Hearing a Way Forward: On Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Vexations”

August 4, 2019   •   By Rachel Duboff

The Vexations

Caitlin Horrocks

HOW DOES GENIUS present itself? This question is the beating heart of Caitlin Horrocks’s engrossing debut novel, The Vexations. The novel follows real-life classical composer Erik Satie’s journey toward fame and how this pursuit existed in relation to others in his life. For all his perseverance, the most revealing moment of Erik’s psyche comes when he’s not composing — instead, he is listening to his friend Claude Debussy orchestrate Erik’s Gymnopédies, with Gustave Doret conducting. The year is 1897, the height of fin de siècle’s woefully misleading promise of a flourishing era to come. As Erik listens, the music “hugs him, dives into his lungs,” making it hard to breathe; he is overwhelmed with gratitude at Claude’s transforming touch, for it is something he lacked the means to do alone. Erik’s insecurity — that his music will never be as moving — is fierce, and while this realization would dissuade other artists from making the effort, it only fuels Erik’s determination, a resilience fundamental to greatness.

The Vexations is set mainly in la Belle Époque France, its beauty made sharper by the looming destruction of the World Wars. The novel alternates between multiple narrators: Erik’s sister Louise from 1940s Argentina; his brother Conrad; his friend Philippe (based on Spanish poet Patrice Contamine de Latour); Suzanne, the one person he is briefly, albeit limitedly, romantically involved with; and, of course, Erik himself.

In focusing the novel on the generation preceding the Great War, Horrocks juxtaposes the characters’ aspirations with the reader’s awareness that Europe’s devastation will render this era a new Golden Age of cultural innovation: Erik struggles to reach acclaim as a composer; Suzanne tries to make it as a painter; Philippe aspires as a writer; Conrad attempts to financially support his siblings; and Louise lives as a woman without freedoms granted to men under the law. This period of struggling artists will one day be romanticized, while the average reader might not recognize that Suzanne is Suzanne Valadon, the notable artists’ model and painter, though will likely have heard of Erik Satie. The Vexations addresses this gap between its characters’ ignorance and readers’ knowledge by showing how Erik strives for the acclaim he will one day reach, and how his inner circle moves forward in spite of the joys and tragedies that befall them.

The story begins with the Saties as children on a train to Normandy in the early 1870s. Their mother has recently died, and their father leaves Erik and Conrad with their grandmother, and Louise with a great-uncle. After their father remarries, he returns to bring only his sons back to Paris, leaving Louise behind. At this time, Erik — born “Eric” — changes the spelling of his name, as if a simple name change could make up for having been helplessly separated from the two most important women in his life, and then usher in an adulthood of fame and fortune within his control. The Saties eventually reunite as adults, but their relationships to each other are markedly changed. Only in a handful of early pages does Horrocks show the effortless closeness of the siblings, including an amateur attempt by Erik to rescue Louise from their great-uncle when they are all still in Normandy. If there’s a tragedy underlying The Vexations, it’s watching the Saties struggle with this legacy of lost intimacy.

After Erik is discharged from the army for a self-induced, exaggerated illness, his journey in becoming the acclaimed composer starts with his struggle to make a name for himself in Parisian cafés. He performs as an accompanist in the cabarets of Montmartre, a neighborhood of “misfit children” who would rather starve in pursuit of their art than be comfortable elsewhere. Erik blends into this crowd of young artists, Philippe among them, while also bringing with him formal instruction from his enrollment at the Conservatory, before being kicked out. For much of the novel, Erik struggles to find the balance between these two sides: the one trained in classical composition and the one believing his eminence is in creating something “utterly and irrefutably new.” And yet the three Gymnopédies, first performed by Erik in a small, darkened venue in the northern heights of Paris, will be known not so much as new as timeless.

While Erik aspires for the renown, Louise’s future plans are tied to her domesticity. She is as revering of the piano as her brother, but she never entertains the idea of greatness. Louise’s sections are the novel’s most affecting, her first-person point of view imbuing the tragedies she’s endured with melancholy. And yet Erik still looms in her recounting, even when he’s not in the scene. Her narration then reads as a metacommentary, as if noting the way men hold sway even in women’s own stories. This phenomenon is unfortunate but not surprising, and not limited to Louise. Suzanne likewise believes she will ultimately only be known as a mother to a painter instead of a painter herself. For women in The Vexations and the world it occupies, their dreams are not even half of men’s.

