I am imbued with the notion that a Muse is necessarily a dead woman, inaccessible or absent; that the poetic structure—like the canon, which is only a hole surrounded by steel—can be based only on what one does not have; and that ultimately one can write only to fill a void or at the least to situate, in relation to the most lucid part of ourselves, the place where this incommensurable abyss yawns within us.
—Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme (published in English as Manhood)
The quote above is one of two epigraphs introducing John Hawkes’ short novel Travesty. It struck me as akin to my own feelings about writing. And in Hawkes’ case it is particularly apropos; for he “situates” the abyss like no other, and in reading him one gets the impression that he knows this is all he can do. An early American postmodernist, Hawkes wrote in an incomparable style, fashioning rich, mythic worlds peopled by characters that are so fully formed they seem real. His work often carries an air of menace, a peering over the edge of the abyss, and sometimes a dangling over it, held tenuously by the ankles. He leaves a lot unwritten, and part of the pleasure in reading him is the struggle to fill in these gaps.
I wasn’t familiar with Leiris, so I looked him up. I found this review of Manhood, which stoked my interest. Leiris was a French Surrealist writer and ethnographer who, in the reviewer’s words, “experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.” In reading the review, I could see parallels between Hawkes and Leiris; it seems as if the latter could have been an influence on the former.
So one can write to fill a void, and in that respect, any subject is fair game. The trouble is that the abyss seems too overwhelming at times, too deep to fill and too hazardous to permit even the most cautious approach. Hurling a few sentences over the edge and listening for them to hit bottom feels like a lonely and futile exercise. In response, the temptation arises to shy away from it and instead dwell in more “lucid” inner locales.
Habit, the great deadener, must also be considered with regard to writing. But let’s take a step back for a moment and reflect on habit. Do you ever do something after not doing it for a long time and think: Wow, that thing is great! Why don’t I do that more often?? And yet this is the thing you were doing every day for months until you grew tired of it and stopped, thinking why do I bother? Habit, as a word, has a negative connotation. It’s always, Oh, that’s a bad habit. She picked up a bad habit. I’ve got to stop this bad habit. No one talks about good habits. It’s never, Oh, I recently picked up this good habit and it’s really helping me out. We need more talk about the value of good habits.
When it comes to writing, a moldy old adage dictates that one should write every day, no matter what the subject or form. This is considered a good writing habit. Just sit there and write and write and write for X amount of time each day and it will be fine. Yet many writers do not write every day. Some don’t write for months, until one day they fly into a manic state and write nonstop. It’s all about which practice works for you. But for those writers in this latter camp, those dry periods can run one ragged. Self-doubt creeps in and one wonders if the words will ever come again. Next comes a turning against the words. Hatred for words! Frustration at their failure to capture anything but a rapid-fade vapor trail of emotion and sensation; anger at their crude rigidity in the face of life’s constant flux.
Which returns us to Travesty. Because it seems to me that this strange little novel might be what a writer writes out of desperation when faced with one of these dreaded dry periods. The Leiris quote is the clue here, for an epigraph hints at the meaning of what is to come. The entirety of Travesty consists of one side of a conversation between the driver and one of the two passengers in a car speeding through the night in rural France toward a planned murder-suicide. Mostly it is a monologue by the driver, though the passenger does interject from time to time, which the reader discerns from the driver’s reactions. There is an absent woman who could be construed as a Muse for these two men; she is not dead, yet her distance from the story renders her near-dead. Even for Hawkes the scenario playing out in this novel is bleak, if not nihilistic. At a surface level, it reads as a piece composed on the brink of the void, a stream of dispassionate vitriol spit over the edge from dry, cracked lips.
It’s worth noting at this point that the second epigraph to the book is from Camus’ The Fall (a book which I have not read). Other reviewers have commented that Travesty reads as either homage to or parody of Camus. And in fact, in a 1976 interview¹ with Paul Emmett and Richard Vine, Hawkes mentions that he’d read The Fall a few months before several incidents that had partly inspired the book. While he evades admission that Travesty is indeed a “travesty” of The Fall, he does say he thinks “The Fall is in some way related to Travesty.” Of course, Camus also died in a car accident, which yields yet another Camus parallel to the book.
Returning to the void, though…in the final line of the conversation, while discussing Travesty, Hawkes says, “The ultimate power of the imagination is to create anything and everything—out of nothing…” Elsewhere in the interview, Hawkes is adamant that none of his fictional work is autobiographical (though he admits stray bits make their way into a text on occasion), and so the Leiris epigraph again rises up (“the poetic structure […] can be based only on what one does not have”). We cannot know if Hawkes was in a desperate dry period when he conceived the idea for Travesty. But it’s obvious that the text is at least in part concerned with this “ultimate power of the imagination.” For the narrator carefully constructs his murderous plan and describes it in calm, precise detail, just as Hawkes crafted the story and everything within it. And they are both empowered by their creations.
Maybe the “nothing” Hawkes refers to is equal to the void, or at least an alternate way of thinking about the void. Rather than a yawning abyss that swallows words (or prevents their creation) it should be thought of as a source for them. In this, the act of writing draws closer to Leiris’ idea of “situating” rather than “filling” the void. Situating the location of a void implies we have some control over it or at least knowledge of it, while filling a void seems an impossible task. If we know where the void is in relation to the “lucid part of ourselves,” it’s easier to manage our exposure to it, and even to draw upon it as a stimulus for creation.
¹Emmett, Paul, and Richard Vine. “A Conversation with John Hawkes.” Chicago Review 28.2 (Fall 1976): 163-171. Accessed through JSTOR, 9 Jul. 2014.