“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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What I’m Reading – Oct 23

whatimreading

It was a good-looking little pile on the shelf I reserve for library books, so I photographed it. I’m about halfway through the Iain M. Banks but haven’t started any of the rest yet.

I’ve only read one Vance before, City of the Chasch, and that was 20 years ago. I remember enjoying the planetary romance setting, and I liked that it featured the Dirdir and the Pnume, both star attractions in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (a highlight of my childhood, along with the apparently forgotten Space Wars, Worlds and Weapons). I’m especially looking forward to this because Shelley’s “Alastor” is one of my favorite poems, the archetype of the Romantic solitary quest — though I have absolutely no idea if there’s any connection here aside from the title.

I picked up Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain after reading some of the stories in her short story collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls last week. I’m a sucker for anything nano or quantum and she didn’t disappoint. Despite its awkward title, Beggars has a high reputation, so hopefully it’s a worthy read.

T.H. White’s The Goshawk is, like Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, published as an NYRB Classic. They’ve done just an incredible job bringing back out-of-print titles in the past fifteen years, arguably re-raising the profile of the magnificent Richard Hughes single-handedly (if you haven’t yet read his novels A High Wind in Jamaica or In Hazard, for god’s sakes do it now). White’s The Once and Future King will be a certain contributor to the quotes I post here, it’s one of my favorites. I also looked over White’s selections of letters while browsing at the Seattle downtown library, but put them off for now — just too much to read, and I couldn’t do them justice this month. Really looking forward to this one though.

I’ve had George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying on my to-read list for a few years now, ever since I ventured into his less well-known books with Coming Up for Air. That one proved to be an absorbing and really quite moving look at English life in the late 1930s; as far as I’m concerned, it’s a crime that Orwell’s non-1984/Animal Farm novels aren’t more widely read these days. Aside from that, having been an underpaid bookstore clerk/aspiring writer in my 20s, I’m curious to see how the type is portrayed here.

As I said, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games right now, and I plan to write about it shortly.

The top book in the pile is an illustrated guide to quantum theory. I’ve been working my way through a few of these lately, and keep reading different ones to fill in gaps and reinforce what I’ve learned from the others. It’s all quite interesting, and I’m retaining more than I expected — but yeah, there’s no way I could discuss this stuff intelligently at this point, and I won’t be building a quantum computer anytime soon. On the other hand I do understand what M. John Harrison meant by “decoherence-free subspace” now, so it’s not a complete fiasco.

Turtle Diary

chelonia_mydasThe American expatriate author Russell Hoban was the real deal, an utterly non-derivative talent who followed his own quirky muse from the children’s stories of his earlier career (including the excellent The Mouse and His Child, which I’ve described as a sunnier version of The Road, except it’s for kids, and it features mice, and it contains no apocalypse, catamites, cooked babies, etc.) to the challenging novels like Kleinzeit and Pilgermann and the magnificent Riddley Walker. Hoban died in 2011; from what I can tell, no one has yet written a biography of him, but I’d gladly read one (or, if I had that sort of ambition, write one). His life had just enough outward bustle, with service in World War II and a wrenching midlife divorce and migration to London, to provide background for an exploration into the intriguing interior life he pours out onto the page.

It’s typical of Hoban that he begins a novel entitled Turtle Diary with, not a turtle, but an octopus. One of the two narrators (actually diarists, both in their mid-40s), the divorced bookshop assistant William G., visits the London Zoo in a vain attempt to see an octopus after an unsettling dream — but once there, he ends up fascinated by a different inmate:

Sea turtles. Two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.

Turtle Diary Cover.inddAnother lonely soul, Neaera H., is an author tired of writing children’s books about animals (Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, etc.). She too is led to the zoo by an animal other than turtles, wanting to see oyster-catchers “[walking] with their heads down, looking as if they had hands clasped behind their backs like little European philosophers in yachting gear.” Slowly, elliptically, William and Neaera find each other, their preoccupations circling toward an impulse neither of them can quite explain or feel comfortable with: to free the sea turtles from the zoo back into the open ocean.

The story that follows is neither a tension-drenched jailbreak — the release of the turtles isn’t even the climax of the story, inasmuch as there is any climax at all — nor is it a romance between two lonely middle-aged people brought together by a noble cause. Instead it’s a study of humans trying to attain the dignity that animals seem to possess in just being, when just being as a human involves loss, loneliness, regret for missed opportunities and personal shortcomings, and too much being in one’s own head:

Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there. That must be how it is with them. I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks. Sea turtles can’t shut themselves up in their shells as land turtles do. Their shells are like tight bone vests and their flippers are always sticking out. Nothing they can do if a shark comes along. Pray. Ridiculous to think of a turtle praying with all those teeth coming up from below.

What liberation William and Neaera do eventually find feels earned and suitably modest, a cautiously negotiated truce with the melancholy inherent in human life. Hoban’s ability to so finely delineate the terms of that truce is what makes him a major artist.

Stray observations:

  • For its depiction of London loneliness, Turtle Diary rivals Patrick Hamilton’s fantastic 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, also available in an NYRB edition.
  • Speaking of NYRB, their usual talent for cover selection deserts them here: the painting on the front shows tortoises, not turtles. It’s not a distinction I would normally notice but they clearly have legs rather than flippers.
  • I often find front matter nowadays just depressing — witness Ed Park’s condescending introduction, with its weird mentions of Gillian Flynn, Eminem, and Twitter. Really, introductions are not what they used to be. But Park does point out what I also noticed during reading: this is really a book for people in their 40s. His description of it as “one of the great novels of middle age” is apt.
  • The name Neaera is from Milton’s “Lycidas” — lines 64-69 are quoted:

Alas! What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?

According to my Norton Anthology of English Literature the names Amaryllis and Neaera are “conventional names for pretty shepherdesses.” Interesting that one of Hoban’s other novels is called Amaryllis Night and Day and features a character by that name.

  • There’s a 1985 film version featuring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley and written by Harold Pinter; it seems to be the only live-action film based on Hoban’s work (not counting the creditable second act of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that borrows heavily from Riddley Walker). I quickly checked the journey-to-Polperro scene on YouTube, where the film’s available in its entirety. It’s probably well done for what it is but it doesn’t seem to capture the book very accurately — aside from lacking the texture of London in the 70s so skillfully evoked by Hoban, the scene has William and Neaera driving on the highway in the daytime, smiling and chatting in camaraderie, which is nothing like the night-time drive portrayed in the book. I’ll stick with Hoban’s version.