On the other hand, the novel doesn’t endorse full-throated male ambition so much as highlight its tradeoffs. If anything, it details the ways Erik’s determination for fame comes with the encroaching estrangement from his family and friends as he puts himself first. Horrocks writes enchantingly about the bohemian life of artists in Montmartre, but such enchantment can only hold characters’ attention for so long as they age. At one point, Erik takes the tram and impulsively gets off at a stop of an industrial suburb where he knows no one and no one knows him. Most noticeably, “no one is talking about art.” The line is repeated twice for emphasis. In its absence is “a wondrous silence in which he can hear his own breath, his heartbeat.” The moment is short-lived, a pause for Erik and the reader, a curt acknowledgment of the costs of pursuing art, of creating music at the expense of silence.

What’s most extraordinary about The Vexations is the writing itself. There is the risk with historical fiction that the research will be heavy-handed, to the dilution of story. Horrocks’s vast knowledge of French history and classical music is on display, but the bounty of information never overwhelms. She distinguishes her writing style, using contemporary prose sprinkled with contractions, which allows a more accessible entryway into this bygone era. Her language is lyrical and captivating, a piece of music, “a clear glass globe […] so gentle and pretty that you could stop listening to it and just let it hang, draped against the background of your life.” The novel reads like a finely composed piece of music, swiftly interweaving winsome sentences with period details and the characters who lived them. From the use of a pneumatic tube messaging system under the city to the introduction of the telephone, The Vexations presents itself as a window into a textured past made real and tangible for the reader.

Horrocks has studied piano herself, as well as read biographies to learn about Satie’s life. With all this preparation, The Vexations can still feel like an extension of her earlier book, This Is Not Your City (2011), a short story collection collectively centered on 11 women. Those stories are vividly detailed, among them “At the Zoo,” which follows a boy’s visit to the zoo with his mother and grandfather, earning Horrocks the Plimpton Prize for Fiction. Her experience in short story writing is an asset to her debut novel, with each section so incredibly well contained that it often reads like a novel in stories instead of a novel with a traditional, cohesive through-line.

If The Vexations comes with any drawback, it may be from the multiple narrations. There are a number of times we learn of a seminal moment in a character’s life, but narrated by a different character, so the reader isn’t given full access to these characters’ interiority. This downside is most apparent when following Erik himself. When we meet him, he’s “not yet extraordinary in any way,” and while the novel catalogs his pursuit of creating music, there seems to be a missing link between this “ordinary” boy and when he decided he deserved to be recognized as extraordinary. The reader is allowed the before and after, the Eric, who now calls himself Erik, but isn’t privy to his becoming.

Inversely, this structure may be the best mold for Erik’s story, as any “genius” is a product of more than just himself. As Isaac Newton famously, said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” In declining to be a novel strictly about Erik, this narrated mosaic illuminates how his ambitions have been shaped by or existed alongside those of his family and friends. While limiting, the multiple points of view offer the reader perspectives and arcs another novel might otherwise deem too minor to allow; each character is compelling enough in their own right. In using various narrations, Horrocks shines a brighter light on la Belle Époque, showing the period was composed of people beyond the already established artists.

Horrocks easily could have chosen to focus her novel on a figure like Claude Debussy instead of Erik Satie, a name more recognizable over a century later, but such a choice would be antithetical to The Vexations’s point. The title takes its name from Erik’s Vexations, a repetitive musical piece he wrote that should be played 840 times in succession. The chords are “a portrait of frustration, of his fear that his art is not just standing still, it’s moving backward.” His playing the piece is then an example of Sisyphean fortitude, in the hope that maybe this time “he’ll hear a way forward.” The Vexations are mentioned only once, and alluded to when Erik plays a score that’s “relentlessly repetitive.” But Conrad, narrating this later section, listens to these chords and doesn’t imagine his brother happy.

In making art, is the pleasure in the work or the recognition? While Erik’s trajectory seems to side with the latter, it’s his dedication to creating his own music that pushes him forward. But as well received as Erik eventually became, there is the sense he was dissatisfied throughout, always searching for something we never saw him accept. Perhaps it was as simple as having people hear his pieces “the way he wishes they would.” Yet it was Louise, most of all, who didn’t just revere her brother’s compositions; she understood them, their power, and what emotions they could elicit. Their separation as children and in adulthood is a void that Erik’s pieces attempts to fill, his music connecting the two where distance and differing experiences cannot.

The novel’s ending, narrated by Louise, is what makes The Vexations as extraordinary as Erik himself. Louise closes by centering completely on his genius. Every sentence Horrocks writes is a stepping-stone to this apex, and satisfying to such a degree that the reader will have the urge to close the book and begin listening to Satie’s music.


Rachel Duboff is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, Gravel, and The Rumpus.