You may not be familiar with French composer Erik Satie’s name, but you almost certainly know at least one of his pieces: the spare, tinkling “Gymnopédie No. 1” that has been featured on numerous soundtracks, including the French thriller “Diva” and Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” While Satie’s “Gymnopédies” and “Gnossiennes” are filmmaker favorites, his output includes hundreds of other works. Why isn’t Satie better known?
Caitlin Horrocks explores that question in her new novel “The Vexations,” a book principally narrated by the composer’s sister Louise, herself a fine pianist whose ambitions were thwarted by a misogynist father. It’s from Louise’s perspective that we first learn about Eric (he changed the spelling of his name in adulthood) and his idiosyncratic personality.
We’ll hear from Louise again. Meanwhile, the narration shifts among a number of characters in and around 1890s bohemian Paris, the Paris when Montmartre was home to Claude Debussy, Auguste Renoir and other renowned artists. Not so many women make that list — but Horrocks, in her excavation of Satie’s existence, rescues his longtime love Suzanne Valadon from obscurity. When Satie and Valadon meet, she’s the mother of a young son and an artist’s model bored with the game. She’d much prefer to stand behind the easel than lie in front of it.
Long stretches of “The Vexations” read like a prose version of a Satie composition — choppy, evocative, unexpected — as Horrocks shows struggling artists making meals of leftover potatoes, mending threadbare garments and haunting cafes and bars more for free heat than for free drinks. A fictionalized character named Philippe hopes he won’t have to return home to Spain and a past that scares him — but does he have what it takes to eke out a life as a creative? Does Suzanne? And what about Erik, who is brave enough to stay the course, but who will eventually confine himself to his hoarder’s apartment, occasionally venturing out in one of 11 identical gray velvet suits?
At some point, most likely in the early 1890s, Satie composed an extremely short piece titled “Vexations.” Its inscription reads: “to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” The first complete public performance of the piece was by John Cage and about a dozen other pianists, in 1963.
Satie’s title is also a variation on a theme that emerges in the novel: The things most vexing turn out to be impossible to escape. Hunger, cold, desire, ambition are all satiated, but only for a moment. “The Vexations” builds to a devastating conclusion, but it’s worth the pain for this unusual, quietly beautiful meditation on the work and strife behind art that has endured for generations.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Caitlin Horrocks
Little, Brown. 464 pp. $28