Cover Image: The Vexations

The Vexations

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Member Reviews

I love Erik Satie’s music, and I expected to love this book. Unfortunately, there is too little of Erik in it and too much about his family, particularly his sister Louise. There are chapters from the points of view of Erik’s brother, sister and various friends. I reached the 55% point of this long book and still had not gotten a feel for La Belle Époque Paris as promised in the blurb. The blurb is also wrong when it says this book is “ceaselessly entertaining”. I started skipping the chapters that didn’t feature Erik and the book did finally get to his collaboration with Serge Diaghilev, Picasso and Jean Cocteau.  I’m afraid that this book wasn’t what I expected. Maybe I will read a biography of Erik Satie. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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In a word: Exceptional. 

The Vexations is a gorgeous, sweeping tale chronicling the life of composer Erik Satie and those in his orbit. 

Prior to reading this, I would never have professed any particular interest in Satie or his work. The book does contain general themes that are regular favorites, such as musical history and this period of history in France (especially regarding the art and literature of the era), but as to the central subject, I confess to being largely ignorant and indifferent prior to reading this. I suppose all of this is proof that absolutely anything becomes fascinating if the right person is writing about it, and Horrocks proved to be exactly that for the topic. 

Horrocks has done commendably thorough research on her subject, but she has also done an exceptionally good job of filling in the blanks to build out the narrative. 

How do we even classify this book? Certainly it can be described as a Family Saga (though Erik is the heart of the story, one might argue that Louise, Phillippe and even Conrad are just as central to the plot), but the term feels too limiting, as this book is more than just this sub-genre. 

To call it a fictionalized biography cheapens it and, I think, does not do proper justice to Horrocks’ abilities as a researcher and integrator of said research into unverifiable components of the narrative. Perhaps the broader descriptor of the book as simply Historical Fiction is best, though I would certainly defer to the author on the matter.

Finally, I recommend enhancing the reader experience of this book by listening to Satie’s work while reading. I began with the Gymnopédies, progressed to the Gnossiennes, and ultimately moved to the Vexations, for which the book is eponymously titled. I hope I didn’t fail Erik’s memory by not making it through all 840 repetitions.
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I confess I’m sufficiently musically ignorant to have initially believed that the “vexations” referred to in the title were the three children—Eric, Louise, and Conrad—that Alfred does not know quite what to do with after his wife’s death. 

He takes them to his mother’s house and leaves them there. Eric is sent to boarding school, Louise to a great-aunt and uncle’s, and baby Conrad is reunited with Alfred after he remarries. These inauspicious beginnings foreshadow the challenges both Eric and Louise will struggle with. Both intelligent and gifted, but also penurious, with Louise further challenged by the limitations her gender puts on her, they struggle for recognition and livelihood. Eric—now Erik—claws his way to limited success in Paris as a composer and writer, while Louise ends up in Buenos Aires.

Reading this novel based on real historical figures is—at nearly 500 pages—a bit of a commitment. Told in alternating points of view of both real people (Erik, Louise, Conrad, and Suzanne Valadon) and fictional characters, the novel lays bare the realities of poverty in turn-of-century France as Erik and Philippe share one suit, and Louise depends on the charity of male relatives after she is widowed. Slow at times, the novel picks up near the end. While ostensibly primarily about Erik Satie, Louise’s tale is more engaging.
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On February 18, 2018, we attended the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's French Festival to hear Claude Debussy's orchestration of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies Nos.1 & 3 along with music by Dukas, Saint-Saens, and Offenbach.

I had not realized previously how much I loved French music! I wanted to attend every one of the concerts. The two Gymnopedies were the only music by Satie performed during the festival--only because Debussy had orchestrated them. The music Satie wrote before he was twenty-two-years-old is his best known.  Reading Caitlin Horrocks' debut novel The Vexations I realized how little I knew about French composers and La Belle Époque Paris.

The Vexations centers on the life of the composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), bringing to life Paris's Bohemian society of eccentric and cutting-edge artists. 

The novel also tells the story of Erik's siblings, separated as orphans after their mother's death. Conrad Satie leads a respectable life as a chemist in a perfume factory. Louise is a talented musician whose short-lived marriage leaves her and her son dependent on her in-law's wealth.

Erik is a frustrating personality, an eccentric genius who would not be shoved into expected boxes artistically or socially. People didn't understand his music. His love affair with Susan Valadon lasted six months. He did not really seem to connect to people or need intimacy. During his life he was notorious. By the time of his death, his family and even most of his friends were no longer speaking with him. 

In later life, Satie was associated with Surrealism, including writing music for the Ballets Russe, Parade directed by Cocteau with Picasso costumes. 

I became very taken by Louise Satie's story, the limitations society placed on a female. Pressured to marry well, she waited for passion. And when she found herself a young widow, one night of passion labeled her a whore. She clung to her son, but the legal system gave his custody to male relatives. She moved to South American and outlived the rest of her family, long enough to discover her brother Erik had become famous, long enough to understand life.

Satie's most well-known music remains the Gymnopieds.

The novel has left me with an earworm, sadness, and a better feel for the society and time that produced some of my favorite music. 

After I finished the novel I discovered Horrocks is a writing instructor at Grand Valley State University. And that our son, who graduated from GVSU with a writing major, counted her as one of his best and most favorite professors!

I was given access to a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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I found the characters somewhat whiney, self-absorbed, and basically indulgent. Didn't really care for this book even though I love the music of Erik Satie. Slow paced narrative didn't help to peak my interest in any of the characters.
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