Hawkes, (Jr.), John (Clendennin Burne)
John (Clendennin Burne) Hawkes (Jr.) 1925–
American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and editor.
Hawkes is an extraordinary stylist whose primary interest is the psychic and imaginative processes of human beings. His work is difficult and demanding, full of scenes intended to startle and even repel the reader. By "violating" his audience's sense of normalcy and propriety, Hawkes hopes to jar it into new levels of awareness of the beautiful and dangerous capabilities of the human imagination. Hawkes himself describes his fiction as travels through the landscape of the psyche. He emphasizes its brutal and absurdly comic aspects in order, conversely, to understand what it means to feel compassion.
With the publication of The Cannibal (1950) and The Beetle Leg (1951) Hawkes gained a reputation as an eccentric, avantgarde novelist and a radically innovative stylist. Set in desolate waste lands and full of sadistic violence, these two novels depict the human attempt to impose order on chaotic reality with such things as art, religion, and love. These forces prove powerless, however, against the violence that emerges as the prevailing reality in these novels. Hawkes's theme of the beauty and horror of the human imagination is considered most developed in The Lime Twig (1961). Compared to the earlier works, this novel has a more conventional structure, but the prose is still considered experimental even though it is less fragmented and surreal. Second Skin (1964) marks Hawkes's more extensive use of artist-heroes and their attempts to enforce their vision upon the world.
Hawkes's "comic triad" of the early 1970s—The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep, & the Traveler, and Travesty—helped solidify critical opinion of him as one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. The protagonists of the triad, in their attempts to simultaneously experience and control reality, reflect the human desire to find order and harmony in the world. The novels are farcical in their portrayal of ambitions fulfilled or denied, yet poignant in their observations of how sexuality defies the control of individuals. Travesty has won special attention for its satire on the human need to organize and explain. Hawkes's recent works, The Passion Artist (1979) and Virginie: Her Two Lives (1982), further his examination of the psychic process.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 14, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
Albert J. Guerard
[Guerard, often considered the most knowledgeable critic on Hawkes, has had a lengthy literary and social relationship with Hawkes. The two met at Harvard in the late 1940s when Hawkes was enrolled in Guerard's writing class.]Without question Hawkes has been, like Faulkner, one of the great liberating maieutic influences on contemporary literature, in the astringent bite of his psychology and the audacity of his invention. But I would like to make a case for the primacy of poetry, of language—language in the largest sense to include intricate structure and what Hawkes calls "chordal insistences", but also language as simply rhythm and words, words from which the strangeness has not been rubbed away.
One of the obvious things any academic survey might undertake would be to compare the themes of wartime violence and corruption and degradation, of The Cannibal and The Goose on the Grave and Second Skin, with the intricate ballet—the sinuous repetitive saraband of sexual experiment—in The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, Travesty. Those who feel betrayed, or who feel Hawkes has betrayed his origins, as they look from The Cannibal to Travesty; those who want a writer to be true always to his first vision and first modes of distortion, would do well to consider how often major writers have refused to settle down. There are writers who, like Faulkner and Joyce, begin...
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Helen S. Garson
In Pornography and the Law, a book written by two psychologists [Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen], eleven "major criteria" for obscene books are listed. Of the eleven, eight are applicable to the work of Hawkes, especially to his plays and to the novels The Time Twig, Second Skin, and Blood Oranges. Those eight ingredients are: seduction; defloration; incest; the permissive-seduction parent figure; supersexed males; nymphomaniac figures; homosexuality; and flagellation…. But although Hawkes does meet those criteria and frequently another requirement that a book is aphrodisiacal which keeps "before the reader's mind a succession of erotic scenes," he does not attain what are considered all the structural requirements of pornography. For example, the "true" pornographer, if he uses background scenery, treats it erotically. Hawkes' scenic descriptions, though sometimes highly suggestive or filled with sexual symbolism, are often also non-erotic.
