William H. Gass on John Hawkes

HUMORS OF BLOOD & SKIN

1
The Sentences of John Hawkes

We feel, first of all, that we—you and I—that we can’t miss it: fineness, excellence, quality; it is there like an address at the end of some elaborate directions we’ve been given: larger, more bovine, than life; and we believe that although, conceivably, others may be obtuse or spiritually absent on occasion, certainly we (it is ourselves, after all, of whom we speak) won’t overlook Eden, Etna, or their equivalences; yet—alas!—at one time or other we surely shall: We shall fall asleep in the train window while, beneath the trestle, a painted canyon opens like a lily; we shall blink in the middle of a beautiful pirouette; blunder into the wrong street and never find the duomo; pick the squid out and shove it to the side of our plate; yawn in the face of the vast Pacific; sneeze on the president’s hand as he fastens the medal to our chest; quarrel about love in Syracuse and thereby miss Sicily, a land our embittered memory can’t return to; yet, similar incidents will happen often: Ancient, medieval, modern history, as well as present life, continually repeats and records such oversights, such nodding, such detumescence; there is a coolnessthat clings to us sometimes even when we are wrapped in flames and pretending to be a phoenix.

I record with shame the several times I failed to complete the first chapter of Under the Volcano, my tardy appreciation of Turner’s burning boats and smoggy sunsets, the jokes I made about a Gertrude Stein I hadn’t read, the deaf ear I turned toEugene Onegin just because it had been composed by Tchaikovsky, the foolish idea I had that Ford Madox Ford had hung around Conrad’s neck like a ten-cent Saint Christopher’s medal. My grudging regard for Walt Whitman is still a blot upon my escutcheon. And in 1959, while reading manuscripts for a little magazine named Accent, I nearly fell asleep over my first pages of John Hawkes. In the tall, sloppy stack of stories that were victimizing me, I had turned up a piece called “A Horse in a London Flat,” by an author whose name was unfamiliar. It was a title not strange enough, by itself, to make me sit up, though it should have. Afterward, I found excuses for myself: It was winter in Urbana; an infant had mewled its misery throughout my night; the stories in the slush pile I’d been assigned were artless and awful. So my eyes had run over perhaps five pages like rain down a window, when somehow my consciousness was penetrated by his prose. There was fog on a river, I remember. What else was going on? They—dim figures, men—were lifting a horse by means of a sling from the bottom of a barge to a place on the quay …

The whistles died one by one on the river and it was not Wednesday at all, only a time slipped off its cycle with hours and darkness never to be accounted for. There was water viscous and warm that lapped the sides of the barge; a faint up and down motion of the barge which he could gauge against the purple rings of a piling; and below him the still crouched figures of the men and, in its moist alien pit, the silver horse with its ancient head round which there buzzed a single fly as large as his own thumb and molded of shining blue wax.

… and I woke as if something scalding had fallen in my eyes. I did not complete the paragraph that followed. My cheeks were burning with embarrassment. The pride I took in my taste, as well as the protective arrogance of an unbudded artist, were, in that moment, removed. I found myself in dirty underdrawers at the scene of an accident and about to be arrested.

He stared down at the lantern-lit blue fly and the animal whose ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass …

I don’t know why it was this particular passage which woke me rather than another; it should have been the brilliant opening paragraph that did it, the paragraph to which I now returned in order to enter a beautiful and dangerous new world. From the first, John Hawkes’s prose had sounded what Henry James would have said was “the right note,” and I had not heard it. As I read the pages I had previously dozed through, those two leaflike ears were etched on my imagination, and image after image went to join them. The lines of The Lime Twig are alive as few in our literature are. They compose a prose of great poetry, a language linked like things in nature are—by life and by desire. This prose is exploratory without being in the least haphazard or confused; and, for me, at least, it is fundamentally, and in the best sense, exemplary: It shows me how writing should be written, and also how living should be lived.

So I shortly went next door with the shock of my recognition, its author’s pages beating in my hand like a fresh heart, only to have a choral scatter of voices say:

“Oh yes, John Hawkes. Of course. Haven’t you read The Cannibal?”

“Or The Goose on the Grave, for God’s sake.”

“What about the beginning of The Beetle’s Leg?”

“That’s The Beetle Leg.”

“He’s like no one else. I’d recognize his work in a minute.”

“Hawkes was still practically a baby, you know, when he wrote The Cannibal; right after—like the infant Hercules—he strangled a snake in his bed.”

