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Hawkes, John 1925–
Hawkes is a masterful American experimental novelist whose nightmare-fiction exhibits what one critic called "a death-haunted vision." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
A surrealist evocation of European despair …, [The Cannibal] is so irrevocably dominated by … enormities that it remains a remote and terrible fantasy, without any of the profound significance of Kafka's fiction….
The Cannibal (1949) is a testimony to a small but persistent struggle on the part of recent novelists to break away from the naturalist impasse. It is in a sense a part of the struggle against naturalism; naturalistic only in its surface details, it depends upon such poignant accuracy of particulars for the ground of its persuasion. Its secret lies elsewhere…. [It] cuts through both document and discourse, to reach another and symbolic level of meaning.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Henry Regnery, revised edition, 1963, pp. 198-99.
Each of John Hawkes's impressively dislocated novels has a different nominal locale, yet they all seem to take place in the same timeless decayed and decaying no-land. Hawkes's surreal world is deliberately out of focus, blurred over by a fog of ugly images which we experience vaguely and unpleasantly, like, as his admirers assert, an actual nightmare. Hawkes is something of a naturalist in reverse; where the naturalist gives us the detailed surface of everyday squalid existence, Hawkes gives us with his own psychoanalytic verisimilitude the blurred surface of the workaday evil dream. His work is prescriptively contemporary, related on the one hand to the nightmare world of Flannery O'Connor and on the other to the antinovels of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet; for all the brilliances of Hawkes's style, the novels seem so many eccentric exercises—an extraordinary game superbly played, but a game nevertheless.
Jonathan Baumbach, in the "Introduction" to his The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1965 by New York University), New York University Press, 1965, p. 5.
"Lunar Landscapes" makes accessible for the first time several hard-to-get Hawkes' items, including six short pieces and all three of Hawkes' novellas. "Charivari," published in 1950, now seems mannered and dated. The story of an aging married couple terrified by the prospect of a child, "Charivari," Hawkes' first work, is a brittle exhibition of technical prowess. "The Owl" and "The Goose on the Grave" (1954) are much fuller and more resonant. "The Owl" is narrated by a Hangman who makes a sacrament of his executions, and "The Goose on the Grave" is an account of an orphan's search for a father in an Italy devastated by war. Both are distinguished by a beauty and precision of language, an uncanny evocation of terror, an intensity of vision as disturbing as a nightmare. No writer in America is more scrupulous, or ruthless, than Hawkes, and none has given us fictions of greater imaginative purity and power. The fictions in "Lunar Landscapes" do not report on experience but provide an experience.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Autumn, 1969), p. cxxviii.
[In his plays,] Hawkes works largely by nuance, suggesting more than he defines, hoping, I suppose, to infect the audience with a sense of uneasiness or dis-ease (with and without the hyphen). The world of his plays, like that of his novels, is one of matter-of-fact grotesqueness in which blood and lust are staples ("Blood and ecstasy, that's the ticket," says Bingo in The Wax Museum) and innocence is forever menaced—mainly by its own innate corruption. At one pole—The Questions—his work suggests Harold Pinter; at the other—The Wax Museum—it suggests Grand Guignol, devised for a theater that has not got around to buying its bloodmaking machine. The action is minimal; the play, in Hawkes, is largely verbal….
The best of the plays is The Questions…. [The] play's effectiveness—rather like that of Pinter's The Homecoming—depends upon an obvious struggle, all the more compelling for not being concretely defined. Hawkes's language in this work is fascinating; seldom ornate, practically descriptive, it remains dry, spare, and yet evocative. Some of its subtlety comes from cleverly manipulated repetition….
The other three plays are not so interesting. The Innocent Party [is] less art than aura…. The Wax Museum is a macabre item…. [The] author once described The Undertaker as a "farcical melodrama," a generic term which suggests—perhaps without intending to—a certain lightness of intent. In fact, The Undertaker and The Wax Museum, both of which should play well, come across simply as clever pieces, teasing the serious subjects which underlie them. The Questions, by comparison, is a work of dramatic substance.
Gerald Weales, in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969, pp. 208-11.
John Hawkes's The Cannibal deals not with war but with its aftermath. Spitzen-on-the-Dein is indeed an inferno, a city of the living dead. Having no communication with the outside world, it is completely self-contained. Since no one has a watch, it is also existing outside of time. For the inhabitants, the main task seems to be to burn out "the pits of excrement, burning the fresh trenches of latrines where wads of wet newspapers were scattered, burning the dark round holes in the black stone huts where moisture travelled upwards and stained the privy seats." Nearby is a swamp "filled with bodies that slowly appeared one by one from the black foliage, from the mud, from behind a broken wheel."
