“Unfortunate, dark, and immoral goshawk…”

But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird. These efforts might have some value because they were continuously faced with those difficulties which the mind has to circumvent, because falconry was an historic though dying sport, because the faculties exercised were those which throve among trees rather than houses, and because the whole thing was inexpressibly difficult.

This is T.H. White’s own appraisal of his book The Goshawk, and it’s an apt one — aside from the last phrase. White actually does a damn fine job of expressing how very difficult a task he has undertaken, a task that is exhausting, demoralizing, exhilarating, and at last heartbreaking.

9781590172490The author of The Once and Future King, White was a deeply conflicted man who craved difficult tasks, and now he was “trying to conquer a territory over which the contemporaries of Chaucer had rambled free” with nothing more than a 17th-century falconry guide and his own solitary, changeable soul as resources. The training regimen is brutal: first up, keeping the goshawk Gos (and himself) awake for at least three days in order to weaken the bird’s resistance and accustom it to his fist as perch. The book is really a litany of odd hours — some mornings 4 a.m. is when White gets up, some mornings it’s when he goes to bed. And the hours in between are full of endless watches and wanderings: looking for prey, hunting food to hand-feed Gos, searching for Gos when he strays, getting Gos used to other people or just to White himself on long walks.

From the start, the relationship is troubled. White has little idea what he’s doing and Gos knows it. They injure each other, usually unintentionally, with jess and claw. At the solitary cottage that serves as White’s retreat from the world, they each become the other’s only companion, and the vicissitudes of their romance are extravagant: “A homicidal maniac: but now he was enjoying to be stroked. We were again in love.”

There’s some comedy in this, of course, and White sees it. No thoughtful man could enter into such a savage relationship with an animal and not see it:

It was six weeks since I had averted my eyes from the hag-ridden pupils of this lunatic, half a week since he had come on a creance quite perfectly a hundred yards. I had lived with this hawk, its slave, butcher, nursemaid and flunkey. What clothes it wore were made by me, what house it had was swept out and kept sweet by me, what food it ate was killed and eviscerated and hacked into pieces and served by me, what excursions it made were taken on my fist. For six weeks I had thought about it long into the night and risen early to execute my thoughts. I had never raised my voice to it, nor hurt it, nor subjected it to the extreme torture which it deserved.

It’s this dark comic vein that gives the book its melancholy joy.

The Goshawk was published in 1951 but composed in 1939 from notes written at the time of the events two years earlier — notes written by candlelight, in a barn, on a notebook balanced on one knee with Gos perched on the other fist. As described by Marie Winn in her excellent introduction, White had to be pushed into publishing the book; he was embarrassed by his youthful incompetence, and as a more experienced austringer in later life he was painfully aware, he wrote, “just how bad the falconry in that book is, if I recollect it. It is like asking a grown-up to sanction the publication of his adolescent diaries…”

What is an austringer, you ask? As White says, “A keeper of long-winged hawks used to be called a falconer, of short winged hawks an austringer.” The book is full of fascinating falconry jargon: bate (“a word that had been used since falcons were first flown in England, since England was first a country therefore”), jesses, mews, eyas, mute. Mute is especially fine, being the noun and verb for birdshit. White describes the barn floor, “streaked outwards round the perch with white squirts of mutes, so that it looked like a sundial.”

Anyone who’s read The Once and Future King knows that White can write like a bandit. On the birds he trained in later life: “Each one of these assassins had his or her own character: they were as individual and different from each other as eight separate anarchists.” On the weather: “Last night the clouds had been curdled high over heaven, and now they had come down to earth. The mist was stratus at ground level and the moon hid her haunted face in diminished power.” And on himself: “One had to find out what things were not necessary, what things one really needed. A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energy and love, the sun and the moon.”

White’s marvelous creative energy captivates the reader as always, but it is his love for the “unfortunate, dark, and immoral” Gos that makes The Goshawk, in the end, such a heartbreaker.

Stray observations:

  • If you mispronounce goshawk as gaw-shock it sounds like a creature from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books instead of a bird — bang, you got a totally different book right there. Changes the whole undertaking.
  • I love the Penguin Modern Classics covers designed by Hans Schmoller with the Joanna typeface (before that devil Facetti switched the series to Helvetica in the late 60s to match the rest of Penguin’s lineup). I had no idea The Goshawk had been part of the Modern Classics series until doing an image search for the cover — may have to get a copy of this one at some point.
goshawk-1

pre-Facetti – lovely

goshawk-2

post-Facetti – not as lovely

  • I grumbled about the NYRB Classics cover for Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, but they really redeemed themselves with this one (see above). It has butterscotch-and-pumpkin text on a gorgeous grayish-green matte background that perfectly matches the cover painting by Bruno Liljefors. Just a pleasure to hold in your hand and stare at.
  • The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin displays some fascinating pages from White’s original journal of his time with Gos (along with the truly jarring original cover) — pictures of Gos, feathers taped to the page like a lover’s mementos.
  • White obtained Gos from a falconer in Germany. Last February, when we were still living in Munich, I looked out at our garden one day to see a goshawk munching on a blackbird [Edit: Apparently this is more likely to be a sparrowhawk]. We got to watch him go at it for at least an hour — one of my best bird experiences ever (click to enlarge):

