The Passion Artist
Anyone familiar with Hawkes’s fiction will know that he cannot be read in anything like a conventional manner. His plots are not stories in the usual sense but narrative lines, like broken pieces of discarded railroad track, that hint at continuity but never quite connect together. One does not read Hawkes. One submits to him. The trick, in part, is to be a passive artist (the pun is appropriate), to let the flow and feel of a Hawkes novel flicker around and through the mind as Konrad Vost permits his experimental lovers to test his body. Of course, those readers trained in the general belief that criticism derives from aggressive intellectual analysis will be unsettled by Hawkes, and they will be doubly grateful for those few patches of long narrative track which appear even in The Passion Artist. But in the main, one’s understanding of this novel has to begin at a level deeper, and less cerebral, than intellect. Only then is it possible to work back toward explication and analysis of the more traditional kind.
The novel’s structure has an Aristotelian framework: a three-part beginning, middle, and end respectively entitled “The Revolt,” “Skirmishing,” and “The Prisoner.” Yet this lineal structure with its suggestive martial development is superimposed upon a circular pattern with the result that the novel moves both in lines and circles at once.
At the start of the book, for example, Vost is sitting in La Violaine, a café which bears the same name as the women’s prison situated directly across the street. It is as though the two buildings are in the relationship of child and mother, bound together by an invisible umbilical cord. (At the literal plot level Vost’s mother is an inmate of the prison/asylum; it is her presence there that keeps him close to the institution.) When an inmate occasionally leaves the prison after serving her sentence, she inevitably crosses the street and enters the café, an action which over the years has caused the habitues of the café to coin the phrase, La Violaine to La Violaine. Vost begins the novel outside the prison. At the end, until the last page, he is inside (a reverse application of La Violaine to La Violaine). On that final page he exits the prison and starts back toward the café where the novel began, but he is shot before he gets there. Thus, Hawkes’s use of a linear principle is evident in the simple movement from one side of the street to the other. Yet the deft handling of Inside and Outside (the prison; the self) and the similarity of names (La Violaine) urge the reader to recognize the presence of a thinly disguised circle. The two buildings differ, to be sure, just as do mother and child, man and woman, innocence and experience, and the scores of other polarities which Hawkes makes the subject of his novel. But there are also frightening similarities, not only in the sound of the names but also in the common passions, thoughts, and instincts that join the sexes. What the book’s structure illustrates is the truth of Vost’s theory about “psychological function”: the memory is an enclosed storehouse within which every image, sensation, or concept, like a tiny invisible track, is stored. The storehouse never changes shape, but its content forever swells and expands since nothing is lost. This novel with its circular structure (it comes back to the city and prison environment where it began) is likewise a storehouse of linear moments: ideas, sensations, and fragments of Vost’s life which are brought one by one to the light of his consciousness.
In the first part of the novel, “The Revolt,” Hawkes cements together prison, city, café, and character in a way that is unique to his style. His point is to make the man, Vost, evident in his surroundings. He lives amidst wreckage. The city is barren, burned-out, desolate. Vost, too, lives with the misery of Claire’s death, the present agony of his daughter’s prostitution, and the constant presence of his murderous, mad mother in La Violaine. Thus, images of the city are at once images of the self for Vost, since he sees in them a reflection of what his inner life has become.
As the novel will later show, Vost has always lived with depravity and pain. Yet, unaware of that fact, he has contentedly wondered, “what more can I ask?” In “The Revolt” we encounter a middle-aged Vost whose world has started to become disordered, as even he recognizes. Symbolized by the imprisoned women’s revolt, Vost overthrows the regimentations of his city life. As the women flee the prison and scatter into the surrounding marsh, so Vost gets outside the confines of his listless life by plunging deeper into the recesses of his mind. What this means for the reader is that setting and action must be engaged at a richly symbolic level. One must be prepared to move slowly and carefully through the novel on several levels at once, less enticed by the bright lines of the plot (when they emerge) than by the symbolic dimensions of single gestures, words, and actions.
To illustrate: when the prisoners revolt, there is a cry throughout the city for volunteers to aid in suppressing the...
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