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.)
[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.]
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...
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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 fairly conventionally and move toward more and more audacious, even perverse experiment. But there is also Melville, writing for a timein nomine diaboli, and ending in classical if embittered serenity.
I know, however, of no such radical innovator as Hawkes in his twenties (very nearly a generation ahead of his time), possessed of an absolutely original style and dynamic vision, becoming such a suave master of the traditional resources of the novelistic art. (pp. 2-3)
In 1948 I wrote, in my introduction to The Cannibal, that it was less surrealist than Charivari, and that I suspected Hawkes would move still further toward realism; and that how far Hawkes would go as a writer "must obviously depend on how far he consents to impose some page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter consecutive understanding on his astonishing creative energy; on how richly he exploits his ability to achieve truth through distortion; on how well he continues to uncover and use childhood images and fears." In my 1962 addendum I could remark that the "predicted movement toward realism has occurred, but chiefly in the sense that the later novels are much more orderly and even in pace, and distinctly less difficult to read." Yet I could also say that Hawkes's position was an unusual one: "that of the avant-garde writer who has imitated no one and who has made no personal gestures of defiance". He could move "toward realism"—in pace, in the timing of scenes, in the subtle manipulation of the reader, in overall control, in language—without becoming banal. And if he ultimately came to parody other writers—Ford Madox Ford in The Blood Oranges, Camus in Travesty—it was with a Nabokovian joy in aesthetic play. Travesty, for all its seriousness, is in the highest sense a playful book. It is well to remember how some of the greatest writers, indeed some of the most ponderous, have ultimately allowed themselves comedy, even farce…. (pp. 3-4)
I would like to stress not the movement toward realism, which is obvious, but rather the movement toward a more conscious and more suave psychology and art. Psychology and art. The movement is from a Freudian wit, deeply dependent on unconscious understanding as well as conscious; from extremely powerful condensation, from multiple instances of overdetermination, to fully conscious, sophisticated, suave, even delicate manipulation of sexual materials. But this movement in psychology is accompanied by an increasingly sinuous and polished rhetoric, by finely controlled periodic rhythms, by language used in a very precise denotative as well as connotative sense. The Hawkes of The Cannibal was by far the most interesting eccentric stylist of his time; the Hawkes of Travesty (no less subversive, it may be, deep down) is one of the purest masters of classical English (or even classical French) prose.
A few familiar moments of horror will illustrate the movement toward more conscious (and more serenely comic) psychological content, with sexual disturbance even serving as rhetorical embellishment, though not only rhetorical embellishment…. I find several such [moments of horror] in only eight lines of The Cannibal: the fingers of a dead defender that spatter a wall; the flesh hanging from hooks in a butcher shop, "the plucked skin and crawling veins"; the legs and head "lopped" from the horse statue … all this under an "evil cloaked moon." Wire, in these eight lines, catches the knee of Jutta's child, who in the guise of a fox will presently be dismembered, beginning with the fox's brush cut in half. That appalling surgical operation, which is closely paralleled by the skinning of a white rabbit in The Painted Bird, involves totally conscious displacement. Between the early evocation of fingers spattering a wall and the later one of the unfortunate child/fox are two other powerful evocations of castration fear, reflecting, it may be, different degrees of authorial consciousness. The dead Merchant wedged between two beams may evoke an additional sexual anxiety, with the cocoon in the mouth anticipating the bat in the mouth of Second Skin…. (pp. 4-5)
Much of The Cannibal operates through obscure, half-censored suggestion…. The power of these scenes lies in their evocation of anxieties suggested but not defined; of displacements felt but not immediately seen.
No doubt someone somewhere is presently engaged in writing an article on "Orality in Hawkes". The iconography of fellatio, more and more explicit as we move through the novels, might provide him material for a chapter. Thus Luke treating the child bitten by a snake, in The Beetle Leg, sucking the wounds, a comic yet sinister evasion…. The displacements in The Lime Twig are invariably powerful: Thick's rubber truncheon and the beating of Margaret, more sinister than explicit rape, or Sybilline and her stocking made into a ball, and "thrust against the depths of his loin …" The prolonged injection administered to Sparrow by Larry suggests a generalized homosexual violation, with fellatio perhaps implicit as the needle is withdrawn, "a tiny heart of blood on the tip of it". The injection scene, some five hundred words of very precise writing, arouses the fears any person experiences, facing the needle; but surely a good deal more. The tattooing of Second Skin is comparably detailed, but with the needle now involving the attacker's tongue. Skipper's scream in turn, "clamped" between his teeth, is "a strenuous black bat struggling, wrestling in my bloated mouth". The tattooer's punctures lead to uncensored recollection of his homosexual violation at the time of the mutiny…. The scene, already pleasingly complex, is further overdetermined when the tattoo is revealed: the name of the dead Fernandez with whom, on that Dickensian honeymoon, Skipper hoped to share his daughter. Even did share her, given that minute inspection of her purse.
With the trilogy of sex [The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, and Travesty] (though I hope literary historians will find a better phrase), these genial materials are frankly brought to an often comic surface, wholly displaced…. The writing—throughout the trilogy—is suave, controlled, fully conscious; and in Travesty relatively chaste, though the conceptions are complex enough, with the narrator sharing both wife and daughter with his shadowy double Henri. There are, however, as in a loving recognition of the iconography, comparable to Chagall's introduction of a donkey's head, the prolonged perversities of the carrot game at Chez Lulu's, the blindfolded girls fishing "desperately for the fat carrots with their glistening tongues". It "was Chantal, of course, who finally understood the game," while her father watched in fascination.
