John Hawkes

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Hawkes, John 1925–

Hawkes is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Jonathan Baumbach calls Hawkes "something of a naturalist in reverse"; in his experimental fiction he outlines and defines life as a surrealistic, often terrifying, dream world. Hawkes has said that his novels attempt to renew the form of that genre. According to critic Albert Guerard, in whose writing class Hawkes wrote his first novel, The Cannibal, he is "perhaps the most original American novelist since Faulkner." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev, ed.)

Marc Ratner

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Since the appearance of his first novel, The Cannibal, in 1949, the work of John Hawkes has proven him to be a writer whose technical control, poetic imagery and content demand critical recognition. His novels challenge the reader's imagination and force him to read them with the care necessary in reading most modern poetry. The variety of experimental techniques in dealing with time and space in his fiction, the use of fantasy and dream and the pervasive, naturalistic theme of the determinacy of history and myth over men's lives suggest the influence in his work of naturalism and symbolism. In this he belongs to a tradition which combines the Gothic fiction of Charles Brockden Brown and Poe with the compressed symbolism and ironic view of Crane, Bierce and, on occasion, Hemingway. In Hawkes's particular view of the novel and the function of the novelist, the imagination dominates the fact…. Because of his "detached" approach, Hawkes achieves sympathy without sentimentality. His credo might be shared by Djuna Barnes, Nathanael West, Bernard Malamud, James Purdy, and Flannery O'Connor among contemporary writers…. Where Hawkes excels over the tried-and-true "realistic" writers is in the uses of imagination and the power to excite that faculty in the reader. (pp. 345-46)

[His technique of reworking myths to convey his perspective of modern man] is most evident in The Beetle Leg (1951), a novel set in the American desert near the site of a dam. The dry season and the figure of the fisherman at the dam are not unfamiliar images from T. S. Eliot's Waste Land. Beyond these, Hawkes's concept of the buried Christ-Osiris in the slowly sliding wall of the dam ("the sarcophagus of mud") is a prime example of his mythopoesis. The imperceptible movement of the retaining wall becomes the inevitable force and movement of the universe and the small absurd heroes, whether their activity is directed towards the wall or the fields, below, cannot check the cosmic flux. (pp. 346-47)

Images of sacrifice, particularly horses and chickens, occur as a motif and the elaborations on the theme of the buried fertility god are skillfully worked into the novel. These recognizable myths are combined with Hawkes's own creations…. (p. 347)

Hawkes returned to a European locale in his next works, The Owl and The Goose on the Grave (1954). These complementary novellas set in Italy, have received more adverse criticism than his other fiction, mostly because they rely more on religious imagery and historical fact than on characterization. The ritual sacrifice of the prisoner proscribed by the hangman-dictator of the principality of Sasso Fetore reenacts the death of Christ. But the sacrifice is of a human being, not a god…. While the religious symbolism of the sacrificed geese on the prisoner's grave and the image of the destroyed Madonna link the two novellas, the second novella is more concerned with the end of innocence…. Following a more direct narrative line and using [a] dream as a basis for connecting incidents, Hawkes indicates here the changes in method apparent in … The Lime Twig

(This entire section contains 1636 words.)

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The Lime Twig (1961). This novel fulfills the prediction of Albert Guerard in the introduction to The Cannibal that "Hawkes will move still further toward realism." Along with a closer adherence to a chronological development, Hawkes has shifted gears in his use of time. Instead of scanning the cultural history in the context of the everpresent past, Hawkes in a method slightly similar to Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute arrests time to present a situation through the emotional, irrational acts or gestures of his characters. What Hawkes does in The Lime Twig is to present us with his superreal characters, victims of the ironic mesh of human affairs…. The Lime Twig finds Hawkes's technique directed more towards characterization, although his view of man as victim has not changed.

Hawkes's technique is that of the modern poet. His language and images are modes of dramatic delimitation, condensed flashes of action which convey intellectualized emotions. Characters and incidents operate on several strata, much in the way that they do in Dante's Divine Comedy where the situation can be viewed realistically and allegorically at the same time. Not that Hawkes's work is solely allegorical in nature—it is not fixed to a sharply defined view in that sense—but he is able to free the reader's imagination to range over the cultural past of a nation, and always with a comprehension of the pastness of the present. The influence of Yeats and Eliot is evidenced by his use of personal symbols, his sense of history, his objective view of contemporary society, and his compressive technique. However, it would be unfair to consider him solely as a derivative writer. He is an experimental writer and his challenge to the reader's imagination, his use of symbol, psychology and language mark him as a writer who does not accept the limitations placed on fiction by traditionalists.

