Saturday, November 03, 2007

Excerpts from A Good Read

Which is a Radio 4 programme in which a couple of authors sit down and chinwag about a "favourite paperback" each of them has chosen, and Sue MacGregor puts her oar in too.

Last night, the author bods were Jim Crace, Lionel Shriver. And Crace kicked things off by choosing The Goshawk.

I don't know about you, but I find this discussion extremely peculiar, and well interesting, as they say. I transcribed bits and am posting them here because it's going to provoke some serious pluvialis pen-chewing thinking over the next few days.


Jim Crace: I’ve chosen TH White’s The Goshawk. This was a book that was in my dad’s collection—his small collection of books—when I was a kid; it’s a natural history book, and a book which I loved when I was a kid and he hated. And my attitude towards it now has become more complex, as I read it more often.

[White] says that at that time he was "living like a cat". And what he means by that is that he was living a lonely life; he says that he doesn’t have any friends, only acquaintances. And so, in order to make a friend, which is typical of TH White, he decides to have another animal in his menagerie, and he sends away to Germany for a goshawk that he can train—in fact, that he can make submit to his will—it’s not a pleasant thing that he does to this beautiful bird. And the goshawk is actually just a description of how he deals with this much-loved bird.

But more than that—and this is perhaps why I like it, because I’m not at ease with falconry; I don’t like the idea of hawking; I don’t like to see magnificent raptors on a leather glove; I’m uncomfortable about that. What I am comfortable about, however, is the beauty of the nature writing. And also the touching way in which TH White deals with his own loneliness, because this was a man who was immensely lonely, immensely grumpy, and he always had a method of dealing with his loneliness, and that was to learn something new. So what we have here is a book about a man learning something new—falconry—in order to be less unhappy

Sue MacGregor: Lionel, was it your sort of a book? Had you read it before?

Lionel Shriver: No, and, um, I have to say I’m astonished that Jim ostensibly has read it several times. I’m on your father’s side. I couldn’t bear it. And I guess part of it is, I know Jim loves reading nature writing and I tend to be more impatient with that kind of description. But my frustration with it was really more plot: I think it may come from the fact that according to the introduction and something that White writes himself at the end of the book, this was originally a diary of a real, uh, encounter with a hawk. I don’t think it turns into a novel. Because not enough happens. And the character of the hawk, which is the most important character in the book, never quite comes alive for me in an anthropomorphised way. And I needed that, because there really are only two characters in this book.

Sue MacGregor: [...] The description of the frustrations and the fury experienced by White with this bird I thought were quite riveting. And his Romantic attachment to the bird, because he’s very much a medievalist, author, as you say, of The Once and Future King, I thought were wonderful. But I did have your problem, Jim—and perhaps the problem of a lot of listeners, with, now, in the 21st century—with somebody training a bird and mastering it and curbing its freedom. I did find that actually quite difficult to deal with and I don’t know whether, Lionel, that formed part of your dislike.

Lionel Shriver: No. My impatience was just my own boredom. I was only reading about this. I would hardly get upset about it on an animal rights level because it’s just paper, right? It’s not a bird. So, I’m happy to torture animals in print as much as we like. … he doesn’t romanticise that process; it does seem very unpleasant for the bird; in that sense it has a moral centre even in terms of animal rights, and eventually, the bird does … get away.

Jim Crace: Ah, you have given it away; and that’s the touching part, I think: that his training of this bird is a failure.

Lionel Shriver: Yes, it was the part that I liked about the book, and it introduced an element of realism, and I do think that’s where the memoir part-helped it as literature, because as literature you would probably want a happy ending; you know, a bonding between man and bird—or perhaps the bird soaring off into the sky, and, you know, you know that the bird is going to be happier now. And neither of those endings happens. And I think one of the reasons it doesn’t happen, is that it didn’t happen in real life.

Jim Crace: Lionel is quite right to find it a problematic book; it is a problematic book, and not least because it’s quite curmudgeonly and [inaudible] the treatment of the hawk, which I‘m not entirely happy with, but also the values of the book are to some extent quite difficult to take: White himself is an old Shires Tory; if he’d have been happy, when would he have been at his happiest? I think he’d have been happiest as a Knight of the Round Table, you know, with a greyhound at his side, a hawk on his arm, and no personal problems.

White himself didn't like the book. He didn't like it firstly, and less importantly, because he thought it showed him up as being a bad falconer. But mostly the reason he didn't like the book is that it revealed too much of his inner self. And I think that's where the pleasure in reading this book resides. It's about the view of a lonely man, a homosexual man, in a very repressive environment, who copes with it by being enthusiastic about the natural world.

[...]

Sue MacGregor: White admits that the bird probably hung by its jesses, which are the things that go round—I don't know what you call birds' ankles. But it's not the end of the book, is it; because there's a happier postscript.

Jim Crace: Well I think the postscript is a mistake, actually. The English countryside is thought of as being tame and rather talkative compared with landscapes in America for example. But actually the English landscape has got something really beautiful going for it. And that is, it has a melancholy at its centre. I mean, this time of year, if you travel through the counties near here, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and see those mists hanging early in the morning, there's a tremendous sadness about our countryside that is also glorious. A glorious sadness. And I think this is what this book is great at. White writes about the British countryside in a way that makes it leave the pack rather than be at the bottom of the pack. That's why I recommend it. Not just because of the descriptions of the gos, but also because of descriptions of badgers, and rooks, and trees, and grass: he was the Ray Mears of his time. But it is a book which I mostly love.

