings for balance while its owner hobbles forth on the cobblestones, supported by the men: “‘I brought my hawk,’ Mrs. Cullen unnecessarily announced.”

So begins Glenway Westcott’s The Pilgrim Hawk, a slight, peculiar masterwork of 20th century letters. In subsequent pages, Tower recounts the afternoon the Cullens spend with him and Alex. Conversation commences and drinks are proffered. Jealousies and neuroses surface but never fully emerge. Instead, Tower raises unanswered questions about the characters. We glimpse the upheavals of the Cullens’ marriage, wherein Tower considers the hawk to be the least eager party in a passionate love triangle. The rich, sporting Cullens perpetually invoke their mutual need of each other and enact skits of jealousy and sacrifice—for whose benefit, it isn’t clear. Alexandra looks on impassively. Meanwhile Tower, an unsuccessful novelist, sifts everything that unfolds for literary generalization. In the course of the short and singular novel, reversals of expectation fuel a parable which pits freedom against captivity and possibility against experience, ultimately interrogating the act of writing itself.

Tower is introverted guide. By turns securely eloquent and diffident, he admits to his insecurities as a writer, turns round to embroider fine phrases about the Cullens, and then doubts his own perceptiveness again. The result is a cocktail of aphorism, acuity, and self-doubting narration, a novel that refuses to behave itself. What is so wonderful about The Pilgrim Hawk—and what remains jarring seventy years after its original serialization in Harper’s—is that it constantly goes against the grain of fictional narration, refusing to assert swells of intuition and empathy as reality. The novel is full of deceptively persuasive universals that double back on themselves. Watching Mrs. Cullen prattle on about the hawk and affectionately regard her husband with her wildly blue Irish eyes, Tower notes:

She seemed to me a very passionate woman, but it was a kind of plural passion, all confused or crossed: work and play and sense of beauty, the maternal and the conjugal and the misanthropic, mixed. Perhaps that is a peculiarity of childless women. Female character has a great many secondary traits and minor talents; the wear and tear of motherhood may weaken them or stamp them out. It is anarchy if they all flourish.

Agree with the observation or not, it is a magnificently turned-out generality. The reader stops to admire the idea and even to obligingly measure it against their own experience of the world.

But a page later, Tower remembers that earlier in the conversation Mrs. Cullen’s sons came up: “just then like a fool I had been thinking of Mrs. Cullen as a childless woman. What about those wild Irish sons of hers…?” The novel is full of similar reversals; it’s characterized by sleights of hand. The Pilgrim Hawk reveals the tricks upon which fiction typically relies: personal observation masquerading as omniscience; patterns and sweeping statements woven from messy event; descriptive insertions of metaphors and significance; deployment of empathy and imagination to fill the gaps left by one’s ignorance. The novel reveals those techniques as such while beautifully executing them.

The ever-shifting symbolism of Lucy, the hawk, is foremost example of the illuminating and self-deflating narrative turns. Hawks, novelist Michael Cunningham writes in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, are one of those creatures “that can’t be anything but symbols when they appear in books.” The novel plays with this. Seated near Lucy after the Cullens’ arrival, Tower finds himself regarding the bird with fascination. It seems to embody “all the truly interesting subjects…illness, poverty, sex, religion, art. 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.”

During the course of the afternoon, Tower transforms the hawk into a symbol of:

1. Death
2. Failed artistic ambition
3. Sexual desire
4. Growing old
5. Romantic rivalry
6. Asceticism
7. Freedom/Independence
8. Domesticity
9. Interdependence, benefits and limitations of

Lucy flapping her wings near Tower’s eyes or in a hotel room above the sleeping Cullens seems to usher in death and misfortune. The elderly hawk, still hungry but no longer able to hunt, is like an aging bachelor on the prowl. That hawks, as Mrs. Cullen explains, flee their falconers if they miss their quarry three times comes to symbolize the fragile balance of mutual need which forms a relationship. Hawks never get over being wild; they refuse to breed in captivity. Tower wonders if humans with a similar innate need for freedom are exceptions rather than the rule. Tower watches Lucy slowly and deliberately eat a pigeon instead of fiercely devouring it, as he expected. He reflects, “the appetites which do not arise until we have resolved to eat, which we cannot comprehend until we have eaten, are the noblest—marital, aesthetic, religious…” Iterations of these themes are endlessly reversed and refined.