In this land of barren earth, barren women, and impotent men (the Census taker is out of a job), dying animals abound. A particularly vivid scene is that at the local asylum from which the patients have fled but left behind them frozen monkeys strewn over the grounds: "One of the monkeys seemed to have grown, and frozen, was sitting upright on the bodies of the smaller beasts, tail coiled about his neck, dead eyes staring out through the gates." In this grotesque figure it would appear Hawkes is implying that those who are punished, those who are fixed in Dante's lowest circles of the Inferno are the ones who have returned to animality.
Situations and images continue to recall Dante's Inferno. The characters are, of course, victims, each enduring his own agony, but each is quite capable of victimizing, even torturing others for the sake of his own wretched survival….
[It] is Hawkes's fusion of realistic detail, psychological acumen, and controlled fantasy that constitute his originality.
Olga W. Vickery, in The Shaken Realist: Essays in Modern Literature in Honor of Frederick J. Hoffman, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and John B. Vickery, Louisiana State University Press, 1970, pp. 153-55.
Many of us talk about black humor as if it were a brand new art form, but remarkable examples of this "new" comedy have been part of the modern American novel for nearly forty years. The legacy of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1937) has been inherited by a score of contemporary novelists, with John Hawkes as a most difficult but representative author….
John Hawkes (with other black humorists),… dismisses the concept of a benevolent social norm, with the result that traditional comedy's aim to use laughter as a utilitarian means for social correction is meaningless to him. Lacking a widely accepted standard of behavior, comedy seems strange, and this is one reason why Hawkes's novels are so difficult to accept as comic fiction. He daringly mixes horror with humor, the grotesque with the heroic, creating a complex tone which some readers find hard to handle. To ignore this complexity is to render his fiction simply an exploitation of terror, for the dire events are too obvious to be missed, whatever difficulties the reader has with the humor. Even the reader who sees that Hawkes's fiction concerns itself with comedy is likely to find the novels rough going. Sensing the humor, he may wonder if his horrified response to the action is inappropriate; or, recognizing the terror, he may doubt his original intimations that the novels are indeed comic. When this and similar difficulties appear in the theater, cinema, and other arts at the same time, a crisis takes shape. It is not that humor is dead, but that the traditional forms of comedy have been altered in order to respond more meaningfully to an untraditional world….
Hawkes's fiction suggests at least two reasons why he repudiates traditional comedy's acceptance of a social standard. First, the concept of a standard applicable to a particular society implies stability, an easily accessible norm. But Hawkes and his contemporaries see the world as fractured, chaotic, and lacking stability because of universal violence which can unexpectedly strike at any man. Second, the idea of a social norm suggests a standardization of manners and behavior which is desirable…. [This] concept causes Hawkes to despair, for standardization to this degree strengthens the already rampant automation of modern society while, at the same time, it negates individuality….
Hawkes, writing about a fractured world in which correction seems impossible, emphasizes the malignant quality of comedy to point out the pain and absurdity of reality….
In most comic situations typical of Hawkes's fiction, our intelligence and our emotions react with equal force. The heart is not anesthesized, and the result is a laughter which also causes pain. We are horrified while we laugh at the Duke slicing up Jutta's boy (The Cannibal), or at Margaret's acceptance of a beating which will kill her (The Lime Twig), because these characters, while they perform ridiculous acts and reveal absurd personal defects in the manner of traditional comedy, rarely discover their faults in time so as to be safely reestablished with society.
Hawkes's characters are not stoics. They respond to their predicaments, but their responses are usually at odds with what the reader expects. In many ways his novels are comedies of the inappropriate response. We laugh, as in traditional comedy, because of a deviation from a standard, but Hawkes knows that the standard is in the reader's expectations and not in the novelist's created world. Thus, the reader often experiences horror as he laughs because the humor fails in its traditional role as a measure for correction…. His comedy is a product of the contemporary world with all of its potential for violence. Self-awareness in the world of his fiction is usually ineffectual because the terrifying, destructive events remain beyond the character's control whether he realizes what is happening to him or not….
