Obituary: John Hawkes

Patrick McGrath
Tuesday 02 June 1998 23:02
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JOHN HAWKES was the author of 16 novels, including The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, The Blood Oranges, Travesty and Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. An important figure in the post-war generation of American writers that includes John Barth, William Gaddis and William Gass, he once claimed that he wrote fiction "on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme". He was one of the first writers in America to champion an iconoclastic "postmodern" or "metafictive" spirit in fiction, a spirit which insisted on formal experimentation, savage comedy and total imaginative freedom. Edmund White called him "America's greatest visionary".

Jack Hawkes was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1925, in his own words "an only child and an asthmatic". He went to Harvard in 1943 and a year later left for Europe to serve as an American Field Service ambulance driver in Italy and Germany. This first-hand experience of a Europe ravaged by war was seminal to the writing of his first novel, The Cannibal, which was published by James Laughlin at New Directions in 1949. It would come to be recognised as a classic of Second World War literature. Later, Hawkes would set many of his novels in Europe. In 1947 he married Sophie Tazewell, who became his lifelong literary collaborator and dedicatee of many of his books.

After the war he returned to Harvard and taught English there from 1955 to 1958. He then moved to Brown University, where he taught until his retirement in 1988. During those years he travelled constantly, and his wanderings were essential to what he called his "landscapes of the imagination". He tended to create in each of his novels a psychic territory of dark erotic turmoil charged with dread, terror and bleak humour, but in prose of such sheer beauty as to redeem the often morbid vitality of the content.

The Lime Twig , published in 1961, is set in a seedy post-war England of racetracks, prostitutes and crooks, but was written before Jack had ever been here, deriving instead from the voices of British troops he encountered in the American Field Service. He wrote his "island novel" Second Skin, while living in the West Indies. His controversial 1971 novel The Blood Oranges was inspired by a stay in Greece, and his 1976 masterpiece Travesty takes place over the course of single night as a car driven by an inspired madman speeds through the French countryside.

Hawkes spent a part of his boyhood in Alaska, and considered his 1985 novel Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade one of his most personal books. In France, where his work has a strong following, the book received one of the country's most distinguished literary awards, Le Prix Medicis Etranger.

The late novels, particularly Sweet William (1993), which is narrated by a horse, tend to a softness of tone and a melancholy not apparent in the more intense and fevered creations of the earlier decades. He never lost his appetite for the perverse and the fantastic. His penultimate novel, the lovely and delicate The Frog (1996), is about a child who swallows a frog which then becomes a living presence inside him. And his last, An Irish Eye (1997), is filled with richly complicated images of violence, decay, and the staining of innocence, as are all the most brilliant novels of the earlier years.

This complex, restless man was a warm and generous friend, a delightful companion at table, and a powerful influence not only on the many students he taught but on fiction writers of later generations who fell upon his work with cries of joy, recognising that here was an artist with the elegance, the inventiveness and the grace to light the way into the mind's most unruly regions.

John Hawkes, writer: born Stamford, Connecticut 17 August 1925; Visiting Lecturer and Instructor, Harvard University 1955-58; Assistant Professor, Brown University 1958-62, Associate Professor 1962-67, Professor of English 1967-68, University Professor 1973-88 (Emeritus); married 1947 Sophie Tazewell (three sons, one daughter); died Providence, Rhode Island 15 May 1998.

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