The exquisite rhythms and formal control of Travesty are those of true classical art; and the penis can now be, altogether openly, a "great bird". To say classical is of course to evoke, for certain minds, the Oedipus complex, and the destiny onto which Oedipus blindly stumbled. Nowhere in literature is the triangle more deliberately evoked than in a late scene in Travesty, but the story told from the threatened father's vantage…. (pp. 5-7)
Obviously John Hawkes's progress toward a conscious classical art is not confined to oral pleasures or Oedipal anguish. Leslie Fiedler's view is that Hawkes's art has become more private [see CLC, Vol. 3]. My own is that Hawkes has, without sacrificing his unmistakable personal vision and perverse tonality, achieved a very much larger view of human difficulties: a classical view. Of my Old English studies nearly a half-century ago I retain only one line that recurs to me as I shave—Grendel gongan, goddes yre baer, and one of the very beautiful metaphors in English literature of the brevity of life—Bede's bird that flies into the mead-hall and out again. But no more beautiful than the sudden deepening of the car's journey in Travesty, and our recognition that it too can be read in the largest terms of our human journey…. Travesty is a masterpiece of wholly conscious and controlled, truly classical art. (pp. 7-8)
Albert J. Guerard, "John Hawkes: A Longish View," in A John Hawkes Symposium: Design and Debris, edited by Anthony C. Santore and Michael Pocalyko (originally a symposium at Muhlenberg College on April 9 & 10, 1976; copyright © 1977 by New Directions Publishing Corporation; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1977, pp. 1-13.
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 Second Skin and Blood Oranges have at least one character, the narrator, who is shown in depth, this is not true of The Lime Twig, in which all the characters possess a flatness, a stereotypical quality that is characteristic of the pornographic film or novel.
The narrator and major character of Blood Oranges calls himself a "sex singer"; his very existence depends on the sexual act, which is intended to obliterate time, to negate dissolution and death. His sexual exploits rival those of any supersexed male of pornography. However, he is not singular in his pursuit and desire. His wife has sexual cravings at least equal to his own. She is the nymphomaniac par excellence. She must have him—and others, just as he must have her and others. Any man or woman in their seasonless, timeless land of Illyria may be their prey. The sexual act is the charm against death. His world, then, seen through the narrator's lens, is a succession of voluptuous scenes and actions; the scenery is lush, ripe, warm, flowing, in a word, erotic; birds, animals, snakes, flowers, and fruit are an integral part of this country of desire. But pain, mutilation, and brutality also of sexual nature invade Illyria and bring death with them.
The linkage of sex and death is as old as primitive literature. Hawkes uses this liaison far more savagely in Second Skin and The Lime Twig.
From first page to last in Second Skin, sex and death are central. The narrator of this novel is a man who has lived his life with suicides, his father's, his wife's, his daughter's. He has also lived in a sex immersed world (though he, himself is somewhat asexual), where sex is degenerate, vicious, and omnivorous. (pp. 152-53)
A major event in the novel is one in which the narrator himself is tatooed, a tableau which appears to be lifted from a pornographic film…. The significance of the scene is that it serves as a metaphor for all that has happened to and yet awaits the narrator: pain, loss, suffering in dark and sordid surroundings where sexuality is absolutely evil…. Where can such a victim finish out his later years but on a "sun-dipped wandering island in a vast baby-blue coral sea," a place where he is the artificial inseminator of cows. On the strange, seasonless island, bereft by death of everything except one friend and a shared illiterate island mistress, he finds the ultimate sexual fantasy come to life…. Yet the knowledge of death is always with him, even in his select paradise. (p. 153)
In The Lime Twig, the most brutal of all Hawkes' work, gothicism, decadence, and pornographic elements are brought together in a terrifying vision of death and nothingness.
The Lime Twig is filled with symbols of darkest desire: brute sexual power is represented by the animal—horses, "the flesh of all violent dreams," and the mechanical by cars, steel guns, and steel vests. Secret male fantasies are realized in orgies of lust and beastiality. A beautiful insatiable temptress destroys the human quality and turns men into swine. All women suddenly become available as dreams of passion are gratified. (pp. 153-54)
People are abducted, are mutilated, abandoned, and forgotten; a throat is cut; a man is kicked to death by a horse; others die on the track. Bees sting sparrows to death. Houses are ransacked—all traces of the occupants are removed. Mortuary bells sound, as well they might. They toll for all of us….
To label John Hawkes as a pornographic writer would be as naive as it was to so classify D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. Yet both Lawrence and Joyce had far fewer elements of pornography in their work; furthermore they drew characters who searched for meaning, and existences that had creeds. But writers do utilize pornography as a means of revealing their perceptions of life…. John Hawkes uses the elements of pornography to show us a world bereft of light. Like a progenitor of black humor he perceives twentieth century life to be absurd, and in its absurdity obscene. By definition, that which is obscene is pornographic. (p. 154)
Helen S. Garson, "John Hawkes and the Elements of Pornography," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1976 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. X, No. 1, Summer, 1976, pp. 150-55.
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, often grotesque and violent, comments on the world's absurdities.
Some readers may protest the use of the term "black humor," claiming that it is either a cliché or a catch-all phrase which attempts to accommodate too many diverse literary works. The sheer terror which accompanies Hawkes' comic episodes, for example, seems unrelated to the humanity of Vonnegut's comedy or the antics of J. P. Donleavy's Ginger Man. For this reason a variety of descriptive terms has been proposed. Robert Scholes calls some of these novelists "fabulators." Richard Poirier, in A World Elsewhere, speaks of "comic-apocalyptic writers," while Conrad Knickerbocker suggests "humor with a mortal sting." Perhaps we should settle for Richard Kostelanetz's more conventional phrase, "American absurd novel." It makes little difference what we call this recent movement in American fiction—I am content with "the modern American comic novel." The point, of course, is not the relative blackness of the comedy, but rather the general vision which most of these authors share. (pp. xi-xii)
Taken together, the novels of Hawkes, Vonnegut, Heller, John Barth, Donleavy, Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, James Purdy, and others suggest a type of fiction so refreshingly different from the conventional novel that one suspects the prophets of the novel's death to be wrong. What these authors do have in common is a vision of their world as chaotic and fractured. How can one affirm order in a world which is fragmented—and violently so? But though the disoriented quality of modern life prevents the black humorist from celebrating order, it does not propel him to nihilism. The fact that Catch-22, Giles Goat-Boy, and Second Skin have been written, published, and read suggests the authors' hope for meaningful communication at the very least. (p. xiii)
[In] many modern fictions, form dominates content; technique is more important than social or moral commentary. And when the demands of structure are considered superior to the matters to be expressed, the pattern of fiction assumes primary significance. Hawkes has this problem in mind when he declares plot, character, setting, and theme to be the novel's enemies. The subordination of these traditional features encourages the author's concern with pattern and structure. If my remarks have merit, then a lot of us are going to have to change our customary criteria for judging a novel: by the validity of the moral vision it communicates, or by the proximity to felt life it reveals. The modern American comic novelist is not sure that a verifiable moral vision exists, or that life can be ordered long enough to approximate it. At the risk of oversimplification, I suggest that these authors refuse to verify a moral code because verification would allude to order and sanity in a world which they see as fractured and absurd. Thus these writers underplay the traditional interests of the novelist. Their common concern is not with morality or reality but with technique.