Hawkes isolates his lonely characters so that they must order their own lives. The chaos of reality leaves them with perhaps the only sense of order remaining: private, irrational, comic, often violent fantasies. In such a dreamlike world what appears abnormal to the reader with traditional notions of humor is real and normal to Hawkes's protagonists….
The key to modern comedy is detachment toward violence, for detachment encourages sympathy. Terrifying incidents and grotesque images are meaningless without sympathy for both the instigators and the victims. "The writer who maintains most successfully a consistent cold detachment toward physical violence … is likely to generate the deepest novelistic sympathy of all, a sympathy which is a humbling before the terrible and a quickening in the presence of degradation."… We are emotionally caught up in the processes of violence because these artists seem to remain uninvolved; the extreme fictive detachment of today's comedy is kin to literary understatement.
What finally confounds the reader and adds to the crisis in humor is modern comedy's ability to suggest hope despite the violence. Laughter, for Hawkes, is, as it has been through the ages, a "saving" attitude, and it is this common emphasis on futurity which most unites traditional comedy with black humor. For while contemporary humor denies the reality of a stable social standard of behavior, it maintains faith in the invulnerability of basic values: love, communication, sympathy. Given a world of fragmentation, self-destruction, and absurdity, Hawkes tries to meet the terrors with a saving attitude of laughter so as to defend and celebrate these permanent values. Thus, modern comedy also functions to expose evil—not the kind of human inadequacy which in traditional comedy is a deviation from a norm, but the very real evil which generates violence and which threatens to annihilate those eternal verities so treasured by Hawkes.
Don Greiner, "Strange Laughter: The Comedy of John Hawkes," in Southwest Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 318-28.
[Hawkes] remains one of the new novel's most promising phantasists whose poetic cinematic style states over and over that one thing is suggestive of almost any other…. Hawkes's habit is to satirize subtly the convention of the well-made plot, and for a time "The Blood Oranges" reads as if Anthony Burgess' Enderby were rewriting "Swann's Way."
The author's best energies, as usual, are reserved for weaving beautiful word-tapestries of pure suggestion, for placing his action and characters in an extra-dimensional, mythical world…. Hawkes's prose is irreducible—its metaphysical and poetic lambency shouts out to be probed and reread until the reader comes to sense that all things are connected through the power of the imagination and memory.
R. J. Thompson, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1971, p. 300.
John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges fails because it is the work of a contemptible imagination. Hawkes has always seemed to me more an unadmitted voyeur of horror than its calm delineator, but in this … novel the pretense that what is being described is horrifying is dropped, and we have only the nightmare vision of a narrator unable to see how awful he is….
There is cruelty here that, because unadmitted, is not even palliated by the relish of sadism….
[The] deeply unreceptive narcissism has so little aesthetic greed, furthermore, or even mere desire to write well, that we find, on almost every page, something like "The sun was setting, sinking to its predestined death," or "And already the seeds of dawn were planted in the night's thigh."
Hawkes has many admirers, which means some will note that I have completely missed the fact that it is all a put-on; some others will suspect I am guilty of all those sins that Hawkes's narrator so cleverly exposes in your ordinary man. So be. But when horror becomes a pastime it should announce itself or at least know itself; when reticence and shyness become the great human vices, then their opposites should be clearly and ably defended; when the man who does not want his wife sleeping around makes her wear a rusty and viciously designed chastity belt, then narrator and author should not imagine it is chastity's fault; when life is insistently joyless it should not be called good, or even particularly tolerable; when people stop mattering to a novelist, the writing will suffer and the writer should stop.
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), October 21, 1971, p. 3.
[Four] plays stress Hawkes' obsessive theme—the decline of white Protestant America—a decline riddled with lust and violence. One play, The Wax Museum, is set in Canada, and the other three [The Innocent Party, The Undertaker, and The Questions] in Southern United States, the decay of whose culture has pervaded twentieth century American fiction. The four short dramas are similarly constructed: a shocking confrontation mounts in intensity to an ambiguous finale. Except for The Innocent Party, the confrontation is limited to two characters, but at least one of these two plays several roles, for the plays, like Hawkes' fiction, imply that reality consists of improvised motives accumulating into a role….
[The Innocent Party dramatizes] a rite de passage from solitude to togetherness, though it is left ambiguous as to who is together in an adult world where there are no innocent parties. But Jane [a principal character] has also progressed from the innocence of pure experience to the reflection that is art.
