skygiants: (swan)
I have read Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk twice now and not yet succeeded in writing it up, but I am going to make a solid go of it now and we'll see what happens.

The trouble with trying to write up H is for Hawk is that it is such a deeply personal book, for Helen Macdonald, that I don't know what to say about it that won't sell it short or misrepresent it somehow. I often have this trouble with writing about memoirs, in a way I don't with fiction or biographies -- because as you all should know by now, the tone I am most comfortable writing these posts in, perhaps regrettably, is 'flippant,' and what right do I have to be flippant about another person's profoundly personal experience?

And the other thing that makes this hard is that I expect most of you have heard of it, or at least seen it in bookstores on the bestseller table, because it was weirdly and wildly popular for a deeply personal memoir about grief and a goshawk and the author T.H. White, with whom Helen Macdonald has no connection whatsoever except through his own weird book about grief and a goshawk. (The best review of White's The Goshawk was from [personal profile] rushthatspeaks in 2011, and you can read it here. I also read the book, but I couldn't figure out how to write about it any more than I can figure out how to write about this one, so I wrote less eloquently about Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of T.H. White instead.) So what can I say that you won't have seen on the book cover, that this is a book about those things?

I guess I can say that I felt I understood this book better in December of 2016 than I did in January of 2016, because I was lucky enough, in January of 2016, not to understand grief very well.

And I guess I can also say that when I read it in December of 2016, it was for book club, and the thing we found ourselves talking about the most is that we're not sure after all that Helen Macdonald understands T.H. White very well -- or at least, not as well as she thinks, or at least, none of us were entirely comfortable with her understanding of him, an (apparently?) straight woman putting most of another person's troubles down to the Tragedy of Being A Gay Man. The trouble is, I guess, that Helen Macdonald's book, for the most part, is about discovery; she's learning about her hawk, and she's learning about her grief, which means that neither her own motivations nor the hawk's are entirely clear most of the time. The process of figuring them out makes the book what it is.

But she's not learning about T.H. White, or at least, that's not the way she's writing it. She tells us about him like she knows him and can understand his motivations already. And honestly, T.H. White is a complex enough figure that I don't think anybody does, or can.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (Default)
A while back, [personal profile] rushthatspeaks wrote a gorgeous review of T.H. White's The Goshawk that I am not even going to attempt to duplicate. But it convinced me to read the book. [personal profile] rushthatspeaks also suggested reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's T.H. White: A Biography first, though, which I did, and that I am going to talk about.

Okay, so you guys know I have an undignified interest in dead-author gossip. This book cannot be classified as dead-author gossip; it is a deep and complicated portrait of a man who was very clever, and very much a romantic, and often very unhappy. It is also unfairly interesting for a biography of a man who spend vast swathes of his life living as close to hermitude as possible and, as best I can tell, had one great incident of mutual passionate love in his life, and that was with his dog.

(No, seriously, the love story of T.H. White and his dog Brownie is the kind of thing 19th-century novels are made of. Brownie spies him one day in an inn, decides that he is her one true love, sneaks into his bedroom at night, abandons her former owners and follows him home. T.H. White takes her in with a sort of absent affection but mostly ignores her, bestowing most of his attention on goshawks and other avian creatures, until Brownie decides that life is not worth living if her master does not care about her and falls ill with what seems to be the canine version of Romantic Consumption. T.H. White, on the verge of losing her, realizes what a fool he has been, rushes to her side, professes love, promises never to cheat on her with hawks or falcons again; the finale from Rent plays over the imaginary soundtrack; Brownie miraculously recovers! From this point on she is the most important thing in White's life, but again, given his general habits of hermitude, she doesn't seem to have faced much competition.)

The thing is, if you've read and loved The Once and Future King, there will be no doubt in your mind that T.H. White was capable of enormous intelligence and humor and compassion. He was also a man who generally had trouble convincing himself that there was anything worthwhile about human beings at all, including himself. He was the kind of person who would temporarily adopt, feed and clothe an entire family of Italian grifters because he was bored and lonely; also the kind of person who would fly into a rage with a visiting friend because everything was not going exactly as planned in his head; also the kind of person who would bring his half-trained goshawk to the pub and hang out all night with an angry bird on his shoulder without noticing any problems with this plan. Sylvia Townsend Warner is very skilled at making you see all of this, which, aside from the fact that she's a very good writer, is what makes this an excellent biography.

So I got to know T.H. White, and then I read The Goshawk.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (elizabeth book)
All the King Arthur for class (Idylls of the King, Alliterative Morte Arthur for the Crusades - for the claimed reason that a Templar makes a two-line appearance, but more I think because my prof just wanted to talk about Arthur) has got me feeling nostalgic, so I have been rereading The Once and Future King.

This was a Formative Book for me that I read more than once when I was young, but I had not read it in years; I knew it had been formative, but I did not realize quite how much so until I started stumbling across passages I recognized as forming part of my mental lexicon, if you know what I mean. For example: there is a passage about fancy Gothic tilting helms and how they are stupid because lances can get caught in them, and the best knights always wear plain helms. Whenever the subject of helmets comes up (as it does terribly often in my life, yes) this passage kind of presents itself to my mind, as my mental association with 'helmet'. And there are a bunch of passages like that, where I was reading along and recognizing my mental images of things, and figuring out that this book is where I must have gotten them from - it was actually slightly disconcerting. Apparently I was an extremely Formable child. Have any of you had experiences like this, rereading books from when you were little, or is my brain just exceptionally malleable clay?

(Of course, there were other bits that apparently made no impression at the time and I found rather disturbing reading at this date, like White's constant asides on the Race of Gauls, but oh well.)

Speaking of being Formed, though, I have another question for you all. Even without the general images of things, I have always known that this book in large part created my mental image of King Arthur's Court, albeit in some quite peculiar ways (for one thing, there is a bizarre fondness for Sir Kay that I have - I had considered it unaccountable until I read all the bits about how Kay was an overachiever who suffered from being Not Special and covered it over with sarcasm, and then I realized, no, it is not unaccountable at all, it is me being entirely predictable as usual). King Arthur is such an omnipresent figure that I think most of us have a sort of mental King Arthur in their set of stock characters; if you've got one, what do you think formed it most? Disney's Sword and the Stone, or the Dark is Rising series, or, I don't know, the Merlin miniseries that aired when I was about ten - I would make it a poll, but there are way too many options to include. But I am curious to know!

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