There is considerable resistance in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant tradition to the notion that sexuality might involve more than the sum of the relevant parts. Since John Hawkes' novel, Virginie: Her Two Lives, is set squarely in the context of a quite other, Mediterranean tradition of metaphysical eroticism in which sex is seen as a profound metaphor for the more bewildering aspects of the human condition, it is possible that this glittering, tender, extraordinary parable may be misconstrued in our pragmatic latitudes.
Indeed, although Virginie's two lives expose her to a vast number of complicated sexual games and she witnesses all kinds of exhibitions of sexual activity, Hawkes' novel may not "really" be about sex at all. It might, at bottom, be about our relations with that indefinable part of experience which the adored lord and master of her life in the 18th century evokes, when in extremis he calls Virginie his "soul."
The troubadours believed the sexual act was the living image of a transcendental state of being; so did the surrealists, always a potent influence in Hawkes, and so, too, did that de Sade to whom Hawkes pays a number of sly homages. Therefore, Virginie: Her Two Lives may be intended to be read, in some degree, as allegory. Certainly it demands careful reading; but it gives such pleasure to read this novel carefully!
It is an audacious book, both in style and content, and it is written with breathtaking grace. Reading it is like watching a great trapeze artist perform without a safety net.
Formally, it comprises the juxtaposed first-person narratives of two lives of the sameoung girl. Virginie passes one of her incarnations in a "labyrinthine" country house (appropriately called "D,edale") in 18th-century France; the other takes place in an apartment in Paris some 200 years later. These lives parallel and reflect one another; the Parisian life, rough, urban, demotic, partially parodies the high-flown courtliness with which the earlier existence is conducted.
In both her lives, Virginie is in a state of suspended pre-pubescent unawareness. With living, innocent admiration, she observes the rituals by which two men, one an aristocrat, one a taxidriver, attempt to transform the occasionally intractable raw material of femininity into their own idea of woman. The raw material is in both cases a random harem of women picked up in the hedgerows or on the streets; the ideal woman is a being devoted to, disciplined into, giving pleasure to men. Woman as magic, sexual other, in fact.
Both aristocrat and taxi-driver are in the business of "creating" women. Which, as it happens, is the business of any male writer when he sets out to invent a female character. Is there some key to a possible allegorical meaning, here, perhaps?
But Virginie, although she is Hawkes' invention, knows she exists for herself. And also for her mother, as well as for her father and father substitutes; her mother exerts an absolute dominance on both narratives. Not content with the rule of other, Virginie asks herself; "What is the other's sense of itself? Not as other, my object is your subject, and vice versa." Never allowed to participate in the rituals by which women are created, she knows she is "doomed to eternal childhood . . . I am the child within. I am this unchanging child. I am her voice. Who listens?"
Certainly the adored masters do not listen. She wonders, eventually, if these men who create women would be "so sorely missed if they gave up their art" and what Hawkes calls the "magnificent mirage" of the phallus turns out to be just that--a mirage. A mirage of what he calls, in a preliminary note, the "shell-pink space of the pornographic narrative."
If the novel ends with the immolation of Virginie's precious innocence in both her lives, with her death or deaths, in fact, there is a suggestion it was only her innocence that made her, in the first place, the "phantom accomplice" (her own phrase) of these artists in flesh, her phallic masters.
Hawkes' serene, inviolable prose is so precise, luminous and evocative as to make this novel seem dreamed, rather than read; it is as inscrutable and as capable of as many interpretations as an enchanted mirror, troubling, strange, a marvel.