The Wax Museum is more pointedly erotic, but it too dramatizes a development from solitude to togetherness…. An expanded anecdote, The Wax Museum uses insidiously grotesque idiom to show how close we are to the wax dummies we create.
The Undertaker and The Questions were written in that order, and the one is a preparation for the other. The first, according to Hawkes, is a "farcical melodrama" based on the father's suicide in his novel, Second Skin. In spite of the provocative (and debatable) genre designation, the play does not modify the meaning of the novel's suicide scene; insistence upon farcical effects of dialogue robs the death of its fictional intensity and mystery.
The Questions, on the other hand, achieves intensity because death remains mystery…. As in Hawkes' novels, one has the feeling that the truth of fiction emerges through desperate lies…. [The] theatrical urgency of Hawkes' play rests upon the relentless crescendo of suggestive questions, which builds the fatal foursome [the characters in The Questions] for us, even though we do not know their fate or their final significance. Dialogue alone dramatizes emotion; in the repeated phrase of the Man: "death, grief, anguish, a life of emotional oblivion."
Ruby Cohn, "John Hawkes," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 198-201.
As a pastoral prose romance Mr. Hawkes' modern instance [The Blood Oranges] is faithful to the genre, being replete with extravagant sentiments about free love ("the only enemy of mature marriage is monogamy"), a landscape sufficiently idyllic for his purposes on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, four Anglo-Saxon principals all willing to believe at least in the beginning that "anything less than sexual multiplicity … is naïve," and finally a pedestrian pace that confers upon the whole an inescapable air of dullness characteristic of the form. One could poke easy fun at the whole business were it not for the author's sense of dignity and intellectual honesty in contemplating the proceedings; furthermore, as another shield against cheap jibes he has clothed his narrative in astonishingly lyrical and persuasive prose, rare enough in any age and almost a curiosity in this. Full credit should be given for his brave try in a forgotten field. These pages reveal his fluency, technical skill, and high capacity as a literary craftsman, qualities long apparent in his earlier books.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), p. xviii.
As prose narrative, Hawkes' fiction is a mode of discourse that claims objective truth. There is no mediating poet's voice and lyrical mode, no matter how many poetic technics are employed, to help evoke in the reader the hallucinatory state which the action claims for itself. Hawkes' characters exist in a limbo because his form will not accommodate itself to their fate. Poe impersonated madmen to explore madness, Nabokov impersonates the perverse to explore perversity. But Hawkes' prose refuses to lose its grip on rational, balanced consciousness. Cyril, Hawkes' narcissist in The Blood Oranges, can't seem to abandon himself sufficiently to self-love; consequently his voice's intermittent objectivity suggests the author's attempt to provide a standard against which to judge Cyril—or is Cyril less circumscribed than his actions and self-serving rhetoric indicate? This sort of question does not result from fruitful ambiguity; it is rather evidence of a failure to maintain a tone and perspective which would permit coherent reading and imaginative response. In The Beetle Leg, it is flawed Faulkner rather than Nabokov manqué; but the effect is the same: there is no mythy mind to contain both the characters' mundane reality and their urgent, fantastic spirit-life. So both are asserted and juxtaposed, unwedded by a compelling and convincing narrative style. The work, no matter how artfully conceived and carefully constructed, lacks the shape with which Faulkner's tone endows his implausible plots.
I'm saying that Hawkes is basically not a good storyteller. When I read, I want to be beguiled, carried along on some viewless wings; I don't want to see the machinery or be continually prodded back into judgment. So if writing the "experimental novel" entails the loss of narrative moxie, I'm against it. If it means trying what hasn't been done successfully before, one has to ask at some point whether there isn't a reason for previous failures. Before I tested myself against Hawkes, I thought I was a literary liberal. Now, while saddened by my limits, I have the conservative's renewed faith in the existence of law if not the necessity of convention.
Bob Tisdale, "The Flesh Made Words," in Carleton Miscellany, Fall/Winter, 1973–74, pp. 104-07.
John Hawkes' sixth novel, Death, Sleep & The Traveler, cat-footed, makes the first five seem heavy. It walks on psychic eggs, sucks them, leaps off. Not a whit too much or little, nothing too violent or tame, almost nothing too obscure or obvious … sophistication could not go further. Clear and impeccable, free of the infra realism and dreamsogged surrealism of the first books, composed in time-shifting short sequences, each with the throaty resonance of a vibraphone key, each with its soft psychic percussion, in a style at once deliberate and delicate, it is an esthetic performance of the first order. "I'm trying to hold in balance poetic and novelistic methods," Hawkes once said, and in the combined compactness and elaboration of the new book the scales hold.
