Coffee at the Borgias’ and Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

"Flora" (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto

“Flora” (sitter thought to be Lucrezia Borgia) by Bartolomeo Veneeto

When I take the bus in my small city, I sense that I immediately rise from middle-class matron to upper-class termagent.  It is not like the tube; it is not like the Metro.

Everybody has a cold, everybody is poor, some are just out of prison and talking at the top of their voice about Jesus, and the majority are distracted by the panem et circenses of their phones.

Thank God for electronics, I think.

I jump off the bus and walk two miles from the mall to the bookstore.

I love to spend a day browsing at the bookstore.  I usually buy a book or two (when I have not spent my book budget at the Folio Society).  And I always buy a coffee, because it is nice to sit and sip and read.  I  know who makes a good latte.   Today, however, the barista is unfamiliar, older than most, a shifty blonde, and  averts her eyes throughout the transaction.

I speculate: On drugs? That is uncharitable, right? Even if I’m right, which I probably am, I should be thinking of this with concern and instead I am thinking in bus terms:  who is this person sitting next to me?

I decide to have just coffee.

She takes a long time getting the coffee.

I sip the coffee, immediately get cramps, throw out the coffee, and manage to walk back to the bus stop.

I hold it together until I get home. Thank God my husband can go out to get 7-Up and crackers.

So do you think the barista was a Borgia?

Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

H Is For Hawk macdonald 1406742829457Few books have been so lauded in the last year as Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, a memoir of her grief for her dead father, her training of a goshawk to fend off depression, and a short, creative biography of T. H. White, whose memoir The Goshawk was her inspiration and nemesis. MacDonald’s popular book won the Costa Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2014.

To prepare for this book, which was published this month here, I read The Goshawk.  White, best-known for his novel The Once and Future King, decided to train a goshawk, the wildest of hawks, after he left his job as an unhappy teacher at a public school. MacDonald first read The Goshawk  when she was a child, and was upset, as I was,  by many passages about Gos’s training.

Although White’s writing is extraordinarily graceful, I was nauseated by his account of the cruel training of Gos. He learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance, and the methods were unnecessarily rigid:  we learn all about White’s sado-mashochism. He kept the bird awake for three to nine days until Gos finally took food from his hand.  The bird was terrified.  Both man and bird were deadened with exhaustion.  And the training went on.

MacDonald, a researcher at Cambridge, is an expert falconer. When her father died in 2007, she  spiraled into a deep depression.  Finally she  decided to train a goshawk for the first time.   She had ordered the hawk from an aviary, and when she met the man with the bird at the quay, he was carrying two boxes with birds, the younger for another falconer.  He opened the boxes to check the  identity, and Helen fell in love with the first one, which happened to be the wrong one..

Although she tries to be poetic, her prose is overwritten and flowery.  Too many adjectives, and too many fragments.

Infinite caution.  Daylight irrigating the box.  Scratching talons, another thump.  ‘And another.  The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust.

And I ask myself:  syrupy and dusty?

She continues:

The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury . . . . She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Sadly, I had a picture of myself at a reading feeling uncomfortable because the book is over-dramatic and the prose is blowsy.

She asked if she could have the bird she liked, and he agreed to it.

MacDonald’s training of her bird, Mabel, is much more humane than White’s.  She and the bird have a relationship:  Mabel even likes to play.  But there are problems.  MacDonald is still depressed.  Her job at Cambridge is coming to an end.  And then there are some stresses with training Mabel.

Sometimes she retells White’s The Goshawk creatively from a third person point of view, and that does not work for me. She also writes a kind of psychoanalytic biography of him.

I gave up on the book halfway through.

I’m just not interested in falconry, and her writing is too florid for my taste.  I know that many have loved this, and I hope the quotes will encourage those of you who like such prose to seek it out.  I would give you my copy, but it’s an e-book!

Postettes: Turgenev’s Virgin Soil & T. H. White’s The Goshawk

Turgenev Manor House

Turgenev Manor House

I cannot write at length about every book I read, so here are quick “postettes” on two of the most brilliant books I’ve read this year, Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and T. H. White’s The Goshawk.

Turgenev’s Virgin Soil.  I have a passion for 19th-century Russian writers.  Pushkin, Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy…

But if I had an opportunity to meet one, I would choose Turgenev.  This charming writer of lyrical, philosophical novels sounds more down-to-earth than the others.  If I visited him in Baden-Baden, one of his favorite cities (he preferred Europe to Russia), I could wear preppy  L. L. Bean or slightly hippieish J. Jill rather than the sackcloth and ashes Tolstoy went in for.

Turgenev’s most famous novel is Fathers and Sons, a powerful story of two young nihilists, the gentle Arkady  and the scientific Bazarov,  and the divergence of politics between different generations.

IMG_3018Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last novel, is also a masterpiece.  I recently read  Constance Garnett’s graceful translation in the NYRB edition.

In this little-known classic, Turgenev depicts the lives of idealistic Russian revolutionaries of the late 1860s and 1870s.  The radical movement, known as populism, brought together young educated Russians with the peasants as they sought to eradicate the class difference.

The moody hero, Nezhdanov, is the bastard son of an aristocrat, and is involved in a revolutionary group in St. Petersburg.  Depressed and disillusioned, he takes a job as a tutor in the country.  He soon grows to despise his upper-class employers,  despite the vivacity of the mistress of the house, Valentina Mihalovna.  And then he falls in love with their niece, Marianna,  a passionate young populist.  The two young people want to make contact with the peasants, but Nezhdavov simply cannot communicate with them.  Marianna remains enthusiastic, especially after they befriend a radical factory manager.  Other revolutionaries include a rash upper-class man who acts too precipitately and a lonely man who becomes a traitor by talking too much.  The novel combines action with philosophy and politics.

Sounds a bit like the politics of the 1960s, doesn’t it?

IMG_3017T. H. White’s The Goshawk.  I read this only because I have read so much about Helen Macdonald’s Costa Award-winning H Is for Hawk, her memoir of training a goshawk.  She was inspired  partly by White’s book.

The Goshawk is the story of White’s adventures in falconry, focusing on his training of a goshawk, the wildest of all hawks.

He ordered the bird from Germany..  It arrived terrified in a basket.  White named it Gos.

T. S. White: I'm not sure what the birds are.

T. S. White: I’m not sure what the birds are.

Although the writing is extraordinarily graceful, at first White’s account of the cruel training of Gos nauseated me. Only the splendid writing kept me going.  White learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance.  Keeping the bird awake for three to nine days until he took food from his trainer’s hand was considered more effectual than any other method.  The trainer also had to keep awake.

White explains,

In teaching a hawk it was useless to bludgeon the creature into submission.  The raptors had no tradition of masochism, and the more one menaced or tortured them, the more they menaced in return.  Wild and intransigent, it was yet necessary to “break” them somehow or other, before they could be tamed and taught.  Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless, because the bird would never bend or break to it.  He possessed the last inviolable sanctuary of death.  The mishandled raptor chose to die.

After White got beyond the initial stages, I became fascinated.   He also discusses humane shortcuts he learned after going by the book.

He fascinatingly describes the  many pitfalls in the man-bird relationship. It was one step forward, two steps back.  White truly loved Gos, but Gos needed wildness.  It was who Gos was.

Animal stories are always sad, are they not?  This is no exception.

White is so elegant a writer, and the book is so perfectly-written that I did not  take notes in it at all. And that’s a tribute to this great classic.