No one would argue that the black humorist is unusual because he laughs at man's absurdity. Many writers of the past have couched their awareness of their time's chaos in shocking, grotesque images. In the English tradition alone one need think only of Pope, Swift, and Sterne. The ancestor of the modern American comic novel is satire…. Hawkes and his contemporaries show an irreverence, ranging from playfulness to the most sardonic criticism, toward traditionally venerated norms like science, religion, and patriotism. But unlike the traditional satirist—and the distinction is crucial—most black humorists reject the satirist's faith in the ability of satirical laughter to reform man's follies. Even the most elaborate definition of satire must emphasize the author's use of laughter not so much to tear down as to encourage a rebuilding…. The traditional satirist and the contemporary comic novelist meet primarily in their shared confidence in the value of laughter, but each puts laughter to work differently. For the modern humorist, the ridiculous joke called life must be laughed at if sanity is to be maintained. Most of these novelists show a love of humanity instead of the scorn often found in standard satire.
Black humor is not a conscious rejection of satire as much as a matter of simply not writing it. If modern comic fiction has a literary target, it is realism. Too many readers continue to associate fiction with realism—we have all heard the exclamation that a particular novel was enjoyed because it was "so real." In realism, representation of life is more important than art. But in black humor, with its emphasis on technique, the use of words to explore and express the imagination outstrips the description of things…. To appreciate what Hawkes is doing with fiction, we must slough off our traditional notions of what makes a novel. Popular opinion to the contrary, realism is not the sole way of looking at life truthfully. It is no more than another literary device, an outdated one at that. Given the fragmentation of the twentieth century, realistic depiction of it does us little good. We already know that things are bad. Life cannot be made to seem reasonable if it is ridiculous. The more important question posed by a black humorist is how to live with one's self and with others in a fractured world. Laughter may not save the world, but it can help us live our lives…. When reading Hawkes it must be remembered that his characters do not discover absurdity or chaos or meaninglessness. Rather, these qualities are the given factors. His novels begin with the probability that Michael Banks, or Margaret, or Skipper will meet defeat; whereas traditional fiction usually details the process of the protagonist discovering the possibility of defeat and death. Finding out that life is cruel is often the crucial experience for the characters in conventional novels—think of What Maisie Knew, say, or A Farewell to Arms—but Skipper or Yossarian or the Ginger Man expects cruelty. Their problem is not how to avoid defeat but how to live with its probability.
John Hawkes is very much a part of this trend in recent American fiction, but when placed beside his colleagues, he is undoubtedly the least known. If it were not for the fact that Hawkes' fiction is of such high merit, his lack of readers would not be deplorable. But because Hawkes is one of the two or three most talented of all American writers who have matured since 1950, his obscure reputation is a cause for concern. Incredibly, readers who pride themselves on a knowledgeable awareness of recent trends in fiction either dismiss his work as too difficult or ignore his comic vision to stress his truly grotesque horrors. In most cases, however, he remains unknown and unread. (pp. xiii-xvi)
When he is read at all, his fiction excites both high praise and strongly worded negative criticism in nearly equal amounts…. Yet it seems to me that many of the adverse evaluations and misreadings result from both ignorance about Hawkes' aims and misunderstanding of his often militant experimentation with humor, narrative voice, and structure…. Hawkes considers himself foremost a comic novelist, but evaluations of his fiction typically concentrate upon the nightmarish events, failing to discuss how the consistent use of humor affects the terror…. I do hope that what I have to say will encourage more serious readers to pick up his novels. A writer of Hawkes' genius deserves a wider hearing. (pp. xviii-xix)
Donald J. Greiner, in a preface to his Comic Terror: The Novels of John Hawkes (copyright 1978 © by Memphis State University Press), revised edition, Memphis State University Press, 1978, pp. xi-xix.∗
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 himself, particularly when it takes the form of first-person narration, as is the case with the first three novels.
In general, Hawkes's writing seems to incorporate a general awareness of itself as esthetic pattern, a tendency which may in part explain Hawkes's admiration for the more explicitly self-referential fictions of John Barth, with which Hawkes's fiction of this period bears an affinity not at first apparent…. All the major male characters in the four novels are in some manner artists, either by vocation or avocation; they are poets, photographers, artisans, musicians, or collectors of erotica. More important, however, than the ubiquity of such concrete artistic pursuits is their link with a more pervasive obsession with pattern and order which Hawkes shows to lie at the heart of man's psychology in general. The novels of this period seem to demonstrate an awareness of a basic correlation between both the subject and form of man's various patterned versions of reality and his psychology.