The plot is minimal. A little love, a lot of guilt. Failure. The body betraying its prehuman origins; the sharking jealousies of dreams….
The story is refracted from dozens of disjunct anecdotes as if from the shattered glass face of a clock, and superbly instances what Kenneth Burke calls formal eloquence: the appropriation of surprise and suspense by the sentence, the image, the contrast, the variation, the nuance.
The poise and tension of the narrative spring from the opposition of its matter and method. Disturbed by the "diving and rising monsters of the deep," by eventualities, its tactic is to take narrative stills. On the other hand, terrified by immobility—the throbless engine or organ—it scatters itself through nine years and on sea and land as if leaping to omnipresence….
Yet for such superior adequacy of language as this novel boasts, the price runs high. The narrative encases life in its own perfection. Its ruthless detachment makes life itself academic. Though psychological unpleasantness greases the scenes—enticing, repelling the reader onward—the syntax commandeers the greater response. The medium subdues the message. Memorable, brilliantly "overexposed" as the best scenes are, they remain with you, not in you. The book imposes its curious pedantic beauty, then recedes like a hollow.
Hawkes is not merely cold to life, he punishes it. While his narrators and Hawkes himself in interviews could not be more indulgent of Psyche, his imagination runs toward her like fire and his books end in a smolder of peace. In The Blood Oranges … Hawkes fought it out with his demons and lost….
Since his third novel, The Lime Twig, Hawkes' fiction has dwelled upon not only sexual guilt but also the guilt of the artist as such—the dreamer whose dreams leave life untouched, the spiritual Narcissus. The new book sours on marriage and sexuality (Ariane excites Allert most when masking her loins with a goat's skull), as well as on myth, dreams, pornography—representations of sexual life. In Allert's preoccupation with sexual tableaux, in Peter's and Ursula's view of him as a fetus dreaming rather than living his life, in Ursula's charge that, with his destructive unconscious, he would wrap her (she who is "perpetually moist") in a rubber sheet, as in his mortification when, watching the self-fellatio of two male bats, he is charged with the practice himself, Allert blends with the novelist. Both together hoist the words that unconvincingly close the book: "I am not guilty." To be sexual and an artist is to be doubly criminal. For Hawkes there is only the "beautifully barren" island of Pan's mournful goats and the mournful music of Pan's flute. Guilt being inescapable, his novels mourn themselves.
Death, Sleep & The Traveler is a beautiful achievement, unique and elegant in form, brilliantly judged, and likely to endure as a small classic. To be sure, Europeanized, Bergmanized as it is, it may not seem our classic, except in being an intense romance and (what for us is hardly separable) its Puritan backlash, its ambivalence toward the raw stuff of life.
Calvin Bedient, "On Cat Feet," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 20, 1974, pp. 26-8.
John Hawkes is a prince of the middle-aged avant-garde. His earliest books had the character of a brisk and slightly improvised tour through the surrealist region of mind: they were indeed, wrote an admiring Leslie Fiedler, the personal chronicle of this novelist as he "pursued through certain lunar landscapes (called variously Germany or the American West or Italy) his vision or horror or baffled passion." During much of the 1940's and 1950's Hawkes seemed to dwell in polite obscurity. A late-blossoming flower in the tradition of naive modernism, he could scarcely have hoped to create the "shock of recognition" that comes only for writers in proper season. Yet his reputation has grown in recent years, there have been signs of a modest vogue, and his publisher, now as in the past associated with the meretricious as well as the legitimate side of all that is new, has advertised "Death, Sleep & The Traveler" as a masterpiece….
["Naive modernism"] is a name for the technique of dissociation and the more generalized off-realism that one discovers in Hawkes at every turn and without any particular stress on dramatic effect. It entails a reduction of something profound: ideas have become received ideas, and a licensed habit of thought no longer has to submit to the rigors of imagination. Hawkes is a writer who has never quite realized that words are the daughters of earth, that they are around to do a job, and that unless they are made to serve they will drain life from the most colorful of fictions….