7 comments:

Matt Mullenix said...

We have to help with the pen-chewing over at Q.

I feel like I've just been slapped---but with something like a public washroom handtowel.

These two sentences caught my eye in particular:

"Jim—and perhaps the problem of a lot of listeners, with, now, in the 21st century—with somebody training a bird and mastering it and curbing its freedom."

A lot implied there and a lot obviously to get my crest up. But freedom? FREEDOM? Is it true that in London you are filmed secretly over 300 times a day? Is it true that English schoolgirls can be arrested for chosing not to sit next to people of another race? No need to answer, I'm ranting.

And this: "White himself is an old Shires Tory; if he’d have been happy, when would he have been at his happiest? I think he’d have been happiest as a Knight of the Round Table, you know, with a greyhound at his side, a hawk on his arm, and no personal problems."

What part of that would not be heaven??

(PS: I am about to go hawking. Don't tell Jim as I know it makes him uncomfortable.)

Moro Rogers said...

"And the character of the hawk, which is the most important character in the book, never quite comes alive for me in an anthropomorphised way. And I needed that, because there really are only two characters in this book."

...AND he objects to hawking. Jeez.

pluvialis said...

Interesting. The bit that got my back up was the "glorious sadness" of our countryside. There's an unreflectiveness to that, and to the stuff on hawking, that is maddening. I am not sure what you mean, Matt, about the "English schoolgirls" -- seems to me if someone refuses to sit next to someone purely because they are of a 'different race' that really is an appalling state of affairs. Absolutely agree with you about the surveillance society, though: and surely it is this discomfort about a lack of freedom which LEADS to this kind of sentimentality about hawks.

I will be musing more on this. I like the "book I mostly love" line; that's fantastic. TH White was nothing like Ray Mears. And there's more. But it's late; I've just come in, exhausted, from dinner with friends, so tired that I managed to scratch a three foot gouge out of the side of my car as I pulled in to the drive. Damn, damn, damn.

Matt Mullenix said...

Pluvi there was a story a couple months back in which a London schoolgirl was arrested for...the name of the offense I can't recall, but something along the lines of anti-social behavior, for not wanting to eat lunch next to Muslin girls in her class.

I don't mean to minimize the discourtesy and probably the deeper issues involved there. But call the police!?

That's hard for me to understand. It's just what came to mind when trying to illustrate the ironry of someone bemoaning a goshawk's loss of liberty.

pluvialis said...

Ah, I've located the story; the problem seemed to be that the girl complained about being sat, during a lesson, with a group of Asian students who had just arrived in the country and whose English was poor, and she started using some pretty grim racial epithets, and it all spiralled out of control. A full-time police officer seemed to have been "based at the school" and god alone knows what background underpins all this. It does seem problematic that she was arrested, though: blimey.

What interests me is the defensive nature of the remarks in this radio programme; it seems interesting that two novelists appear unable to treat the work with any historical distance. And interestingly of course, I think that much of the dislike of falconry, its form, and so on, is derived from The Goshawk anyway: it was so influential in creating a vision of what falconry was, in the 1950s and 1960s. Which is, an elemental battle, like Moby Dick in the mews. My reading of The Goshawk? First pass: It's a war book. White's writerly friends are all off fighting fascism in Spain. White fights fascism by seeking to civilise an irrational, German fascist hawk. And realises that he is, instead, the oppressor.

I am full of coffee. Can you tell? :)

Matt Mullenix said...

Thanks for the background on the school girl story! I should have looks it up but hated to risk it being less dramatic than I remembered. :-)

If all that these speakers know of falconry is from The Goshawk, I am reminded of Steve's point that it is a book about excruciatingly bad falconry. But that's different, of course, than an excruciatingly bad book about falconry!

Steve Bodio said...

I am interested (offended) by the casual assumption that falconry and 'blood sport' are something that 'we' and our kind are above, that falconry is about subjugation and anti- freedom (but I grant your remarks). Those who see only texts have a hard time seeing animals as real and different (you have a nice line about this early in Falcon, about how-- I'm paraphrasing-- a pigeon would not see a falcon as a construct.)

And to claim that White's love of nature is some sort of compensation for being a homosexual is fairly ludicrous-- are all nature lovers only so in reaction to something? (Conflicted White may have been a tangle of sexual confusion but in his immediate circle of friends one's sexual orientation was hardly cause for offense-- see White- Garnett letters for instances).

I tend toward Matt's remark that being a sort of 'Green Tory' like White hardly means you are a fascist-- White was not Henry Williamson! We need more categories than we are allowed.

Most fatuous remark:Shriver.

"I would hardly get upset about it on an animal rights level because it’s just paper, right? It’s not a bird. So, I’m happy to torture animals in print as much as we like. "

O shit-- why not just do ANYTHING on paper? If I read a description of human torture that was lovingly lingered over I might suspect the author of being an unpleasant person. Theory can go too far. What White was describing was (a) not torture and (b) made him excruciatingly uncomfortable, as I think a perceptive reader still sees.

Helen-- despite which I love the symbol you have teased out of White taming the German bird!

Your own perceptions of the gos in the post above-- I'll write-- contain more wisdom than the collective heft of all these writers. -- Gos as cold dinosaurian predatory Other.