In his treatment of this relationship, Hawkes seems to have come to terms with his own preoccupation with the formal aspect of his writing, with pattern and structure, and at his best in so doing he has achieved a unified vision, uniting form and substance in a manner he had not formerly achieved. Where in his earlier novels, the esthetic logic that dictated the portrayal of his dark vision of violence and death in highly labored, even tortured, structures remained unclear, at times seeming forced or arbitrary and all too often inaccessible, in his latest works Hawkes seems to have realized the inner logic that dictated such a union. The psychology of esthetics—indeed, the basis of human motivation in general—is portrayed in these four novels as primarily a psychology of control, formed in reaction to the passivity and impotence which is forced upon man by the prevailing reality of chaos and dissolution. The central concerns of Hawkes in these four novels, sexuality and death, are depicted as the primary forces causing such chaos: man's confusion, violence, and ultimate destruction. (pp. 69-70)
While Hawkes seems increasingly fascinated with this realm of artifice, it is a measure of his realism that his characters' means of control are shown to be illusory, reality proving less malleable in actuality than it seems when transformed by the imagination. In all four novels, sexuality and death prevail as the ultimate realities, reasserting their independence by refusing to pattern themselves in accord with the fiction of harmony by which each of Hawkes's male characters attempts to palliate the alien environment.
The exploration of this relationship between manifest esthetic vision and the underlying psychology which helps produce it is most completely and complexly treated in the first three novels Hawkes published in the seventies, comprising a triadic unit of their own. It is not by accident that they, particularly The Blood Oranges and Travesty, most perfectly balance form and substance, employing their own structure and pattern to reflect in a crucial manner the intricacies of the relationship between esthetics and psychology. Narrated by their central characters, all three novels are carefully crafted monologues whose form, no less than substance, is inseparable from the highly problematic personalities of their fictional creators in a manner reminiscent of Nabokov in such a novel as Pale Fire. Hawkes's verbal artistry, like Nabokov's, at first seems only a reflection of the author's own penchant for pattern, an objective means of shaping the novel's content, but gradually such pattern-making is implicated as well as a product of the subjective needs of a highly distraught narrator, using esthetics to shape the narrative toward his own subjective ends. However, while for Nabokov the psychological aspect is primarily a means to further artifice, Hawkes seems equally interested in exploring the psychological depths of the mind in its own right. By being thus internalized by the first-person narrative form, the relationship between each novel's manifest subject matter of violence, sex, and death (inchoate and anarchic) and its highly stylized structures (inherently orderly) is made an appropriate exemplification of the novel's central theme, the fullest and most immediate reflection of the general rage for order, characteristic of all the major male figures in the triad as well.
The episodic structure of all three novels, in which the temporal flow of the traditional narrative is forced into nonchronological tableaux by the exigencies of the narrator's mind, reflects the more general tendency of Hawkes's estheticians to restructure the unwieldly and amorphous flow of time in order to deny the specter of such inevitabilities as aging, impotence, and death. This rewriting of events is also reflected in the double-time sequence of each novel: a static present interwoven with highly edited memories of the volatile past which has brought the narrator to his present impasse. Such editing, only one of the less explicit aspects of an attempt to control, is reflected most graphically in The Blood Oranges in the absence of any but the most fleeting mention of the narrator Cyril's past before coming to his idyllic Mediterranean retreat, in the refusal of Allert, the narrator of Death, Sleep & the Traveler, to describe, perhaps even to remember, the centrally symbolic act of murder which he has committed, around which the other events of the narrative cohere, and, in the most explicit editorial tyranny of Papa's monologue in Travesty, in which no other voice but his is allowed to be directly heard.
While the three monologues are manifestly presented as personal exemplars of universal truths, of theories and ideologies, they serve as well as justifications of the narrators' own lives and the sad predicament in which they all find themselves. Each narrator describes an intricate complex of events centering about his open marriage in which both he and his wife engage in various other sexual relationships which in each case lead to disaster, including the death of at least one participant and the isolation of the narrator himself from all the people for whom he professes to care most deeply—not merely his wife, but his mistresses and wife's lover, the latter a supposed friend of his as well. Despite the facade of disinterested inquiry and analysis and avowed "clarity" of vision, each narration is inescapably a subjective fiction which the narrator composes in order to temporarily stay or disperse the loneliness, guilt, and confusion to which he has succumbed. By means of these monologues, the narrators attempt both to justify events by giving them a clear and comforting meaning and at the same time exonerate themselves from any responsibility for them by seeing them as a product of an unfortunate congruence of impersonal forces beyond human control…. Yet all three narrators are motivated as fundamentally by both revenge and the pathetic attempt to control those persons and aspects of their lives over which they have lost all control.
At the same time, the visions of Hawkes's narrators can hardly be dismissed as merely products of aberrant minds, something Hawkes himself has made clear in various remarks about the triad in which he strongly suggests his own identification with both the narrators and their visions. Cyril's monologue with its inclusive criticism of the life-denying aspects of Christianity is, after all, at heart merely a highly personalized version of a traditional Dionysian perspective. Even Papa's more extreme vision, attempting to justify both murder and suicide through esthetic principles of cosmic dimensions, possesses an insightfulness and cogency which suggest it is only an exaggerated version of more traditional esthetic and existential approaches to life—to be taken on one level, therefore, at face value.
It is not primarily in Hawkes's ability to shock or stun us with man's fundamental and primitive sexuality and violence or in his ability to dazzle us with the artifice of his intricate kaleidoscope of patterns that his artistry of this period shines brightest and most profoundly; rather it is in this simultaneous expression of these two contradictory functions of esthetics as both clarifier and obfuscator. The fertility of his characters' imaginations functions simultaneously as the means by which the varied richness of reality can be adequately captured and, paradoxically, as the intricate maze by which the fundamentally unpleasant aspects of that reality can be artfully avoided. Hawkes's triumph in the works of this period is that his own ambivalence not only allows both interpretations (seeing his characters as both psychopaths and seers), but at some point forces us to confront the contradictions and oversimplifications involved in either version by itself. Moreover, he makes us aware of the possibility that for all our elegant rhetoric, the truth may be merely something we stumble upon in our flight from it, while at the same time demonstrating that the inescapability of reality, of loneliness and death, of violence and sexuality, is what forces us to be such craven, half-blind purveyors of truth.