"Death, Sleep & The Traveler" ought not to be judged as a main feature of the Hawkes canon. It has one memorable scene in which a goat's head becomes a temptation to sexual violence. But "The Lime Twig" had a great many similarly haunting details and managed to arrange them almost symphonically. Hawkes has certainly written better things. Yet the thinness of his latest production reminds one of the relative thinness of all his work. Why have artists of undoubted genius like Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor numbered themselves among his allies? Perhaps because they sense he is trying to do much that they have succeeded in doing. Surely, Hawkes has the rhythms of a great novelist but not the revelations, the cunning required to be a great prose stylist without the calling.
David Bromwich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974, pp. 5-6.
Mercifully, John Hawkes's writing has moved out of the clotted obscurity of his early novels toward a sort of clarity. Clarity of a sort: one doesn't want to press the point too far. Death, Sleep & The Traveler … doesn't have a graceless sentence in it, and it is full of luminous scenes, but I wouldn't pretend to be wholly clear on its events, let alone their significance…. In reading this novel, you are well advised to heed the remark of Allert's wife, Ursula, who asks, "How can you tell the difference between you life and your dreams?"…
A lovely quotation appends itself to John Hawkes's public life now, from a review by Thomas McGuane of his last book in the New York Times Book Review, McGuane said that Hawkes is "feasibly, our best writer," which means, I guess, we could make him our best writer if we tried. But no, I don't think we can. At its best, Death, Sleep & The Traveler—stripped to a minimum of social detail, purpose-fully remote and ambiguous—is a gesture at essentiality, and its larger pomposities are lent an edge by sly wit. But a certain genuine pomposity remains, the arrogance of minimalism. Hawkes's work seems to me too narrow, gamelike, self-protective to justify the formidable claims that are made for him.
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1974, p. 130.
When we read Hawkes, we expect to be startled, if not assaulted, by the density of maddening details.
I stress assault. Hawkes not only writes about violent, insane actions—can they ever be clearly motivated?—but he deliberately puts us into his novels as he violates our rational, waking conceptions…. His novels deal with dream-like deformations, meaningless violations; they also mirror these themes (or, better yet, images). Their structures reflect their ideas—they are, therefore, "self-contained," nocturnal, and claustrophobic….
Although Hawkes writes a maze-like work [Death, Sleep & The Traveler] about maze-like reality, he surely does not remain a passive creator. He delights in his maze. He shapes it so cunningly that although it resists thematic analysis, it remains a unique construction. There are many dreams … which dazzle me. There are the recurring, brilliant images of water, mirror, and animal. I realize that I am unsure of events … but I am confident that this fiction (about fictions) will continue to enlighten me for a long time. In reading it I meet "various unfamiliar shadows," "psychic sores," the batlike terrors of sleep. I appreciate the cleansing anxiety it provokes. I accept its wise violations. I am, consequently, very grateful to Hawkes.
Irving Malin, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 3, 1974, pp. 221-22.
Two major elements from Hawkes's earlier work are missing from [Death, Sleep & The Traveler and The Blood Oranges]: violence and the memory of World War II. The psychic and physical wounds of war and a brutal violence lent a kind of horrible truth to Hawkes's original surrealistic material. The horror gone, much of what seemed significant truth is gone, too—the truth about human nature reflected in a world created by a writer fascinated by the grim heritage of global holocausts.
The war being fought in Hawkes's last two novels is a sexual one. It is an ugly war, but strangely empty and mechanical; [in Death, Sleep & The Traveler,] Allert's pornography collection is boring, even to him. Hawkes writes not about love but about sex….
Through Allert's dreaming mind, Hawkes takes us where we've been with him before: funeral processions and coffins, death and decay, a violent struggle to re-enter the womb, memories of a childhood confused by a conflict of sexual identity. Allert escapes into dreams and Hawkes runs right along with him, a copy of Freud clutched under his arm. Allert spends as much time dreaming his fantastic dreams as he does leading his pointless life. Hawkes spends as much time describing these dreams as he does fleshing out his sketchy characters. Dreams explain and come out of daily life; Hawkes becomes so involved in thinking up dreams for his hero that he forgets to give anyone the life that inspires them….
Hawkes sending Allert on his voyage is an author in search of a myth. Although he does not succeed in finding a resonant myth, his excursion into questions of insanity raises welcome echoes of the surrealism that characterized his earlier work.