So I suffered, in a matter of moments, my second humiliation. I didn’t know; hadn’t read; wasn’t up. Yet it is true, as I told myself, that in our society a major writer can work for years, and have a hardy and devoted following, even achieve an international reputation, without interrupting the insipid flow of the culture by scarcely so much as a comma. Hadn’t Faulkner been safely sealed in indifference for three-quarters of his writing life? There comes a time, for most of us, when, with respect to some fine filmmaker, novelist, poet, or painter, the seal gets broken. Originality escapes like a genie from a jar.

The secret is in the sentences. Of course, the sentences must add up; they must amount to something more than themselves; they must create that larger sentence which every fine fiction passes upon us in the course of its composition; but if those phrases which form a face, for instance, have not themselves some features, if there’s no “look” to them, no character, then the unremarkable will remain as unremarked as it deserves to be; just consider when you last regarded with love some inclining head, and ask yourself if it was ever true that the eyes were without allure, the nose without distinction, the mouth not worth a mention, its smile without consequence, while the whole, on the other hand, was wonderful: attractive, generous, appealing?

In a sense, the pieces that make up this reader, which Hawkes has called Humors of Blood & Skin, are fragments, and can only beg us to restore them to the complete text they somewhere else are; to return us, as my eye was returned, to the beginnings of all these endings. But the fragments we have here, like the even smaller shards that are the sentences themselves, are not useless nothings like bits of broken bottle; rather, they are “details” as details are depicted in the careful study of a painting: magnifications, points of focus, centers of concentration. They invite the closer look, the savor of the silent reader’s inner tongue; they invoke that special state, the literary reverie, which, unlike the daydream, as Gaston Bachelard has argued, circles its subject and returns us repeatedly to places of thoughtfulness and appreciation. I draw out a few sentences from here and there in this book or that:

The damp smell of the river rolled over soldiers’ leggings and trousers that had been left in doorways, and a cow lying dead in a field looked like marble.

Even the dialogue of the frogs is rapturous.

Precious brass safety pins holding up their panties, and then I saw the pins, all at once saw the panties, the square gray-white faded undergarments of poor island girls washed in well water morning and night and, indistinguishable from kitchen washrag or scrap of kitchen towel, hung on a string between two young poplars and flapping, blowing in the hard island wind until once more dry enough and clean enough to return to the plain tender skin, and of course the elastics had been worn out or busted long ago and now there were only the little bent safety pins for holding up their panties and a few hairpins for the hair and a single lipstick which they passed from girl to girl at country crossroads or in the high school lavatory on the day of the dance.

For a moment she stood there waiting, allowing him to see through his tears and his swollen lids her chest, her knees, the little belly that was the same shape as her face.

Though taken almost at random from several novels, don’t they call for fresh intensities of inspection, these extraordinary combinations? And the nature and effect of each is quite different, for our author knows many modes and can be breathless and romantic or harsh and succinct, as seems best—formal or colloquial, circumspect or blunt. The use of “and” in my first example, we might settle on it, our eye like a fly made of blue wax; or we might consider the character of those trousers that have been left in doorways, repeating the expression until its oddness is engraved upon us; or we might simply listen to the dialogue of the frogs; or match, as we move our minds from word to word, the pace of the beautiful sentence about the panties, with its characteristic Hawkesean slide, in this case, from pins to hairpins, hairpins to lipstick, lipstick to lavatory, and lavatory to dance; or we might appreciate the sight Hawkes has permitted us of a belly the same shape as a face.

Each such sentence, and there are thousands of them—thousands—creates not a new world so much as a special and very alert awareness of one; and that awareness is so controlled, so precise, so intense, so angular while remaining uncomfortably direct, so comic, too, as if a smile has been sliced by a knife, that many readers have recoiled as though from reality itself, and pretended to be running from a nightmare, from something sur- or unreal, restoring the disguise that Hawkes’s prose has torn away. In Rilke’s great novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, there is a passage in which Malte perceives an old woman with her face implanted in her hands, as if put there by Rodin, so that when—startled by a sudden sound in the street—she pulls her hands away, her face must adhere to her hands, and she (and Malte, too) must then look down at the inside of herself as one might at the inside of a mask or the inner peeling of a fruit. Above the compote of the palm, the peeled face Malte cannot confront is presumably moist. This is the effect of Hawkes’s fiction: It sees the world from just inside its surface, a surface at which it looks back the way Orpheus so dangerously did, thereby returning an unlamenting Eurydice to Hades. It is as if a wall were examining, from its steadfastly upright side, the slow peel of its paint. The position is unprecedented. And the final result is the merging of two surfaces, as if the print of this page were bleeding through the paper to shadow the obverse side; or, again, we might imagine a stained-glass window made of what could be simultaneously seen from both sides. We cannot pretend that the world has only one “out” or one “in.” There is a second skin. So those panties we encountered a moment ago are observed not only from the point of view of a voyeur who might enjoy their innocent flaglike alignment, but from the vantage of the flesh which will wear them—the two contemplations pressed together then as though by thighs.