The metaphors are so well-deployed and vivid that the reader hardly notices the way they constantly reshape the narrative. Each is so apt to the story and independent of the others—taking them together, it seems to matter little whether they are all true, or none are true. Many implications may be encoded in the great motifs of mortality, love, and liberty. But writers may also habitually abridge and poeticize such themes when reality is too messy to be contained by narrative short-cuts. The dominant mood of The Pilgrim Hawk is one of yearning, stretching oneself to try to know more and coming up short. “People as a rule do mean much more than they understand,” Tower observes as he monitors Mrs. Cullen’s babble about hunting and travel for insight into her marriage. But Tower’s attempts to divine the hidden significance of what is around him keep falling short. The many-sided Cullens keep sealing him off from the abstractions he’s concocting. The reader is left just outside the unfolding afternoon, as he is.

The overlays of plot with Tower’s dubious commentary ultimately engender a sense that narrative simplification cannot be trusted. The dimensionality and imagination of literature usually provide an excuse to plumb human relationships at depths otherwise unavailable to us The Pilgrim Hawk, in contrast, mirrors the haphazard assumptions and revisions inherent in getting to know people in real life. The Cullens regard each other with affection, hurt, and self-protection. Whether confiding in Alex and Tower or glancing meaningfully at one another, the novel suggests through them that the most intimate junctures in the lives of a couple may never be comprehensible to an outsider.

The fractal brilliance of The Pilgrim Hawk inheres in how the story echoes that sense of being an outsider. The novel conjures the general limitations of human understanding and simultaneously provides specific examples of boundaries which can waylay insight. Tower stands separate from the proceedings because (he implies) he’s a gay man among heterosexuals, a “sobersides” among drinkers, and finally, perhaps most damningly, a struggling writer surrounded by potential material.

The story is littered with microscopic hints of Tower’s homosexuality. When he remembers Mrs. Cullen has sons, he prays that they are masculine, wild, and self-sufficient because if they are “at all backward or sensitive” their mother may dominate them. Later, when Mrs. Cullen unburdens herself to Alexandra in front of him, he realizes she feels free to speak of personal matters in his presence because she has inferred he has no romantic interest in Alex: “therefore, in her view of life, I did not count, I was a supernumerary. What harm could I do with her secrets? Women are fantastic.”

All references to his homosexuality are vague, but their veiled presence is part of what lends Tower’s narrative its off-kilter urgency. As he cobbles together generalizations about love, he is working to bridge his own closeted experience with that of a heterosexual married couple in the 1920s. Sometimes this effort works brilliantly. Mrs. Cullen explains that only kept falcons live long lives: wild hawks starve to death as they lose their hunting skills. The hawk and Mr. Cullen’s graying lust seamlessly merge with a larger metaphor as Tower reflects on the shrinking closet he sees his peers forced into as they age:

And highly sexed men, unless they give in and get married and stay married, more or less starve to death. I myself was still young then and I had been lucky in love. But little early quarrels and failures warn one; and in the confidences of friends and in gossip about other men, one discovers the vague beastly shape of what to expect…Love-life goes on indefinitely, with less and less likelihood of being loved, less and less ability to love, and the stomach-ache of love still as sharp as ever. The old bachelor is like an old hawk.

But sometimes, as when he meditates on the rarified satisfactions of marriage (e.g. comparing them to Lucy devouring her dead pigeon), our narrator seems to be tapping on glass, trying to gain admittance into a scene just out of reach. The sense of being outside the mainstream of society slips into the undertones of the entire novel, sounding a faint but constant note of melancholy.

When it comes to alcohol, the notion of Tower as maladroit interloper is played up for comic effect. Midway through the novel, Alex and Mrs. Cullen leave the men on account of Mrs. Cullen’s headache. Tower, a self-professed teetotaler, invites Cullen to the bar on the balcony and serves him one shaker of vodka followed by another. Alex rejoins them later. During the interim pages—about 14-percent of the novel—Mr. Cullen confides in Tower how much he despises the hawk.

Meanwhile, Tower tacitly concocts intricate theories about the effects of drink and drunkenness. As Cullen imbibes the second shaker of vodka and cream, Tower thinks, daytime drinkers are the worst, “Half the time they themselves are only half aware of any incapacity of lack of charm.” But then he reminds himself that he may be seeing Cullen in the worst light. At other times, perhaps, “his character was ideal; his mind vigorous; his great physique fresh and energetic. That would explain the love his wife bore him…Thus I began to think indulgently of Mrs. Cullen’s selfish nervousness and sharp tongue.” Cullen brags that he took Mrs. Cullen, penniless and “the prettiest girl in Dublin,” and gave her everything. Tower meanwhile muses, “Alcohol is the great leveler. Given a stiff drink, the true descendant of princes boasts of it as if it were not true, the multimillionaire feels poor, and Tristan talks to you about Isolde like a pimp….” Then Cullen describes an instance of jealous delusion, when he thought their chauffer had disrespected his wife (“I’d have killed him”) and Mrs. Cullen tells her husband he imagined it. Tower thinks:

All alcoholism in a nutshell…indiscretion and boastfulness and snobbism; and sentimentality so nervous that it may switch to its exact opposite; and the sexual note and the sadistic note, undesirable desire, improbable murder. All of it of course a bit unreal and unrealizable in fact . . .