More than twenty years ago Albert J. Guerard praised the surrealistic qualities in Hawkes's writing, but predicted that Hawkes would change from a surrealistic to a realistic writer. Sadly, Guerard was right. Despite details and careful descriptions, Hawkes's new realism is not real. In his earlier work people were grotesque types who lived in an anti-realistic world, but they were interesting and unique. Now Hawkes writes about such things as human emotions and psychological motivations, yet his people remain flat, his style heartless. Cyril in The Blood Oranges and Allert in the current novel are large, very fat men, as though Hawkes had to compensate with physical size for what these men lack in substance.
Hawkes does not have the support of a literary tradition, or, one suspects, a personal heritage colorful or varied enough to strengthen the kind of ordinary material with which he deals in Death, Sleep & The Traveler. He makes Allert a Dutchman, because without that foreignness he might be too dull a figure—but he cares so little about the authenticity of Allert's Dutchness that he gives him a last name [Vanderveenan] that could never exist in Holland. John Hawkes has proved himself capable before of creating his own literary tradition, a surrealistic style that made his earlier books very special works of American art. It was a pity to see him forsake that talent in The Blood Oranges and now in this latest novel. It is disappointing to watch Dali turn into Daphne du Maurier, to watch a good writer handle his material in a new way that makes us wish for the old.
Celia Betsky, "Author in Search of a Myth," in The Nation, May 18, 1974, pp. 630-32.
Great surrealist artists do not have to yield general truths and in fact, unless they take the care to systematize their insights, rarely do. Brilliant stylists too can take a short-cut to literary success by overlaying their vacuous or thin content with a highly polished sheen of verbal brilliance. These lessons are known by writers as well as readers—and exploited. And John Hawkes is certainly one of America's most knowing writers. The givens of his work, the data he's working up, almost always seem to be his knowledge of the literary work and its devices and never what can give those devices meaning and shape. Each macabre theme or grotesque character has no more life than the shell of intellection from which it was hatched. In "Lime Twig," Hawkes's best book, the inert themes and monstrous characters are, more or less, jabbed into sentience by the orchestral baton of Hawkes. The patterns of behavior and the texture of plot are ingenious, but on a closer look, the material remains threadbare.
The narrator and hero of "Death, Sleep & The Traveler" is Allert Vanderveenan, a middle-aged Dutch voyeur beached on the shores of America and his febrile imagination. He is that most tedious of all literary creations, a narcissist without an object….
All powerful surrealist literature dealt with that tension between the real and the imaginary until finally writers like Nabokov were able to create a world surreal and ordinary at the same time, with an ironic and sad accent on the ephemeral beauty of the workaday. It worked as magnificently as [Hawkes's] pale single-paragraph imitations of it do not. The tension between the real and the imaginary is replaced by a more academic one of the literary and an attempt to spin out original fantasies.
This novel is an academic exercise….
There are a few powerful images scattered through the book but they're like strangers fallen from another level of consciousness. The themes of "Death, Sleep, & The Traveler"—hallucination ("concreteness rotating toward illusion"—the best image in the book), the death urge, repression and frigidity, and an inability to take measure of one's thoughts and feelings of those of others—are not dramatized or embodied but illustrated.
John Hawkes is one of several American writers who enjoy the almost legendary reputation of a "writer's writer." This can usually be translated to mean a writer too far in advance of or in reaction to the current taste to become the object of a general appreciation or understanding. I don't feel this is the case with Hawkes. For me the mystery is not in the falsely ambiguous style or situations of John Hawkes's books but in the existence of the imprimaturs of artists like Saul Bellow and Anthony Burgess.
Randall Green, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), May 23, 1974, p. 37.
The journey [of Allert, the protagonist in Death, Sleep & The Traveler,] unfolds as a series of exquisitely drawn, fragmented episodes—a sentence, 20 sentences—that together create the effect of a collection of photographs, both positive and negative images, some sharply focused, others faded or shadowy or dissolved in brilliant light….
[The] terrain is thick with images and symbols that twist and wind and linger in the mind like dreams that won't yield to interpretation, and won't be forgotten either.
John Hawkes, who is the author of The Lime Twig, Second Skin, The Blood Oranges and many other books, has been likened to both Nabokov and Kafka; most often he is simply described as original. His prose, highly stylized, is lambent and cadenced, at times humorous, at times enchanting, always sensual and evocative—catching the fragrance of a green wood fire, the feel of a ship pitching and rolling "like a bottle lying on its side in a sea of oil," the intense dry heat of a eucalyptus-scented sauna, the phosphorescence of a night sea.