The plot of a Hawkes play or novel may be simple or complex but almost always sexuality in multiple forms is focal. Plotting in his work is so unlike that of most writers that there are few ways to get a handle on the material. (p. 152)
If motivation for behavior is also lacking, there is yet one instance of the similarity to pornography where character depiction is extremely limited. Once again Hawkes' work falls on both sides of the line. Although...
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Donald J. Greiner
John Hawkes occupies a peculiar place in contemporary American fiction. He is one of the few truly gifted writers in the so-called black humor movement which has flourished since 1950, but he lacks the renown enjoyed by less talented authors. In the years since World War II innovative American fiction has turned from the documentation of social forms and the use of realistic technique to an evocation of nightmare and fear. The feeling of disruption left from the war, the specter of atomic catastrophe so vividly objectified at Hiroshima, the tensions of the cold war, and the spread of random violence in everyday life have all contributed to the conviction that chaos rather than order dominates day to day living.
The most exciting of today's novelists reflect this sense of the fractured life in their fiction, but, significantly, the prevailing tone in most of their work is not the gloomy pessimism which might be expected but a shocking sense of humor. Shocking because it encourages laughter at events which are, more often than not, horribly violent, the modern comic novel often meets the general feeling of doom with humor. We need only recall Kurt Vonnegut's Bokonon thumbing his nose at You Know Who while the world around him solidifies into ice (Cat's Cradle) or Joseph Heller's Yossarian walking naked around the air base because Snowden's guts spilled on his uniform (Catch-22) to understand how a different kind of humor,...
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With the publication of The Passion Artist (1979) John Hawkes completed a decade of writing that marked a clear, if subtle, change of direction in his fiction. Most apparent and controversial was the emergence of a highly explicit and, in a manner, titillating sexual content, dominating all four novels written by him in the seventies [The Blood Oranges (1971); Death, Sleep, & the Traveler (1974); Travesty (1976); and The Passion Artist]. Combined with the gothic strain that has characterized his writing from the beginning—his fascination with violence and cruelty and death—both the explicitness and the untraditional nature of the sexual concerns have tended to overshadow the less striking but as essential evolution in his use of form and pattern. Hawkes's structures seem to have become more severely controlled in these four novels, his style more classical, his manipulation of his material far more noticeably self-conscious. His characters emerge more sharply from the novels, in large part because they are more simply and essentially patterned. The fragmented images and events of his earlier novels have been consolidated within a more traditional plot sequence, while at the same time the multiple points of view of the earlier narratives have been incorporated into an all-encompassing single point of view. Such an inclusive perspective more immediately invites comparison with the artistic vision of the author...
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[John Hawkes, a] prolific, well-regarded author of modernist fiction, has in "Virginie: Her Two Lives" written what is at once a parody, pastiche and examination of erotic prose, the literature of arousal.
It is an indubitably original and inventive undertaking, superbly written by a man totally in control of his effects. In one fundamental way it is different from the genre it is founded upon; examining the difference is, I think, the object of the exercise. At its center is an untouched innocence, close to but independent of the prevailing debaucheries. (But debaucheries, I see, is as loaded a word as pornography, which is in turn as dangerous, imprecise and explosive as a sawed-off shotgun. Make that the prevailing erotic goings-on.)…
It needs to be said that this is literary sexuality whose tanglings are so swaddled in crypto-poetical prose that the arousal factor is significantly below that of an issue of Good Housekeeping….
A major theme in erotic writing is the despoliation of innocence, the taking of virgins, the falls from grace of priests and nuns. It is as if to prove that there is no one left to judge the despoilers, no one sin-free and able to throw stones. The eroticism floats free of duty, or morality.
Hawkes may be making no more moral judgment than to say there is another way to tell it all. But with the character of sweetly caring and untouched...
