By Cynthia Haven
J.A. Baker wrote The Peregrine at a precarious moment in environmental history: By the 1960s, the falcons had almost vanished entirely from the English countryside, thanks to aggressive use of pesticides. Baker’s response, an ecstatic panegyric to peregrines, stunned critics with its originality, power and beauty.
The little-known 1967 masterpiece will be the subject of an onstage conversation with legendary film director Werner Herzog, who has said that The Peregrine is one of his favorite books.
The Another Look book club event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2. The event is free, but registration is required and offered through the Another Look book club’s website; details on the event and the venue are included with registration. The Peregrine is available at Stanford Bookstore and at Kepler’s in Menlo Park.
Herzog’s interlocutor will be Robert Harrison, an acclaimed author and Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions.
“One of the finest pieces of prose”
Herzog has made edgy films about grizzly bears, prehistoric cave drawings in southern France, Rajput festivals, and more – but he also prides himself on his role as an author and screenwriter. The Peregrine is required reading in Herzog’s Rogue Film School, and he has called it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, praising “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented, it is one of the finest pieces of prose you can ever see anywhere.”
The Peregrine, which received England’s prestigious Duff Cooper Prize, has no plot and no characters. Instead, Baker distills 10 years of observations into a single autumn-to-spring period, written as a diary. Baker’s passionate, unsparing descriptions of peregrine falcons in the fenlands of Essex convey the urgency of the historical moment:
“Before it is too late, I have tried to … convey the wonder of … a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa,” he wrote. By the spring of 1961, tens of thousands of birds were found littering the countryside, dead or dying in agony, along with other animals.