Carol Eron, "Prisoner of the Self," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 26, 1974, p. 3.
John Hawkes writes with dizzying brilliance. His novels yield to the reader like geishas, and ask only that the reader yield in return. Experimental, dreamlike, sensuous, comic, and solid, his novels burn like clean aromatic wood, like a forest of sandalwood on the hearth of the intellect.
Death, Sleep & The Traveler is told by its central character, the middle-aged Dutchman Allert Vanderveenan…. The scenes flow by with cinematic rapidity, in an apparently capricious but deliberate order that juxtaposes Allert's home life, his shipboard romance, and his dreams. These last are especially remarkable; convincing, revealing, original yet strikingly familiar—as vividly distorted reflections of life as the oiled veins of grotesque musclemen or the reverberations of an electronic piano. The past masters of the evocative dream, Nabokov and Ingmar Bergman, have simply been surpassed….
But dreams that seem real are only the other side of the familiar true coin of any Hawkes novel, the reality that seems a dream. Moments when time stands still, or stretches, or snaps. The superclean heat and eucalyptus of a log-cabin sauna in Scandinavian winter; the bleaching brilliance of a midsummer Mediterranean beach…; the smell of the reptile house in the zoo…. Hawkes's world shimmers with a kind of dazed but fullbodied sensuality that leaves our nerve-ends ringing.
If Hawkes has a fault, it lies in his dallying with an occasional image that functions solely at the symbolic level. Here he can be heavyhanded….
But these are minor mannerisms. Hawkes's comic sensuality is the product of an Apollonian mind and a Dionysian sensibility.
Charles Nicol, "In The Dream," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June, 1974, pp. 659-60.
God simply meant from the start that John Hawkes should be a "difficult" writer and that is simply what Hawkes is. He has a habit of putting more into a novel than even the most alert reader can absorb in one reading—and when he is at his best, as in The Beetle Leg and The Lime Twig, more than most of us can soak up in two or three. All he tries for is [to] make the language do what it hasn't done before and he strains it to the limit….
Hawkes seems to me to be at his best when he is closest to the spirit of the grotesque painters—Bosch to Brueghel to Goya—whose work is so full of the stuff that "black humor" and "surrealism" and "neo-picaresque" are made [of]…. The juxtaposed incongruities and monstrosities and enigmatic figures in the paintings have the same effect that Hawkes has, in his earlier writing, where he delights and thoroughly disconcerts his reader all at the same time. I deeply regret that Death, Sleep & The Traveler … disconcerts me far too little…. There is some satisfaction, of course, in knowing that here is at least one Hawkes novel that will make reviewers drop the worn cliché of "nightmare," but much less in having to report that instead of being simultaneously frightened, delighted, amused, and disconcerted I've been doing a puzzle I couldn't completely solve.
David Dillon, "How Hawkes's Humor Works," in Southwest Review, Summer, 1974, pp. 330-34.
[In Death, Sleep & The Traveler] and in The Blood Oranges …, there is a good deal of unmistakable triviality beneath the glitter of the artful language. I don't think we can complain about the glitter itself, precious as it sometimes seems ("The light of the first stars purled impossibly through the last light of the day"), because the glitter is the style, the perfect vehicle for Hawkes's fastidiously upsetting effects….
We can't complain about the pompous and disagreeable tone of all Hawkes's recent narrators (and several of his characters), because their stately and indestructible self-absorption is precisely what allows them to survive in the universe of menace and distress which they inhabit. But the concerns that animate these people—performing and watching intercourse, sharing lovers, swopping wives, collecting pornography, and describing their stilted and rather stale philosophies of life—are surely not the most urgent of subjects for a major novelist, which Hawkes undoubtedly is. Hawkes strikes me as a writer who started out as if he were going to become Kafka and turned into something between Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf on the way. Of course, neither Miller nor Woolf is a negligible figure, and of course I don't mean to suggest that the private life is not a subject for fiction any more, or that Hawkes has to take on the holocaust every time he writes. And of course, any subject becomes what the writer makes of it. But still, Death, Sleep & The Traveler and The Blood Oranges, striking, personal, and assured as they are, remain rather wispy works, have the air of dazzling exercises performed on the edge of nothing. The eerie, luminous images of these two books are lost in almost empty narrative space; great songs in search of an opera; brief poems looking for a play.
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), August 8, 1974, p. 41.
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