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While most novelists are still slouching down the over marked trails of human experience (including the trail of erotic experience) like bored guides hustling us on to the next souvenir stand, John Hawkes has a seemingly endless capacity to make fresh wilderness out of every new work he writes. The trouble, for his readers, is that wilderness is not like home: there will be natives who don't speak our language; beasts, perhaps, with a taste for human flesh. Almost certainly, we will get lost. And how can we trust a guide who doesn't know how to act like a buddy? Or a lover?…
Most of us can at least nod knowingly when we hear his titles dropped (The Blood Oranges, The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, The Passion Artist). But few have actually read his work. Hawkes's unpopularity has been ascribed to the difficulty of his vision ("modernist"), to his discomfiting refusal of received ideas ("eccentricity") and to his making "terror rather than love the center of his works." This last assessment, by Leslie Fiedler, comes closest to describing why the fainthearted avoid Hawkes and why his intrepid followers celebrate him. I would, though, quarrel with half of Fiedler's evaluation—which implies that Hawkes deliberates over love as subject before he rejects it. Like the Grand Canyon, Hawkes's fiction tells us, love's landscape has been littered by too many tourists. We can be shocked into pleasure now only by nightmare.
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There is considerable resistance in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant tradition to the notion that sexuality might involve more than the sum of the relevant parts. Since John Hawkes' novel, Virginie: Her Two Lives, is set squarely in the context of a quite other, Mediterranean tradition of metaphysical eroticism in which sex is seen as a profound metaphor for the more bewildering aspects of the human condition, it is possible that this glittering, tender, extraordinary parable may be misconstrued in our pragmatic latitudes.
Indeed, although Virginie's two lives expose her to a vast number of complicated sexual games and she witnesses all kinds of exhibitions of sexual activity, Hawkes' novel may not "really" be about sex at all. It might, at bottom, be about our relations with that indefinable part of experience which the adored lord and master of her life in the 18th century evokes, when in extremis he calls Virginie his "soul."
The troubadours believed the sexual act was the living image of a transcendental state of being; so did the surrealists, always a potent influence in Hawkes, and so, too, did that de Sade to whom Hawkes pays a number of sly homages. Therefore, Virginie: Her Two Lives may be intended to be read, in some degree, as allegory. Certainly it demands careful reading; but it gives such pleasure to read this novel carefully!
It is an audacious book, both in style and content,...
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With Virginie: Her Two Lives, Hawkes is once again playing the keeper of the crypt, decorating the sarcophagi with amorous doodles. The novel, narrated by a tremulous waif named Virginie, shuttles like a time-machine from a castle of regimented decadence in rural France (the year—significantly—is 1740, the year of Sade's birth) to a low-rent house of bawdiness in Paris (1945). Under both roofs Virginie flits about on her errands like a nest-tidying bird, bearing rapt witness to the debaucheries and sadistic rites of all these devoted sensualists. She's the Eternal Child, enveloped in a milky glow of unsullied innocence….
[Although] John Hawkes is often touted by his admirers as a comic writer, his touch is far from nimble, his manner seldom slangy or racy. Steeped in a cultured funk, his novels strive to be erotically rich and dark and Continental—pillow books for postmodernists….
Not surprisingly, then, the sex in Virginie is seldom affectionate or carefree: it becomes another futile scrape of the fingernails against the walls of nothingness, an orgasmic death rattle. In Hawkes's previous novel, The Passion Artist, the finale of a bout of fellatio is described as "a long uncoiling of the thick white thread from the bloody pump," an unappetizing discharge…. Set in a European urban deathscape, The Passion Artist is awash with psychic slime, its surfaces sticky with mold and caked...
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[In] conception and execution ["Virginie"] has a certain grandeur and an impressive flaw…. "Virginie" is an ambitious enterprise, an eclectic anthology of erotica, a reckless attempt to embrace irreconcilable forms, from medieval love poetry to modern pornography. The resulting flaw is forgivable. So many "sources and influences" have been assembled here like pearls on a narrative string that even as the author strains to close the clasp, his necklace comes apart. But it would be swinish to complain.
The author tells us in a prefatory note that the book was "conceived in a reverie about de Sade." Immediately thereafter, before the novel opens, we come upon a longish poem, an ancient and pleasant debate on the game of love, triumphantly asserting that love is revealed, not through touches or glances, but through love letters. No great ingenuity is required to understand that the book that follows is itself a kind of love letter addressed to admirers of Hawkes's own, often sinister work.
Subtitled "Her Two Lives," the book has two plots. In the first chapter the time is 1945, the place France and the heroine an 11-year-old girl named Virginie. The personification of erotic innocence, she's the reincarnation of another 11-year-old named Virginie whom we meet in chapter two, also in France, but in 1740. The modern Virginie, as the novel begins, is about to be burned to a crisp. Nevertheless, before she is quite burned...
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To "place" any contemporary author in a literary context or tradition is a hazardous affair, especially when, as is the case with Hawkes, that author continues to write novels which intentionally disrupt both the singular contexts his fictions create and the traditions of the novel in general…. [In novel after novel Hawkes] forces us to reassess the role of the artist and the fiction-making process, often rendering ironic the portrait of an artist in an earlier work, so that his fiction as a whole presents us with a fluid, self-parodic, generative vision of consciousness and artistry. (p. 143)
If any one thing can be said to characterize the fiction produced and worth considering since World War II, it would be that writers, disenchanted with tradition, even the recent traditions of modernism, create works that ironize, parody, reject, and annihilate the boundaries set forth by those traditions. Contemporary fiction is by turns apocalyptic, exhaustive, thoroughly antimimetic, and disruptive, even of itself, depending upon which critic one reads—but clearly it, like Hawkes's fiction, is impossible to classify in any sense; it is self-consciously atypical. Thus it defies tradition and categorization, and implicitly argues that it is in the nature of fiction to do so.
Given these risks and cautions, and given the fact that the act of placing an author within a generalized context is fated to be reductive, it is of...
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John Hawkes's new novel, Virginie, is a book about eroticism that seems more concerned with doubling than coupling. Taking pains to mirror earlier models—from the troubadours to Georges Bataille—it also offers matching narratives: both recounted by Virginie, a girl in her eleventh year and at the eleventh hour of her innocence….
Between the two narratives, parallels proliferate. Lines and images recur. The culmination—havoc wreaked by an avenging mother—is the same in both. And the women involved in the erotic tableaux likewise seem counterparts across the centuries. In the 1740 story, they are endowed with allegorical names, Finesse, Colère, Magie, Volupté, Bel Esprit: and delicacy, anger, magic, voluptuousness and wit are, respectively, the main qualities displayed by the five modern women.
The chief difference between the two stories is one of tone. Exuberant and surreal, the contemporary episodes are livelier. The eighteenth-century story, invested with an emblematic eroticism, is governed by rigid protocol. Virginie speaks of the "passion for symmetry and need for order" shown by Seigneur, the master of the Chateau Dédale. And within this labyrinthine dwelling, life is elaborately patterned….
Visual rhymes and chromatic echoes … constantly pull the book's material into shapes of weird beauty. And they also harmonize with the novel's insistence on balance as the essence of...
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Hawkes's Virginie is a series of interwoven erotic tableaux, very deliberate, intensely artificial, conceived as he says in a reverie on de Sade…. In each, an 11-year-old Virginie, little sister of the master of ceremonies, plays the part of accomplice, voyeuse and narrator. And though one narrative is heraldic and archaic, while the other is slatternly and burlesque, Virginie's constant presence draws them into a single focus.
The point being, for Hawkes, that speculations on the art of pleasure can only take place via an 'innocent consciousness,' one that banishes time past and future, and concentrates with ruthless single-mindedness on the present moment. His characters are subsumed into their roles, and become actors in lust's timeless allegory: big brother, little sister, the five women who exchange and combine the aspects of female sexuality (Colère, Bel Esprit, Volupté, Finesse, Magie), and—in the background, waiting to pounce on her erring son and daughter, and demolish the pleasure-pavilions—formidable Maman, who represents marriage, procreation, time's vengeance….
The pursuit of pleasure (as commentators on pornography have often remarked) is an arduous rather than ardent business, and requires a systematic deformation of style, which Hawkes here painstakingly replicates. The pleasures 'Virginie' offers are hedged around with rules that squeeze all but the last breath of life out of the...
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