Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Up and away with The Once and Future King

Most readers won't come to Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk quite the way I did: fresh off reading books by and about T. H. White, whose account of mostly failing to tame a goshawk, The Goshawk serves as a sort of model, doppelganger, and nemesis throughout both Macdonald's book and the experience it chronicles: learning to train a goshawk while at the same time coping with the unexpected death of her father. If you've just been reading White--and are still abuzz with what a complicated, difficult, compelling, often difficult, and mostly unhappy man he was--the book is incredibly powerful: you see Macdonald struggling not just with the hawk, and with her own history and personality and emotions, but with White's, too, with his shortcomings and achievements, and, perhaps foremost, his loneliness. The result is captivating, a moving book that makes you understand the appeal of this relationship with something utterly alien and other, and, if it doesn't make you share White's and Macdonald's obsession, at least enables you to understand it.

I picked up H is for Hawk when I was in London: having already bought nine other books, I was sure I was finished overloading my suitcase--but then two different friends told me it was the best thing they'd read all year, an assessment that jibed with the shower of accolades the book received, so I broke down. As usual when I buy a book on the recommendation of a friend, I'm glad I did. Those of you who are Stateside should be able to get it early next month; consider this my recommendation.

Today, I'll share a passage that I still can't quite believe--it's simply too unexpected, too close to perfect in its strange dislocations of space, time, and experience. Here's Macdonald, early on, when she's just started telling the reader a bit about her youthful obsession with White's The Goshawk:
A few years ago I met a retired U2 pilot. He was tall, flinty and handsome and had just the right kind of deadly stillness you'd expect from a man who'd spent years flying at the edge of space in a dusty-black American spy plane. The geopolitical aspects of his role were truly disconcerting. But as a day job it was absurdly cool. At eighty thousand feet the world curves deep below you and the sky above is wet black ink. You're wearing a spacesuit, confined to a cockpit the size of a bathtub, piloting a machine that first flew the year James Dean died. You cannot touch the world, just record it. You have no weapons; your only defence is height. But as I talked with this man what impressed me the most weren't his dead-pan tales of high adventure, the "incidents" with Russian MiGs and so on, but his battle against boredom. The nine-hour solo missions. The twelve-hour solo missions. "Wasn't that horrendous?" I asked. "It could get a little lonely up there," he replied. But there was something about how he said it that made it sound a state still longed-for. And then he said something else. "I used to read," he said, unexpectedly, and with that his face changed, and his voice, too: his deadpan Yeager drawl slipped, was replaced by a shy, childlike enthusiasm. "The Once and Future King. By T. H. White," he said. "Have you heard of him? He's an English writer. It's a great book. I used to take that up, read it on the way out and the way back."

"Wow," I said. "Yes." Because this story struck me as extraordinary, and it still does. Once upon a time there was a man in a spacesuit in a secret reconnaissance plane reading The Once and Future King, that great historical epic, that comic, tragic, romantic retelling of the Arthurian legend that tussles with questions of war and aggression, and might, and right, and the matter of what a nation is or might be.
A man on the edge of space, reading a book rooted in a largely imaginary past, conjured up to comfort and explain amid a world ever more new and strange, a book that explicitly grapples with questions of morality, force, war, and loyalty as if they were as new as the world, and as essential as anything. Amazing.

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