Because of his experimentation, Hawkes has been mistakenly cast as a surrealist by most critics. The nightmare events in his novels do appear as expansions rather than evasions of reality but his objective technique, his deterministic themes, and his control of imagery are not part of the surrealist manifesto. Like Nathanael West, Hawkes's imagery resembles the products of automatic writing but his conscious themes and use of symbols invalidate the view that his work is autistic. Instead of the freedom from the past and present that the surrealists aspire to, he projects his symbols and the myths of the past on the modern world to give an original view of reality. (pp. 347-49)

In The Cannibal the three part narration moves from Germany, 1954, to 1914 and back; the main action is roughly based on the assassination of the faceless, one-man army of occupation, Leevey, by the neo-Nazi and sometime narrator, Zizendorf. In the interval between the description of the town at the end of World War II and the death of Leevey, Hawkes presents a diorama of German life between the two wars. (p. 350)

Hawkes, like Faulkner, only gradually reveals the significance of [his] characters by giving fragmentary views which integrate as the novel develops. Thus, Zizendorf's plot, which will restore the Reich, Stella's "ancestral fears" and "undersea life", or the Duke's pursuit of the child, continue a suspenseful line through the book, representing the corruptibility of the future in Germany, to give us a current action. Interspersed with the main action of Parts I and III set in 1945 are the related incidents from the inescapable "sack of the past" presented in Part II, 1914.

The imaginative incidents of the 1914 section of The Cannibal range through the pre- and postwar periods and are divided into four sections: "love", "Stella", "Ernst", and "lust". The private lives of Stella and Ernst, her husband, including her relationship with the Englishman, Cromwell, are connected to the political and social changes in Germany…. Hawkes here is viewing the personal lives of man, their involvements and passions, within a simultaneous setting of historical determinism which far more affects their lives. (p. 351)

The dramatic quality of Hawkes's work lies only partially in his images; much of his strength comes from his characterization. Again this aspect of his work cannot be thought of as circumstantial realism but more in terms of the figural realism used by Dante. Although Hawkes's universe is the obverse of Dante's ordered cosmos, in their weaving of myth and history and in their characterization the two authors use parallel methods. Hawkes's futile world most resembles the Inferno and his characters appear as part of a sensuous, irrational reality which finds acceptance perhaps only in the imagination. This is evident in the two women who are central to [The Cannibal], Madame Snow, the aristocratic Brunhilde of the Teutonic past, and her sister, Jutta, a more natural creature who always remains that part of a nation which never surrenders to the state; or the two male characters, Ernst, the saber-scarred victim of the Prussian ideal who turns toward the ascetic life, and Zizendorf, duped by the bankrupt promise of Nazism. All four reflect not only their own personal betrayals and the lack of love, but also the betrayal of Germany itself to false ideals. (p. 355)

Instead of being embodiments of sin as Dante's creations are, Hawkes's figures, set in their landscape of dreams and death, are symbolic of the social and political forces at work in twentieth century Europe. Throughout his novels the dominance of history over men's lives and their inability to escape their past is reiterated. Trapped by their past, the Europeans in these novels and the Americans in The Beetle Leg are caught in inevitable forces too strong for them to overcome. A certain dignity belongs to those comic-ironic heroes who try, like Ernst, to break with the past and in turn are broken. Perhaps the idea of the lime twig can stand as a symbol for Hawkes's view of man's condition, for he sees humanity as trapped birds, victims of internal and external forces. One can see this in Zizendorf's recognition of the futility of his efforts reflected in his annoyed tone at the novel's end. (p. 356)

Hawkes's work continues to reward the reader not only with revelations of individual characters but also with the wider meanings of their lives.

John Hawkes's economy of surreal effects, achieved by the juxtaposition of objects and incidents, his compressed poetic prose, not unlike the prose poems of the French symbolists, and his vaguely symbolic characterization similar to the figural realism of Dante all combine to achieve the intensity of the concentrated emotional moment of good modern poetry with the chronicling power of the novel. Hawkes opens to us the ironic vision of twentieth century man through the imagination of the poet and the objectivity of the novelist. (p. 357)

Marc Ratner, "The Constructed Vision: The Fiction of John Hawkes," in Studi Americani, Vol. 11, 1965, pp. 345-57.

James L. Green

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Like the typical fairy tale "Charivari" is a nightmare with a happy ending. However, the happy ending of fairy tale denies nightmare, preserves childhood innocence; the happy ending of "Charivari" is ironic, undercutting the false security of dream, affirming the reality of nightmare. (p. 83)