Rilke wrote that beauty was the start of a terror we could barely endure, and I think the reader will feel that tension, that doubleness, here; but I want to rejoin those thighs for a moment, pay heed to the warmth they generate, for among the more prominent qualities of John Hawkes’s prose is its glorious sensuality:

So while the spring kept Oscar cool, the five of us sprawled close together and held out our hands to the fat black arm that disappeared inside the pot and came up dripping. Calypso herself couldn’t have done better. Sweet guavas and fat meat that slid into the fingers, made the fingers breathe, and crushed leaves of cinnamon on the tongue and sweet shreds of coconut. We are together under the dark speckled covering of the tree, sprawled together, composed, with no need for wine, and the cows stood about and nosed us and a blackbird flew down and sat on Sonny’s cap. We ate together among the smooth green oval calabashes that were as large as footballs, and lay among the calabashes and licked our fingers.

Such language nourishes more certainly than lunch, and within its context the song it sings contains a smile, for Oscar is a vial of sperm, and this—for the cows—is artificial insemination day.

2
When It Was Over

I once wrote, about some of Jack Hawkes’s sentences, that their language was more nourishing than lunch, but for Jack himself, lunch always seemed more important than anything else except perhaps dinner. Mary and I were traveling with the Hawkeses and the Barths and Heide Ziegler from Tübingen through the Black Forest to Meersberg, on Lake Constanze. Naturally, there were many lunches, many dinners. In the Black Forest, we got tipsy on West-phalian ham and Spargel, then in season, while sobering ourselves with the local champagne. Hawkes kept insisting that nearby were advertised baths of mud in which we might wisely, while holding one another’s hands, immerse ourselves, allowing hot mud to seep into our secret cracks and remove them, I supposed, like unwanted warts. Wrappers of ham so tissue-thin that you could see through them must have suggested such an adventure to Jack, surely not the champagne or the thick white spikes of asparagus. To me, Jack seemed a puzzling combination of the naïve and the knowing, the cautious and the daring, a dangerous guide whose love of the sensuous might lead my mind into thoughtless pastures—the green and obscene together like grasses. The term mud bath was, for me, a serious contradiction. But his imagination—so incarnate—was already giving himself up to the warm embrace of the earth, while I thought only of the grave: hot or cold—who cared in a casket? And had I communicated my undertakerish concerns—think what caskets cost these days!—Jack (if he found himself in such a closet) would have felt the shiny satin lining like a suit inside himself, as though his own skin were the sheets. Have another helping of pale plump Spargel, Jack, and dream a different dream.

Which he did. Which he was always doing.

Fiona with the empty sweater clinging to her back like the cast-off skin of some long-forgotten lover, Catherine with her eyes tight shut and hair awry and broad cheeks brightly skimmed with tears, I shading my face and easing off the uncomfortable and partially opened rucksack, Hugh holding aloft his prize and leaping through the weeds to a fallen pediment, Hugh turning and facing us with the little copper rivets dancing on his penitential denims and his mouth torn open comically, painfully, as if by an invisible hand—suddenly the four of us were there, separated, disheveled, blinking, and yet reunited in this overgrown and empty quadrangle that now was filled with hard light and the sweet and salty scent of endless day. I dropped the rucksack, squinted, fished for a fat cigarette. Fiona caught hold of the sleeves of the sweater at the wrists and pulled the long empty sleeves wide and high in a gesture meant only for the far-off sun. Catherine sat on a small white chunk of stone and held her head in her hands, Hugh tipped his prize onto the altar of the fallen pediment and flung aside the torch, reared back, and waited. (The Blood Oranges.)