Despite its clear differences in plot and structure, The Passion Artist is also imbued with a sense of the fundamentally paradoxical nature of man's condition. The central metaphor of the novel, the prison, is used to suggest that each man and each woman is simultaneously both the oppressed and the oppressor, jailer and prisoner, in relationship both to others and to himself. (pp. 71-4)
While throughout Hawkes's corpus the primary manifestations of man's need to control are abstract, those conscious and unconscious patterns which man imaginatively imposes, from the first Hawkes has shown his interest in the link between such internal structures and the harshly imposed external ones by which the authoritarian personality imposes its fictions upon others. In his first novel, The Cannibal (1949), by recording events in postwar Germany through the narratorial perspective of the neo-Nazi Zizendorf, Hawkes suggests a parallel between Zizendorf's attempt to reimpose authoritarian rule on Germany and his imposition of an intricate yet ruthless verbal order on his narration. In that novel, too, the central feature of the surrealistic landscape is a prison of sorts, an insane asylum, appearing as well in each of the three novels of the triad. While this "political" side to fiction-making is relatively muted throughout the triad, it is increasingly evident in each of the three novels—Papa proving the most overtly and consistently tyrannical, and Cyril, the least physically intimidating, able to rely instead on the power of his demagogic oratory in order to rule. In The Passion Artist, however, this aspect of Hawkes's obsession with order and control reemerges fully. The woman's prison, like the insane asylum, connects those actual prisons which authoritarian regimes impose upon their dissidents and minorities with the internal prisons of the mind.
As its title also indicates, The Passion Artist is thus a less abrupt departure from the triad's concerns than its central plot suggests. By telescoping an authoritarian regime's repression of its dissidents with man's domination of woman and her subsequent retaliation, Hawkes manages to emphasize the sexual politics and internal dimensions of all controls. (pp. 74-5)
In such clearly delineated patterns of causality, however, the novel proves disappointing, its vision oversimplified. If in Hawkes's earliest works there was an excessive imbalance between form and content—the plot too severely dislocated, resulting in obscurities which suggested an author not fully in command of shaping his material—in The Passion Artist the seeds of an opposite danger lie. The precise patterns of the novel too tightly restrict the inherent complexities of the material. Thus, through his own artistic interpretation of his material, Hawkes exerts the same excessive control that the novel's content explicitly depicts.
As I have suggested, such clearly conceived interpretations are not new with The Passion Artist; they were an increasingly dominant thematic concern of all three novels of the triad, becoming in Travesty a highly ironic satire of such tendencies to organize and explain. The psychoanalytic causalities, which appear only implicitly in The Passion Artist, were made an explicit concern of Death, Sleep & the Traveler. However, the psychoanalytic theory and dream interpretation, which each of the major characters employs to explain Allert's personality and actions, functions in part ironically in a way the form of the later novel does not allow. The crucial difference is determined by the differing form of the two works; the first-person narrations of the triad, unavoidably subjective, contrast with the more "objective" third-person narrative of The Passion Artist. The triad's form prohibits any too simple, one-dimensional interpretation of pattern, for each theory—indeed each pattern within the novel—can be as validly interpreted as a reflection of the narrator's own self-justifying need to pattern by selecting events to corroborate his own predetermined perspective, while in The Passion Artist's third-person narration, the selection of events and images is attributable only to the author himself. (pp. 75-6)
Whether Hawkes was aware of how his adoption of the first-person narrative stance would affect the ambiguities and resonances of the three novels in the triad is unclear. Although the ironies which each of the narrators in the three successive novels unwittingly creates become increasingly broader and more evident, Hawkes's own comments suggest (as does his subsequent less deft use of third-person narration in The Passion Artist) that he may in fact be more oblivious to such formal ironies than his fascination with form and irony would otherwise indicate and that his adoption of first-person narration was a fortuitous choice in both senses of the word. In contrast to such possible lack of understanding and control of his material, Hawkes's apparently more clearly directed patterns of meaning in these later novels may reflect a type of increased understanding of his material which suggests another potential danger for his writing. The manner in which he formally adopts such recognitions may hold the key to the future quality of his art. (pp. 76-7)
Paul Rosenzweig, "John Hawkes's Novels of the Seventies: A Retrospective," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1982 by Arizona Board of Regents), Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 69-77.
[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 Virginie herself, he gives his "Virginie: Her Two Lives" qualities of poignance and perspective that erotic fiction, constructed as such, never has….
"Virginie" could probably not have been written a half-century ago except as an act of defiance or of commercial exploitation (it is neither). In 1982 it is a brilliant exercise in style and invention, an ironic and frequently amusing parodic tribute to a genre and an implicit commentary on changing times.
Charles Champlin, "An Innocence at Play in Erotica," in Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1982, p. 6.
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.
John Hawkes is not read because he is feared, and he is feared because his subject is in direct opposition to our yearnings for hygienic, daylight safety at all costs—even at the cost of passion. In Virginie, Her Two Lives, Hawkes carries terror into the erotic and offers us a nightmare preceded by a half-comic, half-cruel pornographic illusion. Happening, as it does, in a series of dreamlike episodes, Virginie is less novel than illusion: objects, symbols, images appear and disappear as if by magic; female characters are reduced to wish-fulfillments. Virginie, the heroine, represents Hawkes's sole intellectual assertion in the work, Virginibus puerisque, the apotheosis of her name, she serves to tell us that without Innocence we are bereft of appetite….
In classic pornographic (and dream) tradition, the world beyond the illusion falls away. Reading Hawkes, we are as we are when we approach orgasm if we are compelled by him. Yet this is not real sex; it's an invocation to sex, cloaked in ritual and disguise. Hawkes is an imperious manipulator: we cannot look away even when revulsion or excess or bafflement demands that we rest. We feel all in Hawkes's dream, even while we resist understanding all we feel. But this is the nature of dream, of nightmare, and sometimes of sex….