Charivari denotes "a serenade of 'rough music,' with kettles, pans, tea-trays, and the like, used … in mockery and derision of incongrous or unpopular marriages" (OED). "Charivari" is a satiric epithalamion to the marriage of Henry and Emily Van, two forty-year old children. Provided with money and a country estate by their parents, Henry and Emily have played house for fourteen years, though both subconsciously desire to break out of their fairy-tale world of parties and games. Henry has a nightmare in which he views Emily with a child. The next day during one of their parties, Emily announces her pregnancy. The news is terrifying because the birth of a child will force the couple to acknowledge their age, to accept time and the inevitability of death. Henry flees, a runaway child, but is found and brought back by his father. In a parallel action Emily is taken by her mother to a doctor, who finds that the pregnancy is hysterical. Returned home, Emily again appears youthful, and the children resume their games. This marriage is Hawkes' microcosm for twentieth-century Western society, affluent, hedonistic, committed to the preservation of youth and to the establishment of paradise on earth. Henry's nightmare and Emily's hallucination correspond to nightmare realities in Western civilization—to world war, which is the result of, and a threat to, utopian social and political dreams. Henry and Emily's parents, representatives of the Victorian age, are immediately responsible for their children's marriage, for the world in which Henry and Emily live. Hawkes implies that these parents were victimized by their own parents, and so on back through history. Ultimately, both dream and nightmare are grounded in man's existential condition. Life evokes in man the desire for eternal life, but man is also condemned by nature to death. Attempting to deny or escape his human condition, man has created systems of order, which in denying death, deny life as well. (pp. 83-4)

Hawkes' concern with the recurrence of nightmare and the recurrence of equally destructive dreams is reflected in his fictional technique…. "Charivari" is divided into four sections: "Courtship," "The Bachelors," "The Wedding," and "Rhythm." The story telescopes two periods of time, the original courtship and marriage of Henry and Emily and a two-day period fourteen years later, during which the couple experience fears and desires which parallel their ambivalent emotions during courtship. Hawkes also renders parallels between the experiences of Henry and Emily and those of their respective parents. Allusions to figures in literature and myth evoke other, ironic, parallels. Thus Hawkes expresses the recurring pattern of nightmare and dream, from which his characters cannot escape. "Charivari" is a closed system, ending where it begins. (pp. 84-5)

The fairy tale of "Charivari" has its happy ending. But Henry has escaped the death-in-life of isolating alienation only to become locked with Emily in the death-in-life of adult childhood. The story ends where it begins. Childhood is a time of fairy tale and nightmare. For Henry and Emily the nightmare will increase and ultimately shatter their bright, cold world of fairy tale.

"Charivari" is not a perfectly achieved work. The novelette is marred by occasional snickering intrusions of the omniscient narrator. For example: "These poor people. We should pet them; we should take care of them … Send them a painted teapot, perhaps … They are so flimsy, apt at any moment to be blown away forever."… Such commentary is the result of Hawkes' desire, as he says of Djuna Barnes, to focus "the most baffling of unsympathetic attitudes … upon the grudges, guilts, and renunciations harbored in the tangled seepage of our earliest recollections and originations." Hawkes writes that this "extreme fictive detachment" produces "extreme fictive sympathy," results in the "delicate malicious knowledge of us all as poor, forked, corruptible." In "Charivari" the "malicious" commentary works against this ultimate sympathy, expresses and provokes an attitude of superiority. The commentary is all the more regrettable, because by itself the rendered experience of "Charivari" evokes the "knowledge of us all as poor, forked, corruptible." To some readers, the numerous allusions to other works of literature in "Charivari" may seem self-conscious and obstrusive. The technique is probably borrowed from T. S. Eliot. A result of Hawkes' desire to combine poetic and novelistic method in fiction, it serves to add depth and range of implication to the narrative, to establish the determining influence of the past on the present, and, by inviting comparison with more vigorous ages, to reveal the enervation of the modern world. Though the allusions may seem self-conscious in "Charivari," the technique becomes increasingly subtle in Hawkes' later works, where mythic and literary parallels are implicit, or, as in the brilliant Second Skin, where literary allusions are naturally located in the mind of the self-conscious, first-person narrator, whose mode of expression is ironic self-parody. Finally, the parallels in "Charivari" between the microcosm of Henry and Emily's fairy-tale marriage and the macrocosm of a materialistic, luxury-seeking, neurotic twentieth-century society are more asserted than established. At least, in comparison with the perfect coherence of microcosm and macrocosm in The Cannibal, Hawkes' second work, the relationship between the personal experience and the social and historical situation in "Charivari" seems tenuous.

In spite of these faults, "Charivari" is an impressive first work. In his analysis of the equally destructive worlds of dream and nightmare, Hawkes focuses attention on fundamental problems of human existence. Faced with a nightmare reality, terrified by devouring time, by the perception that life is a process of death, the characters in "Charivari" repress their natural desires, which, if allowed full expression, would commit them to the natural, creative-destructive process. In so doing, they enter the world of dream, of fairy-tale denial of reality, commit themselves to death-in-life. But repressed human impulses reassert themselves in tormenting nightmare and neurosis. And ultimately the cannibalistic processes of nature will break through the walls of protective fantasy. (pp. 93-5)

James L. Green, "Nightmare and Fairy Tale in Hawkes' 'Charivari'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1971), Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1971, pp. 83-95.


Hawkes, John (Vol. 1)


Hawkes, John (Vol. 15)