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are other ways to see, to dream, to write, to persuade four characters to climb; we had better seek them out, because this way was Jack’s way, a prose that breathes what it sees, and marshals its gerunds like a general.

We might have lunch in some kitschily glamorous Stubewhere the tables were enclosed in huge wine barrels. Jack would have Heide Ziegler translate the menu for him—no easy task because equivalents are never readily come by—and to each description she offered, he would ask, “Does it come with a big hunk of meat?” because that’s what Jack wanted—meat, a huge still-quivering slab.

Early one morning in a town famous for the growing of some grape, I arose from my bed in the inn and stepped outside alone to the automobile. I smelled the odor of flowers thirsting early for the sun; deep green fields stretched to either side of the road, wet and silent; it was the cold dawn of the traveler and I wished suddenly for a platter of home-cooked sausage. (“The Traveler.”)

That was my guess: that one sense keyed up all the others; if he were looking, his ears would wiggle; if listening, his mouth would water; if in a tub of mud, who knew what else would demand an oiling?

My wife, Mary, had her heart set on seeing the Church of St. George, a ninth-century structure at Oberzell, on the island of Reichenau, so naturally I had mine set on seeing it, too. Shelly and Jack Barth were committed to sailing, so we persuaded Heide and the Hawkeses to come with us on a voyage to Reichenau Island. It turned out to be a frustrating, hot all-day tramp in full sun over flat, dull, unshaded terrain—an island as magical as monotony, with Jack frequently reminding us how the Barths must be feeling a blue breeze and beneath them lulling swells. In fact, we had scarcely started our walk when Jack thought it time to stop—for a beer. But true tourists do not stop. True tourists trudge. And we did, promising Jack, as often as the prophets promised the Israelites, the swift coming of his kingdom, a cool dark saloon. Of course the kingdom never came. They never do. Jack peeled and handed the peelings to Mary, who bore them before her. When we found the church, it was … well, okay, if you like ninth-century stuff. Jack still had most of his clothes.

I suggested to Jack, who was now silent and stooped as a parched plant, that this island seemed the perfect exotic spot to write his next book, since his books and their spots seemed so attuned. “Like Lesbos,” he said. “I’ve been here already.”

The heat was leaden, the sea flat and gray, at the end of a short quay made of cracked concrete were hung dead and drying infant octopi from a sort of clothes line. The Turkish coast was a flat and ominous smudge on the horizon; there was a ruined fortress atop a bleak hill, a few tortured olive trees, a beach of pebbles and shards of rusty iron.

It didn’t do to disappoint Jack. You’d be led to hell behind a troop of surly adjectives. But Reichenau Island, I thought, was nicer than the inside of an army ambulance, or nicer than Fort Peck, Montana, where he and Sophie were married, and even though it could hardly compete with Grenada or Vence, it was at least as lovely as the blackfly-filled farmhouse in Brittany he chose for a while to write in. Later, there would be Venasque, of course, where Virginie was composed, a work I much later taught to a roomful of innocent college kids in an act of pure revenge. They were not innocent of sex, of course, but of sensuality. And got even with me by making me explain everything—twice.

Jack tried hard to be an innocent. He marveled, when we reached Berlin, that there were Russians there. We marveled that he marveled. How could he be innocent, I thought—though he wrote of innocence—since his prose knew everything. Innocence ends early in life; it ends with the awakening of the senses. Jack wanted his always just about to be aroused: alert, hungry, filling, overflowing, yet somehow not yet full.

I wrote about Jack’s work once, and concluded my remarks by summing up my own sense of it, as if putting words in his mouth.

The world is not simply good and bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher; we devour what we savor and what sustains us; out of ruins more ruins will later, in their polished towers, rise; lust is the muscle of love: its strength, its coarseness, its brutality; the heart beats and is beaten by its beating; not a shadow falls without the sun’s shine and the sun sears what it saves. These are not the simplicities my saying has suggested. In our civilization, the center has not held for a long time; neither the center nor the place where the center was can now be found. We are disordered, arthritic fingers without palms. Inside the silence of unmoving things, there are the sounds of repeated explosions. Perhaps it is catastrophe breathing. Who has rendered this condition more ruthlessly than Hawkes has, or furnished our barren countrysides with their hanging trees and human sluices more honestly, yet with wealth, with the attention one lover has for another? For his work has always refused ruin in the act that has depicted it, and his life’s labor was the joyful showing forth and celebration of such a healing art.

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