In his brief preface, [Hawkes] tells us he conceived this work "in a reverie about de Sade." But that solemn and terrifying old Master of the Revels is only superficially recalled in Seigneur and not at all in Bocage. Otherwise (especially when he is instructing his disciples in the rigors and delights to come) he reminds me of nothing more than W. C. Fields at his most absurdly pontifical. His "regimen of true eroticism" reads like a combination Eighth Avenue boot camp, medieval convent, and Virginia finishing school: getting up early in the morning to take music lessons and being kept from writing verse is unquestionably doing hard time, but not exactly life-threatening, not from the Sadean viewpoint.
It is Hawkes's comic subtext that prevents his illusion from being a turn-on….
As adults we can laugh and so end, at any moment, slavery to feeling. Children, incapable of detachment, cannot. Virginie's unwavering loyalty to her masters' dreams of sex is the death of her. Because she is trapped in centuries of innocence, her servitude cannot mature into revolt. Virginie will never be a woman, and this is her nightmare. Feminism is coiled beneath Hawkes's sensuous images, his occasions for belly laughs….
Hawkes seems to crave neglect. He is a loner; he does not attempt either relevancy or communication. His literary elitism ultimately excludes the reader, and no matter how much I admire his eloquence, I am angry at him for shutting me out. Virginie is like a visit from the supernatural, a hair-raising but unprovable encounter, rather like some kinds of sex. Entrenched, however, in Virginie's erotic illusion is pornographic revisionism. While Hawkes would agree, I think, that a girl is never ruined by a book, he would add: nor in a book. There are no women in pornography. Only the erotically able-bodied (men, that is) romp in the minds of fantasists, brimming cap-à-pie with all the refinements—finesse, colêre, magie, volupté, bel esprit. For the sake of convention, the able are put on the page veiled in female disability; ideas of the feminine are played with as though they were men.
Bertha Harris, "Sade Cases" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 20, May 18, 1982, p. 46.
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, and it is written with breathtaking grace. Reading it is like watching a great trapeze artist perform without a safety net.
Formally, it comprises the juxtaposed first-person narratives of two lives of the same young girl. (p. 1)
In both her lives, Virginie is in a state of suspended prepubescent unawareness. With living, innocent admiration, she observes the rituals by which two men, one an aristocrat, one a taxidriver, attempt to transform the occasionally intractable raw material of femininity into their own idea of woman. The raw material is in both cases a random harem of women picked up in the hedgerows or on the streets; the ideal woman is a being devoted to, disciplined into, giving pleasure to men. Woman as magic, sexual other, in fact.
Both aristocrat and taxi-driver are in the business of "creating" women. Which, as it happens, is the business of any male writer when he sets out to invent a female character. Is there some key to a possible allegorical meaning, here, perhaps?
But Virginie, although she is Hawkes' invention, knows she exists for herself. And also for her mother, as well as for her father and father substitutes; her mother exerts an absolute dominance on both narratives. Not content with the rule of other, Virginie asks herself; "What is the other's sense of itself? Not as other, my object is your subject, and vice versa." Never allowed to participate in the rituals by which women are created, she knows she is ["doomed to eternal childhood"]…. (pp. 1-2)
She wonders, eventually, if these men who create women would be "so sorely missed if they gave up their art" and what Hawkes calls the "magnificent mirage" of the phallus turns out to be just that—a mirage. A mirage of what he calls, in a preliminary note, the "shell-pink space of the pornographic narrative."
If the novel ends with the immolation of Virginie's precious innocence in both her lives, with her death or deaths, in fact, there is a suggestion it was only her innocence that made her, in the first place, the "phantom accomplice" (her own phrase) of these artists in flesh, her phallic masters.
Hawkes' serene, inviolable prose is so precise, luminous and evocative as to make this novel seem dreamed rather than read; it is as inscrutable and as capable of as many interpretations as an enchanted mirror, troubling, strange, a marvel. (p. 2)
Angela Carter, "John Hawkes' Dialogue of Sex and Soul," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), May 30, 1982, pp. 1-2.
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 semen. If the phlegmatic nausea of The Passion Artist seemed indebted to the French New Novel (Nathalie Sarraute, particularly), the pornographic lyricism of Virginie summons up the ghost of Anaïs Nin, a writer Hawkes is on record as admiring. Not only does Nin's pet word "labyrinth" turn up with telling frequency, but the book's claustrophobic eroticism recalls the clamminess of Nin's posthumous bestsellers Delta of Venus and Little Birds. Indeed, Virginie is Hawkes's little bird, beating in the void her feverish wings….
For all its humid to-do, Nin's erotic writing tended to be cosmopolitan and domestic, with Colettish schoolgirls in white socks bouncing on their lewd uncles' knees. Hawkes's recent erotic writing has gone in for a more bucolic kick. In The Passion Artist, Hawkes's unfortunate protagonist was hosed down with a shower of horse urine ("So, little Konrad Vost, you have shamed the horse!" shouts a tormenting ogress), and in Virginie a horse receives unwanted dental work at the clamping end of Seigneur's pincers…. Later, a dog and a pig form a squealing, grunting threesome with a maiden named Colère as Virginie secretly watches from behind a curtain of black netting. Perhaps a new ark ought to be built to shelter the innocents of the animal kingdom from the lunging advances of Hawkes's characters, who somehow believe that a horse's bleeding gums offer the key to a woman becoming A Woman.