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Penguin Horror

9780143122326HAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m a true Penguin fanatic, as much for their cover designs over the years as for their editorial sensibility. So the covers for the new Penguin Horror series (via Boingboing) are right up my alley. I’m a little disappointed that the Frankenstein cover uses the Boris Karloff “square-head” design from the 1931 film — granted it’s iconic, but it’s not Mary Shelley’s depiction of the creature at all. (Incidentally, Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher is a fantastic meta-fiction on the creature, unsurprisingly dark and sophisticated given Priestley’s other super-creepy books for kids.)

But the other covers are all dynamite. Especially horrifying is Lovecraft’s Thing on the Doorstep, emerging from the muck in all its crusty carp-man malevolence.

Book Order from the UK

I had a £30 credit on Amazon UK that needed to be used by December, so I picked up a few books to clear it out. I wish I’d waited a week in order to get Iain M. Banks collection State of the Art, which as I mentioned in my review of The Player of Games is hard to find in the US (even used editions are expensive) but is just another retail book in the UK.

Aside from that, though, it’s a good little haul:

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I enjoyed M. John Harrison’s Light enough that I was eager to try one of his few (maybe his only?) mainstream novels, Climbers. Should be interesting — I know very little about climbing, though I often leaf through my prized edition of Alan Blackshaw’s Penguin Handbook Mountaineering. (The only 60s Penguin Handbook that could possibly match it is the long-coveted-by-me Gardening for Australians).

alnblckshwSheri Tepper’s Grass, unlike the other two, is available in a US edition. But I wanted to pick up the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition from the UK. The SF Masterworks series is one of publishing’s noble endeavors right now (or endeavours, since we’re being all British) and they deserve your patronage! I’ve been intrigued by Grass for a while now — it gets a lot of comparisons to Dune, but without the bloat that encroached on Dune later on. I’m assuming it’s about a planet of post-apocalyptic potheads but don’t spoil it for me if I’m wrong (also please don’t disillusion me about PKD’s Galactic Pot-Healer).

State of Emergency is part of Dominic Sandbrook’s history of 20th-century Britain. This one covers 1970-1974; last year I read and really enjoyed White Heat, which covers 1964-1970, so it seemed like the logical next one to read in the series.

Not sure when I’ll get to any of these, considering my backlog of library books, but hopefully it’ll be soon.

Quote #7

jsamn“‘The road goes on a little way and then leads into a wood of thorn trees. At the entrance to the wood there is a statue of a woman with her hands outstretched. In one hand she holds a stone eye and in the other a stone heart. As for the wood itself…’ Childermass made a gesture, perhaps expressive of his inability to describe what he had seen, or perhaps of his powerlessness in the face of it. ‘Corpses hang from every tree. Some might have died as recently as yesterday. Others are no more than age-old skeletons dressed in rusting armour. I came to a high tower built of rough-hewn stones. The walls were pierced with a few tiny windows. There was a light at one of them and the shadow of someone looking out. Beneath the tower was a clearing with a brook running through it. A young man was standing there. He looked pale and sickly, with dead eyes, and he wore a British uniform. He told me he was the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart. He had sworn to protect the Lady of the Castle by challenging any one who approached with the attempt of harming or insulting her. I asked him if he had killed all the men I had seen. He said he had killed some of them and hung them upon the thorns –- as his predecessor had done before him. I asked him how the lady intended to reward him for his service. He said he did not know. He had never seen her or spoken to her. She remained in the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart; he stayed between the brook and the thorn trees. He asked me if I intended to fight him. I reminded him that I had neither insulted nor harmed his lady. I told him I was a servant and bound to return to my master who was at that moment waiting for me. Then I turned my horse and rode back.'”

– Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Project Longshot

Several speakers at the RAS agreed that a starship would not be feasible until such time as human beings had spread through most of Earth’s solar system, and possessed an economy able to command the resources of more than one planet. Whether that day will arrive is an open question. Gregory Benford said that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, guessed it might take a thousand years for the American frontier to advance to the Pacific Ocean. Humans are bad at prediction, Dr Benford argued, and often things thought on the edge of possibility happen faster than anyone would have believed.”