What exaggeration I had drifted into! Cullen really was not in very bad shape; I have spent afternoons with a hundred drunker men.

The long episode of Cullen drinking while Tower elaborates on drinking (which continues in several more convoluted asides) makes his continuous novelistic double consciousness seem absurd.  Throughout the novel, Tower alternates between sympathizing with the Cullens and finding gargantuan faults in them. His acute awareness of other people is an odd burden. Considering the arbitrary assumptions his perceptiveness leads to, Tower notes, “it is a kind of sensitivity which may turn, almost by chance, for [others] or against them.” Mining those around him for evidence to buttress his notions of love, constructing complex and elegant similes for alcohol and aging, constantly recoiling from what is unfolding to splice together intuitions about back-story he can’t see: Tower satirizes the odd, observational habits of writers.

In his introduction to the novel, Michael Cunningham asks why Glenway Wescott stopped writing fiction. The Pilgrim Hawk, often called his most substantial work, came out in 1940: critically well-received, it sold only 2,300 copies. After a likewise uncommercial 1945 novel, Apartment in Athens, Wescott lived until 1987 without writing another novel: journals (published posthumously as Continual Lessons) and the occasional article, yes, but no more fiction. The Midwest-born author seems to slide into the golden handcuffs of expatriate decadence: supported by the heiress his brother married, surrounded by literate friends, given to social drinking and letter-writing. “There is, to my knowledge,” Cunningham writes, “little information about why he stopped writing fiction, though I tend to believe that writers who stop writing do so for reasons ultimately as mysterious as those that drove them to attempt writing in the first place.”

But The Pilgrim Hawk—if in a backhanded, very stylized way—contains myriad insinuations of why Wescott would soon stop writing novels. Doubt and deprecation fill the work. Tower uses the tools of novel writing and undercuts them in the same breath. “Half the time, I am afraid, my opinion of people is just guessing; cartooning,” Tower confesses. “Again and again I give way to a kind of inexact and vengeful lyricism; I cannot tell what right I have to be avenged, and I am ashamed of it. Sometimes I entirely doubt my judgment in moral matters; and so long as I propose to be a story-teller, that is whisper of the devil for me.” Wescott’s faults as a novelist are encoded in Tower. Like him, Wescott’s trigger finger is off—he wounds but never kills. His art ripples with moral ambiguity. Wescott’s style is notable for grace more than gravitas. Just as he is about to leave you with a strong sense of one personality or situation, he retreats from it or beautifully postulates a different rationale for what just happened.

The novel’s climax and anticlimax illustrate this. As the Cullens prepare to leave, Tower offers a rumination so poignant and pointed, it seems likely to sum up the entire novel. As the Daimler purrs up and the Cullens get ready for the door, Tower feels cold and hot at once, the mix of emotion he imagines thrills and tortures the couple. He reflects on how youthful attempts at love differ from the real thing:

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 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.

A different novel would close roughly here. But the Cullens, as ever, prove unstable pegs on which to hang abstraction. They say goodbye and embark. The car pulls away. Tower and Alexandra go back inside to light cigarettes and talk more. But not a page later, they hear a screech of brakes. The Daimler makes a vicious U-turn, and pulls up at a violent angle by the house. Mrs. Cullen lunges out of the car and rushes back into the house with Lucy dangling and flapping for hold on her precarious wrist. “But this time it was not bating, not mystical death or symbolic love of liberty; it was just ordinary loss of balance.”

What follows contravenes the idea of love Tower just put together. Unsure of what occurred in the car, he and the reader are distanced from Mrs. Cullen. Reconsidering her behavior and then seeing the servants’ jealous romantic baiting of each other, Tower implies that love may often be a matter of manipulation and obligation rather than feats of forgiveness and passion. The novel ends with intimations that artistic failure lurks ahead for Tower and uneasy marriage for Alex. Tower warns against abstraction and rebukes his constant inner monologue.

What must you give up for love and happiness? Can you have a deep need for freedom and also be a lover, or does love mean being blinded and coddled, like Lucy? How well can you ever truly know someone else, even those you hold closest? What relation do art and reflection have to the actual stuff of life? Do we really mature as time passes or simply become more aware of our lapses, more timid about making mistakes? In The Pilgrim Hawk, Wescott suggests that when it comes to the most vital questions of life and love, it may be more worthwhile to ask rather than answer them.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.