Of course, these bestial interludes aren't there for cheap, sordid effect. No, the point of these incidents is to illustrate that old pornographic wheeze about submission being the true source of sexual transcendence…. John Hawkes's fiction is heavy on debasement, but the adoration comes in stray, feeble glimmers; it's really the pulping of flesh and not its sanctification that engages his imagination. (p. 14)
No matter what riotous coupling is taking place in barnyard or boudoir, one is always aware of Hawkes conducting the action from the pit, at a sluggish tempo. A slogging, death-haunted determinism rules Hawkes's fiction—every kiss threatens to turn into an invitation to cannibalism, every caress a prelude to bondage. John Hawkes has a flair for stirring up queasiness, and his lyrical touches often have a sweet dying fall, but he's become so snug and smug in his role as the Prince of Mortification that his sadomasochistic episodes are turning into a tired riff, like the suicides in Joyce Carol Oates's novels. (When Oates's characters open the medicine cabinet, it's usually check out time for their stay on earth.) Despite the ogress's cry in The Passion Artist, it's really John Hawkes who insists on shaming the horses. (p. 16)
James Wolcott, "Straw Dogs," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 10, June 10, 1982, pp. 14, 16-17.∗
[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 up, she manages to tell us how her older brother (in 1945) assembled a troupe of libidinous women and men. These free spirits, 10 in all, engage in a variety of sexual shenanigans. In keeping with the spirit of the age, the erotic episodes in 20th-century France are sensual, tawdry and egalitarian. Also, often plain silly. (Some of his material has been adapted, Hawkes notes, from that marvelously silly writer, Georges Bataille.)
More central to the book, and far more fascinating, is the 18th-century plot. The earlier Virginie tells the story of a nobleman named only Seigneur, whose vocation it is to create "Noblesse" (specifically, erotic nobility) in female volunteers of a lower class. A creative artist, he shapes and refines women, esthetically, spiritually and sexually, for the requirements of aristocratic patrons. Five at a time, these upwardly mobile women are sequestered in Seigneur's castle until they have completed his course in post-Renaissance love. An arduous course: Each one, by the time she graduates to Noblesse, will have "known the fire, taken up the bees in her bare hands, watched the agony of animals for her sense of pride, aroused even the sacred father in his confession," and so on.
Now this is the stuff of fable and romance, whereas in the modern period the amorous details (concerning corsets and toilets, G-strings and tattoos) are apt to come from such lowly mimetic forms as the ribald tale and the long filthy joke. Through all of this, Hawkes remains an elegant parodist of porn. In both plots, the eroticism is choreographed. Passion is rhetorical. Sexuality is emblematic of spiritual virtue. Lust is satisfied in a Gallic never-never land.
John Hawkes may yet become a French novelist. This metamorphosis has been going on apace, partly a matter of style, partly a matter of the products of his imagination. One thinks—too automatically—no good can come of this. But in what way can it do him harm? A taste for Hawkes, among his American readers anyhow, is probably an acquired taste…. (pp. 20-1)
[Works such as this], which perpetuate the tradition of sadism, are at best misguided, at worst contemptible. It should be sufficient to reply (though it won't be) that [this book] is, in its own way, a celebration of the decay of love. (p. 21)
Alan Friedman, "Pleasure and Pain," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 27, 1982, pp. 3, 20-1.∗
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 interest and importance to compare Hawkes with other important contemporary authors. The comparison may shed a contrasting light on Hawkes's work, showing its unique, singular qualities as well as showing what, by chance, Hawkes shares with other novelists of his generation. Like many of his contemporaries, Hawkes is a "postwar" novelist in that much of his fiction uses war as a background upon which a particular landscape is painted, as a symbol for the social and historical catastrophes that his heroes either authorize or transcend. The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, and Second Skin refer directly to World War II, while other fictions, such as The Owl and The Blood Oranges, refer obliquely to the eternal barbarism in which mankind continually engages. While none of his books are as directly about war as Mailer's The Naked and the Dead or Heller's Catch-22, Hawkes shares with these writers the implicit recoil from mass violence and a simultaneous fascination with it. Mailer's monotonous, "objective" voice in The Naked and the Dead parallels, to some extent, Hawkes's own concern for distancing himself from terror so that it may be described and circumscribed by language. Hawkes has been compared with Heller, with the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow, and with the Vonnegut of Slaughterhouse-Five as a "black humorist" who is able to defend us from and control the horrors of reality through the absurd or comic perspectives of fiction. While this is a loosely defined category at best, Hawkes does share with Heller, Pynchon, and Vonnegut a propensity for the incongruous, the horrific, and the obscene, placed within the thematic framework of transcendence and escape that a laughable, minute, parodic descriptiveness brings about. The scene of Brigadier Ernest Pudding's scopophilia in Gravity's Rainbow or of Yossarian's discovery of the mortally wounded Snowden in Catch-22 is similar to that in The Cannibal, where Jutta's child is hacked to pieces by the mad Duke. In all these instances, the authors are attempting to disrupt our conception of normalcy, to confront us with the world's violence, and to provide us with a means of responding to it as we gaze upon the horror or madness. Along with these novelists, Hawkes seems appropriately apocalyptic in the face of mass violence and its nihilistic results; detachment and laughter seem the only feasible antistrophes to the warlike chorus that finds its way into much of contemporary fiction.
More important than Hawkes's stance as a postwar novelist is what we have seen as his evolving concern with the role of artist, who must create out of the blasted fragments of history and "reality," an aesthetic realm where the power of style holds sway. Often, the quest for an aesthetic escape fails as the artist-hero is subsumed by the disasters of the psyche and of personal history…. For Hawkes, the ability to see, in Conradian terms, to imagine the depths and heights of human potentiality, to fulfill dream, nightmare, or prophecy is menacing and dangerous. The enforced power of the imagination in his fiction more often leads to annihilation, as in the case of Konrad Vost in The Passion Artist, or to the stultification of time and vision as in The Beetle Leg and Death, Sleep & the Traveler, than to the temporary escapes, undermined by absurdity, which take place in Second Skin or The Blood Oranges.
Hawkes's concern with aesthetic power and its discontents is one shared most notably by a contemporary who is only marginally "American," Vladimir Nabokov. While it is true that he is more interested in the playful aspects of language than in the psychological intensity which Hawkes achieves, Nabokov, too, is concerned with the power of the artist to create a world of aesthetic harmony and unity that allows the maker to escape time or destiny. The heroes of Lolita and Pale Fire, Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote, construct entire worlds that may be merely the shadows cast by their injured, grotesque imaginations…. Both authors demonstrate the fragility of language as well as its comic, dark, or graceful uses; both see, at the heart of language and fiction, a failure and a lack, embodied in the personages of their protagonists who, despite their brilliant, commanding, hyperbolic, even courageous imaginations, are failures, scapegoats and criminals, paranoids and dictators.
This concern with fictionality is one Hawkes shares with many contemporary writers who are primarily interested in the self-referential, circular, tautological nature of language. Hawkes's heroes often become lost in or destroyed by the dreams, visions, and fictions they create. In Hawkes's work one often senses, despite its brilliancies and stylistic disruptions, a kind of linguistic fatalism in which events, symbols, even syntactic fragments endlessly repeat themselves, as in a dream, the dreamer condemned to what Fredric Jameson cites as "the prison-house of language." Language as repetition, fiction as recurrence are concepts that Hawkes enforces in his work, thematically and stylistically; in this, he bears resemblance to John Barth and William Gass, among many others…. What these writers hold in common with Hawkes is a paradoxical interest in the capacity of language to expose imaginative extremities, and a belief that language always hedges itself, creating its own systematic boundaries and horizons, such that the imaginative quest is undermined by the vehicle of its own enterprise. So we have Skipper or Cyril or Vanderveenan, whose very language determines their limitations as well as their extraordinary artistic capabilities. This, it is true, is the case for any fictional hero, but in Hawkes's work the imaginative vision is so extreme, so dependent upon the primacy of language, that the failure of vision is all that more devastating. Hawkes thus makes a significant contribution to the current effort by contemporary writers to explore the nature of fictionality and the power of language. (pp. 143-47)
[In] Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, there is a memorable scene wherein Tod Hackett witnesses the killing and gutting of several birds which will be served for dinner, rendered in the precise and "objectified" details that Hawkes presents in his own scenes of victimization. The bird-killing scene in West's novel is emblematic of the inherent sadism and hatred for life that pervades the apocalyptic Hollywood of the 1920s which he portrays. Flannery O'Connor, upon whom Hawkes has written a significant critical essay, uses a similar method of detachment in describing her Southern grotesques, her "good country people," itinerant preachers, and displaced persons. In the case of each of these writers, as for Hawkes, whatever the subject of a given fiction or its social or historical context, the primary artistic effort is to describe and distance, through a clearly conscious stylization of the world, through parody, ridicule, and exaggeration, that which is "abnormal," tabooed, usually unacceptable or indescribable. The effort, too, is to bring us as readers into a dark or unfamiliar world and, by victimizing us, to confront us with the human potential for failure and lyricism within ourselves.
There are many other influences that bear upon Hawkes's work, as there are many other possible comparisons to contemporaries: the murky surrealism of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Conrad's voyages to the interior, Faulkner's stylistic experimentation, the sensationalistic, disruptive, mythic violence of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, or the lyrical dreams of Stanley Elkin's fiction provide only a few examples. However, it is best to conclude a discussion of this crucially important and disturbingly enigmatic writer by insisting upon that which is unique in his body of work. As we have seen, even referring to the collection of Hawkes's novels as a "body" assumes a false continuity and categorization, for each new novel seems to shatter the contexts and horizons of vision produced by the former so that, having gotten "used" to one of Hawkes's novels, we must be prepared to be usurped from our comfortable place as readers by the next. Thus, to typify his work in any way does it some injustice, especially when we consider the eventuality of the future novels that Hawkes will write. A few things can be fairly asserted: Hawkes is, above all, a stylist, concerned with the elasticity of language and the power of metaphor to accommodate his envisionings of psychic processes and imaginative projections. His drastic, bleak visions are accompanied by a comic spirit, a sense of irony and ridicule in the face of failure, and this integration of comedy and disaster allows Hawkes to fictionalize the unbearable, to perform the artistic act. For him, the act of making the world fictive can only occur through a kind of phenomenological bracketing and detachment which, rather than miming "reality," cause to appear out of the fog of dreams and the psychic cesspool the sharp, cutting edge of that which has been forgotten or repressed. In his way, Hawkes serves as a conscience for the contemporary reader, not in any traditionally moral sense, but there to remind us of that which causes fear, anxiety, or repulsion. In a time when, too easily, we project the sources of our anxiety onto exterior pressures and forces, we have Hawkes to remind us that the true horror, as well as the "saving beauties," lie within. (pp. 148-49)
Patrick O'Donnell, in his John Hawkes (copyright © 1982 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1982, 168 p.
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 the erotic. Many of the disciplines Seigneur imposes are designed to curb excess in one direction or another: careless power is rectified by careful domination; the poetic is pushed instructively amongst the animal; debauchery is played against religious repression. In keeping with this concern for equilibrium, the prose often has the poise of a pensée: "Innocence is the clarity with which the self shows forth the self. Love is the respect we feel for innocence." And there are some very formal fables, such as Seigneur's allegory about the lover's progress from the Plain of Indifference to the Citadel of the Desire to Please….
Not that the book is thinly diagrammatic. It is saved from this by the lush accuracy of Hawkes's prose…. This microscopic receptivity—fresh, inventive, and alert—pervades the book. It gives everything an unusual immediacy, whether Hawkes is writing of [red roses] … or of a mass of intestines slithering from a disembowelled deer…. Precise and resonant, delicate even in its accounts of the grossly physical, Virginie is not only a shapely erotic fantasy; it is also a work of potent poetry.
Peter Kemp, "Doubling the Ecstasy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4165, January 28, 1983, p. 79.
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 subject.
Lorna Sage, "Spoils of Erotic Parody," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), January 30, 1983, p. 47.∗