Review – The Player of Games

PlayerofGamesI probably owe Iain M. Banks an apology. I started his first “Culture” novel Consider Phlebas a few years ago, but was unimpressed and stopped reading around page 50. Then I read his non-SF book The Wasp Factory last year; while I found the atmosphere wonderfully claustrophobic and dank, the “maggots in the brain” scene struck me as a puerile stunt (I think I actually said “Give me a break!” out loud on the Munich U-Bahn) and the big reveal at the end felt like the nervous move of a young writer not trusting his own talent.

But now that I’ve read The Player of Games, I can see why Banks has such a fervid following. His prose isn’t particularly elegant, his dialogue is workmanlike, and the mechanics of his plots are pretty standard space opera stuff, all as I’d discovered with Consider Phlebas. His larger vision, however — specifically the progressive anarchist utopian Culture — will certainly be his legacy to science fiction; and it’s an inspiring one, a fully realized vision of a Total Wealth utopia where everyone pursues their own destiny free of poverty, repression, or illness.

As has been pointed out by Banks himself, a post-scarcity utopia without any real dark side to explore isn’t really a fruitful setting for drama, so he usually writes about conflicts between the Culture and other less-enlightened civilizations. In this case, the title character Jernau Morat Gurgeh visits the Empire of Azad to compete in the complicated game, also called Azad, that determines their entire social structure. Blackmailed into competing (reputation is really the only governing force in the Culture), Gurgeh is a reluctant emissary, but he soon grows to dominate the competition.

There’s a stunning scene in the middle of the book where the Culture drone accompanying Gurgeh reveals to him the side of the empire he hasn’t yet seen, forcing him to confront its vicious underbelly. What’s so effective about this, of course, is that it’s more or less our own society (at least outside Scandinavia…). The brutally expansionist military hegemony, and the cruelty underpinning the society through corporate power, class warfare, and racism, are completely recognizable, and the “outside looking in” effect of seeing it through the eyes of a utopian citizen is masterfully written. It feels like a horrifying fever dream of the modern world, echoing a very similar segment in Le Guin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed.

Unfortunately, Banks overplays his hand soon after, in a scene where a character brags about grotesqueries like drums made from human skin and flutes made from human femurs while practically licking his lips in sadistic ecstasy. Banks is basically letting us off the hook here, allowing us to distance our own society from the brutalities he portrays. Probably he didn’t intend to let us off the hook; more likely, he just wanted to seal the deal and make sure we don’t identify with the empire before he takes it down. It’s a failure to trust the reader, though, and it resembles the similar nervousness that weakens The Wasp Factory.

Aside from that, though, the book’s solid. I’m pretty eager to continue exploring the Culture now and will be reading more Banks soon.

Stray observations:

  • Although citizens of the Culture can and do easily change sex back and forth, and homosexuality has absolutely no social stigma attached, Banks makes a point of mentioning that Gurgeh has never engaged in either. More nervousness! The book was published in 1988 – I suspect that, given his politics, Banks wouldn’t have bothered making that point if he’d written the book later.
  • The name Gurgeh kept reminding me of Gurgi, the Gollum-like character from Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron.
  • I hadn’t realized, until reading a bit about it online, that the Culture is not Earthlings in the far future (in the not-readily-available-in-the-US novella “State of the Art“, a Contact scout visits 1970s Earth). This disappointed me a bit, though it’s not Banks’s fault — for some reason, I just really prefer SF that shows our own future. I would’ve loved it if Star Wars had opened with “A quarter million years from now…” (implying that it’s our future) instead of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” — though probably I would’ve been the only one. Clearly I don’t have an ear for the iconic, and George Lucas does.
  • Probably like most readers, I often get a first image of a character that I find impossible to shake, no matter how inappropriate it may be or how clearly the author delineates his version of the character’s physical appearance. Obviously sometimes it can be due to the film version: Dashiell Hammett memorably describes Sam Spade as looking like “a blond Satan” but it’s the rare reader that doesn’t instead picture Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. In this case, Gurgeh is sketchily described as a dark humanoid with curly hair and a beard, sort of a Jeffrey Wright type. But who flashed into my head in the first few pages, for god knows what reason, and refused to get out? This guy:

phildunphy

Quote #6

wolfsolent“Beautiful in their blue-black intensity, the great dark stripes over the metallic scales of the perch — caught out of season — brought back to Wolf’s mind a certain inland pool, near Weymouth backwater, where he had once hooked a small specimen of this particular fish, which his father had made him throw back again. As it had swum away through the aqueous dimness, between two great branching pickerel-weed stalks, he had had an ecstasy in thinking of that lovely, translucent underworld, completely different from his, in which, however, the pale-blooded inhabitants knew every hill and hollow, just as intimately — nor with such very different associations either — as he knew his own world.”

– John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent