Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4126
Essentially a lyric poet operating as a fellow traveler in fiction, John Hawkes writes novels that are finely honed and superbly crafted, whose meaning and coherence arise largely from recurring patterns of imagery, autotelic thematic concerns, and highly unusual and largely unreliable narrative voices. Although the basic unit in the...
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- Critical Essays
Essentially a lyric poet operating as a fellow traveler in fiction, John Hawkes writes novels that are finely honed and superbly crafted, whose meaning and coherence arise largely from recurring patterns of imagery, autotelic thematic concerns, and highly unusual and largely unreliable narrative voices. Although the basic unit in the triad of the 1970’s (The Blood Oranges; Death, Sleep, and the Traveler; and Travesty) was the relatively short scene arranged in a more or less nonsequential format, Hawkes’s novels The Passion Artist and Virginie represent a return to more linear scenic development, albeit still employing nonsequential flashbacks. Indeed, Hawkes told John Barth in 1979 that he no longer subscribed to his earlier, oft-quoted statement that “plot, character, setting, and theme” are the “true enemies” of his fiction, a remark made, he said, when he was very young. Rather, Hawkes’s later work combines these linear patterns of development with comically grotesque narrators whose innocence in the face of a horrifying universe only magnifies the tension associated with that horror and with a mode ofexposition that relies less heavily on unusual metaphoric connections and more on directed statement; in fact, Hawkes at times quite explicitly and directly tells readers what they are to understand. Nevertheless, even these directed statements are not ordinary referrals to the real world but are, rather, references one can only understand by looking forward or back to something else in Hawkes’s mental Yoknapatawpha County.
By creating such unusual and self-contained fictional worlds, Hawkes draws the reader into some rather extraordinary literary experiences: ordinary fragments of conversation refer to highly stylized portrayals of bizarre activities and images of reality that take on nightmarish, hallucinogenic qualities. Explicit literary allusions, when followed up, only point to their own idiosyncratic employment. Narrators tell stories that, from a realistic perspective, could not possibly be told. For example, if there is a car crash in Travesty, who tells Papa’s story? Similarly, how does one know Virginie’s impossible story if she, herself, is an impossible child? The genius of Hawkes’s writing is that all the possibilities—and perhaps none of them—may be true. One opens each new novel with the expectation of joining the author in creating a fictional world unlike any before known. Straining to make even elementary sense of what is being read, the “ideal” reader finds him- or herself forced to discard most of the more familiar relationships between fictional and real worlds.
As Hawkes himself has reiterated several times, his major themes and interests include the imagination, consciousness, and the nature of women. In the later 1970’s and early 1980’s, he started discounting—perhaps better stated, demystifying—his interest in women as a crucial subject. For Hawkes, “we live by our imaginations and a sense of strangeness,” imaginations that are always “trying to create something from nothing.” In addition, paradox is “the second word, after imagination that’s most important to [Hawkes], andthe word, dignity.” Add to these preoccupations an obsession “with such things as horses, dogs, birds, sexual destructiveness, lyricisms, [and] children.” All the children in Hawkes’s fictions are “maimed, injured, harmed, killed, punished in one way or another because [they]represent the writer himself.” Although these sufferings by children and animals may seem cruel, such cruelty “helps to produce a lot of the power of the language.”
This cruelty and power, coupled with Hawkes’s insistence on the separation of author and narrator, allow him to organize his prose objectively, obtaining the greatest possible tonal dissonance for superb aesthetic effects. Such detachment has led critics to question Hawkes’s apparent lack of ethical responsibility. These questions, confusing mimetic and aesthetic ends, are, perhaps, inevitable about someone who says, “I want fiction always to situate us in the psychic and literal spot where life is most difficult, most dangerous, most beautiful.”
Hawkes’s best-known early work is The Cannibal, a novel that, as Albert Guerard has pointed out, tiptoes on a fine line between the creation of a new universe and the fantastical exploration of the present one. The war-ravaged, degenerating town of Spitzen-on-the-Dein becomes the allegorical microcosmic version of Germany, pre- and postwar, during the twentieth century. Although parts I and II focus on the events of 1945 and following, and part II centers on the militaristic Germany prior to the outbreak of war, the thrust of the novel points toward a time in the future when Teutonic Germany will, for the third time in the twentieth century, rise again from the ashes of total defeat. By extension, such a renewal of nationalistic fervor makes a stable, peaceful world all but impossible.
Zizendorf, the narrator of parts I and III, wants to restore order to the German town (and, by analogy, to the nation). He is convinced that the first step involves killing the Allied representative, the overseer on motorcycle who patrols one-third of the occupied country. Part II details, in both complementary and contrapuntal imagery to the first and last section of the novel, the love affair and subsequent marriage of Madame Stella Snow and her husband, Ernst, which occurs prior to and during World War I. The imagery patterns in all three sections demonstrate how Germany’s martial atmosphere made a century of warfare virtually inevitable as the casual, surrealistic horror of life in Spitzen-on-the-Dein suffuses everything, even the newspaper, which is called, comically, the Crooked Zeitung.
Stella’s sister, Jutta, for example, an innocent girl during World War I, marries and bears two children between the wars, and, after her husband is captured in Russia, she must turn to prostitution to stay alive. One child, a girl, barely tolerated by Zizendorf, sees in the war-torn town a kind of beauty in the fires. Another child, a boy, is chased throughout the novel by a mad duke, who eventually kills, fillets, and cooks the “small fox” in what has to be Hawkes’s masterpiece of sustained metaphoric terror. The duke’s arrogance and bearing impresses Zizendorf, who thinks of staffing the offices of the new nation with his friends and acquaintances; indeed, thinks Zizendorf, the mad duke “would perhaps make a good Chancellor.”
By the end of the novel, the overseer has been killed, the people are informed that once again Germany is “free,” and Zizendorf gives one of his first orders to Jutta’s child, whom the Commander believes “will have to go” eventually. As many of the citizens of Spitzen-on-the-Dein line up to return to the insane asylum, the girl does “as she was told.”
Mere plot summary, however, captures little of the essence of Hawkes’s novel; only the experience of reading can fully impart the flavor of the work. In the chase of Jutta’s boy by the mad duke, for example, the reader first feels puzzled; he or she marvels how Hawkes has so easily and so well employed the metaphor of the fox hunt yet is vaguely unsettled by the juxtaposition of the hunt and the impact of the novel’s title. When Stella’s son comes upon them accidentally, one first tends to anticipate some sort of sexual child abuse signified through the chasing of the fox. Most readers, lulled by the son’s “uncommon pleasure in the visit of the Duke,” are stunned when they realize just how literal the fox hunt has been, as the duke cuts, slices, and finally skins his little “furry animal.”
The objectivity and the detachment of thenarrative surrounding the boy’s dismemberment and the boy’s role at the duke’s dinner party combine forcefully to demonstrate how skillfully Hawkes is able to write about the most horrible scenes, employing an almost schizophrenic split between description and valuation, between perception and cognition. This ability gives the average reader an experience in what Hawkes calls “true fictive sympathy.”
The Blood Oranges
The problems of consciousness, ethics, the imagination, and sexual love get extensive and unusual treatment in The Blood Oranges, a novel set in the mythical kingdom of Illyria, where Cyril and Fiona, a couple who practice sexual extension and multiplicity, meet a second couple, Hugh and Catherine (and their three children), the former a puritanical voyeuristic photographer, the latter a housewife seeking adventure. As Cyril and Fiona encourage Hugh and Catherine to join them in their tapestry of love, momentary acquiescence becomes wholehearted acceptance by Catherine; Hugh cannot purge himself of his former demons and accidentally hangs himself.
For the initial reviewers, the most important question in The Blood Oranges seemed to be an ethical one. Many equated the central character, Cyril, “with a studied, self-conscious, and all-pervading aestheticism” that can coldly watch the perpetration of the “greatest of evils,” that of a person’s apparent suicide. Following this understanding of the plot, critics would then go on to picture Cyril as a latter-day Oscar Wilde, a moral monster whose creator was guilty of either a bankrupt moral vision or a “self-conscious artificiality” so brittle and corrupt that “people have stopped mattering.” Later, as the novel went past its sixth printing, various readers came to understand that its lyrical qualities made any naïvely realistic reading of the novel distorted. The reader is not supposed to see the characters as only separate individuals. Instead, in almost Dickensian fashion, the reader must understand that each character represents only part of the issues being raised.
Indeed, The Blood Oranges is a wonderfully lyrical and highly moral work of fiction that was influenced not only by William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) but also by selected Platonic dialogues, the Bible, John Milton, Wallace Stevens, and medieval flower symbology. Hawkes’s intention seems to be the creation of a new moral order to take the place of Western sexual mores associated with a dying Christian symbolic and ethical tradition. This transposition is done by arranging the story into forty-two nonsequential scenes and scenic fragments arranged imagistically and thematically. Since all of the information comes filtered through Cyril’s unusually self-confident voice, the reader must be extremely careful not to make predictions about the “unreality” found in the fictional world without also checking for symbolic patterns, comic utterances, and unusual tonal qualities. Hawkes’s vision is so complex, so paradoxical, that to understand any of his fictional patterns, one must be prepared to watch each of them resonate throughout the whole.
As one pieces together the chronology of The Blood Oranges, one begins to see that single, apparently simple scenes contain many of the novel’s major thematic and character contrasts, contrasts that only later become clear, thus beginning the process of analysis, not ending it. The first major scene starts in a “little medieval church of cold passion” where Cyril and Fiona note that “the little motheaten dress of the infant in Mary’s arms,” the “thicklettered unreadable injunctions against frivolity and sex,” the “effluvium of devotion,” and the “comic miracle” of a life-sized wooden arm are enclosed by a “sagging and worm-eaten church door.” These images form the first set of oppositions: Christianity as an ethically and aesthetically decaying force. The opposite of the rotting chapel is the composite of Fiona/Cyril, whose sexual and emotional lifestyle counterpoints the images just seen.
As an unusual sort of narrator, Cyril arouses readers’ interests in questioning their value choices, their assessments of other people, and, most important, their ability to characterize themselves accurately. In contrast to his unblushing references to his “diligent but unemotional study of sex literature,” his living “a life without pain,” his role as “a steady, methodical, undesigning lover,” Cyril states uncategorically that he is “a man of feeling.” Intellectual Cyril and spontaneous Fiona meet Catherine and Hugh in the chapel, a scene that adumbrates the oppositions: the decaying church, the sex-singing couple, and the curious relationships they all share.
After all four meet, one notices that Hugh, with a face like “Saint Peter in stone,” has numerous imagistic connections with the church: black clothing and a missing arm that Cyril thinks corresponds to the one over the pulpit. By contrast, the imagistic opposition points obviously to Cyril as exemplar of a joyous sensuality, an aesthetic delight in color, harmony, and sexual extension, and, most important, to an almost religious desire to fertilize the sterility associated with Hugh, the Church, and sexual monogamy. The latter all reflect blackness, decay, repression, and ultimately death. Nevertheless, such pictorial polarities only represent part of Hawkes’s master plan, because Cyril, although perceiving himself as gold while Hugh is black, will not be “unduly critical of Hugh.”
As the story progresses nonsequentially, the reader senses that not only do Hugh/Cyril form both a set of polarities and of complementarities, but Fiona/Catherine, Christ/Goat-faced man, and sex-singing/child rearing do as well. Neither is complete nor well defined without the opposition/attraction of the other. For example, however seriously the pompous Cyril tries to interest himself in “the possibilities of sex in the domestic landscape,” he can never, psychologically speaking, become a parent; Fiona and he are fated only to one cycle. As negative an example as Hugh is, he has created new life with Catherine and will perpetuate the possibility of other beings who may adopt Cyril’s values. For Hawkes, the new Jerusalem must be based realistically on the whole of life. Children, family, all life must test the validity of sex-singing and a new moral order.
This type of character dualism is typical of Hawkes’s narrators and so becomes a tool with which to read his later novels. One must listen to Cyril, or to Allert (Death, Sleep, and the Traveler), or Papa (Travesty), or Konrad Vost (The Passion Artist), or Virginie (Virginie) with an ear for self-delusions, mental mistakes, and misleading self-justifications. Only as readers understand Hawkes’s narrative playfulness will they be able to feel the complications arising from the author’s paradoxical and fictive imagination.
In Travesty, Papa is mad and tears down a country road in southern France at “one hundred and forty-nine kilometers per hourin the darkest quarter of the night,” hell-bent on killing himself, his daughter, Chantal, and his daughter’s lover, Henri (a poet who also happens to be Papa’s best friend and the lover of Honorine, Papa’s wife). As the car races toward death, the three of them have an hour and forty minutes to discuss why Papa is going to kill them. The only narrative voice, however, is Papa’s, a kind of novelistic dramatic monologue sounding like many of Hawkes’s other narrators: a voice frighteningly rational, and chillingly single-minded.
As they race along, Papa’s calm refutation of Henri’s terrified yet suffocating theorizing mesmerizes the reader into what Hawkes has earlier called an intense kind of novelistic sympathy. Readers find themselves shocked yet almost swayed by Papa’s self-assurance. He will take them to their “destination”—“Perhaps ’murder’ is the proper word, though it offends [his] ear”—not out of cosmic dread, or of hatred for Henri, or jealousy over Honorine or Chantal, and certainly not out of disgust with life. Papa says he wants, above all else, the “purity,” the “clarity,” the “ecstasy” of an accident in which “invention quite defies interpretation,” a matter of “design and debris.” Thus, Papa intends to commit the “final and irrevocable act” he so feared in childhood, an act that will elicit this purity, clarity, and perhaps even a “moment of genuine response from Henri.” Their death, says Papa, will be “an ironic triumph,” signifying “the power to invent the very world we are quitting.”
It is through this last statement that Hawkes’s larger purposes become clearer; and a formative event in Papa’s youth—the “travesty” concerning a car, an elderly poet, and a young girl—points the reader to a greater understanding of the conversation between Papa and Henri. The latter, by ultimately agreeing with Papa’s contention that “imagined life is more exhilarating than remembered [real] life,” misses his chance to see the light of life and is doomed to die.
Henri and Papa, locked together “like two dancers at arm’s length,” share mistress, wife, daughter, and near metaphysical bond as well. To read them as if they were merely realistic characters has led some critics to condemn the seemingly moral emptiness of Hawkes’s narrators and the author’s refusal to provide even minor external clues with which to judge the ethical validity of the storytellers. A realistic reading of Travesty, however, may miss half of Hawkes’s intentions. It has been argued that no one else but Papa is in the car, that readers are hearing Papa talking only to himself.
Another and more inclusive reading of Travesty, one in keeping with Hawkes’s artistic intentions and concerns for artists creating art, discounts the stress on arguable realism and focuses instead on the novel as an allegorical playing with Friedrich Nietzsche’s fundamental question for the modern world: Suicide or not? If not, philosophy and life continue. If so, then dying with grace and imagination, creating design out of debris, forming debris in order to make possible new design, may be all the control the postmodern human has left over his or her brief life. With this idea in mind, Papa, the other “characters,” and the impossible narrative voice all recede into the background, and readers are left with a brilliant but somewhat brittle art object: a work in which the realism is muted, the artifice very obvious, a work that points both to and away from a deadly world made somewhat livable by the imposition of great art between humans and the void.
The Passion Artist
Moving from the allegories of Travesty to the unusual “realism” of The Passion Artist, the informed reader can only marvel at the maturity of style and vision Hawkes displays. Although the novel is suffused with influences from Franz Kafka and especially from Rainer Maria Rilke, his voice is still very much his own as he digs deeper into the human condition. Unlike earlier Hawkesprotagonists, Konrad Vost is depicted through the filtered yet illuminating light of both his childhood and his mother’s. It is a light everyone eventually must face, implies Hawkes, since no one escapes the dragons of childhood.
The Passion Artist concerns the last several days in the life of Konrad Vost, a modern-day Malvolio. Vost spends much of his free time in the café La Violaine (a French portmanteau word, combining the concepts of “rape” and “filth” in a beautiful sounding word—a typical Hawkesian trope), situated across the street from the prison of the same name, waiting for his imprisoned mother, who had murdered his father when Konrad was a small boy. Father burned to death, notorious mother imprisoned for life, young Konrad is sent to a bizarre foster home, the dumping ground for his village’s orphans and human refuse, presided over by Anna Kossowski, an older drunken woman with a large body and perverted sexual habits. After his graphic and yet highly lyrical sexual initiation with a horse also named Anna Kossowski and a young but not so innocent girl named Kristol, Konrad runs away, having suffered through those life events that will shape the revolting human encountered at the opening of the novel.
Learning about Konrad’s youth in sensuous flashback, the reader opens the novel to Konrad as an adult in his fifties, a psychic cripple unable to finish grieving for his wife, dead for more than five years, unable or unwilling—or both—to recognize that his teenage daughter, like a jinni in a bottle, has escaped his care and become a prostitute. Konrad remains unrequited in his love for his mother, who, in the prison across from La Violaine café, has never written or spoken to him since the murder. After a brief encounter with a child prostitute, who is both friend of and psychic double for his daughter, Konrad Vost volunteers to help put down a prison revolt. Rendered unconscious during the battle for control of the prison, Konrad’s unconscious takes command as he dreams of women who describe his personality flaws. Awakening, he believes that his right hand has been axed off, replaced by a silver one encased in a black glove, and vows to conduct a personal search for the escapees. This silver hand is an important image: as a child, Konrad was called “the little trumpeter of the silver hands.”
During the search, Konrad frightens an old woman to death and betrays another, a slim young child-woman whom he spies upon, bathing. Konrad, looking for shelter, is seized by two older escapees from La Violaine and is put in the prison, a place where he knew he had wanted to be all along. There, he encounters his mother and a tall, handsome woman with red hair who seduces him and finally shows him a “willed erotic union” and the possibilities of mature sexual expression. Hawkes, however, unwilling to end the novel happily, has Konrad Vost die at the hands of a La Violaine café habitué, possibly the father of a girl Konrad had beaten earlier.
The plot of this novel is detailed in order to show how it represents the skeleton, the outer shell of a highly elaborate work of art. In The Passion Artist, Hawkes returns both stylistically and imagistically to the bleak, rotting, rust-filled world of The Cannibal and The Owl. For example, Konrad Vost thinks of himself as some “military personage” walking “with feigned complacency down a broad avenue awash with urine.” La Violaine, the place where his mother is imprisoned, is enclosed by “high narrow rusted gates” and sits in the middle of a city that was “the very domain of the human psyche.” As with the earlier novels, the imagistic and metaphoric patterns become the reality of The Passion Artist. In looking for a focus, a place with which to begin interpretation, the reader must pay close attention to the repeated visualizations toward which Hawkes continually draws the reader’s attention.
In the novel, for example, a pattern of flower references and women is established, and the reader soon realizes the importance of the relationships between Konrad’s mental state and the descriptions of landscapes and flowers. To solidify this innocent impression, Hawkes says explicitly, during Konrad’s hunt through the swamps, that his inner landscape “had become externalized.” There, in the marshes, plants fester “in sockets of ice,” reminding the reader that when Konrad’s father was killed, the “flowers on the porcelain stove were frozen.”
The flower references all point toward an understanding of Konrad’s sexuality as locked in cold storage, decaying, unable to flower. Anna Kossowski, wearing a birthmark, a “brown toadstool” on her cheek, and in part responsible for Konrad’s problems, becomes a variation of the same basic pattern. Hawkes vividly demonstrates the possibilities of change in Konrad’s life by giving the tall, handsome woman with red hair who loves and seduces him at the end of the novel the same image as the prostitute: she too wears a brown rose. With her, however, Konrad Vost learns, after all he has gone through, “the transports of that singular experience which makes every man an artist,” a passion artist. In this way, Hawkes uses visual images in place of didactic narrative statement, but he does it so well that information is communicated through an almost completely aesthetic transmission.
Like so many of Hawkes’s other narrators, Konrad Vost must never be confused with the author. In the instance of The Passion Artist, Konrad Vost’s understanding of the world is so clouded, so distorted with his own neuroses, that Hawkes is able to frighten the reader more with what Konrad does not see and feel than he could with a more reasonable or observant narrator. The mental double talk, for example, which so far reflects Konrad’s apathetic feelings about killing an old woman, serves only to confirm how despicable a character he really is; and yet, Konrad still remains understandable and even sympathetic to the reader. This attitude is as it should be, as Hawkes has arranged it: readers can sympathize with both victim and victimizer; they can be both murdered and murderer. The simple oppositions Hawkes labors to draw convincingly finally become united in the minds of the readers in what Hawkes has termed “true fictive sympathy.”
Thus, Hawkes’s lyrically passionate prose style, his wonderfully imaginative, self-contained worlds, his rare ability to make the reader know and understand both victim and victimizer are some of the qualities that make reading the longer fictions of Hawkes one of the most rewarding aesthetic experiences to be found in contemporary American fiction.