Art Beat: The Vexations

Aug 22, 2019

Caitlin Horrocks reading at Brews and Prose in Cleveland, Ohio
Credit Carissa Russell

Caitlin Horrocks has moved from piano keyboard to the one used by writers. Her story collection, This is Not Your City, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her new novel, The Vexations, published in July by Little-Brown, has already gained critical acclaim, including a nod from Oprah. It’s a historical novel about the eccentric French composer, Erik Satie (1866-1925).


“I first became familiar with Satie’s work as a kid, as a piano student,” Horrocks says during a Skype interview. “My piano teacher gave me a piece of his called Gymnopédie No. 3, which, whether or not you think you know it, or you think you’ve heard it, you almost certainly have. It’s very beautiful, very evocative. There’s this sense of melancholy to it. As a student I loved it and it’s not technically very difficult. I wanted to play as much of his music as I could.”

As Horrocks explored Satie’s work, she found pieces that were more playful, experimental, or even strange.

“There was a piece called Dried Embryos, which has lines for a sea cucumber,” Horrocks says. “He was also very playful with performance indications. Where another composer would write, play it quickly or slowly, he would write, "Play it like a nightingale with a toothache.'”

Credit Little, Brown

To research the book, Horrocks traveled to France to explore the places where Satie lived and frequented. To her delight, she found that some of them still existed.

The Vexations tells of Satie’s childhood, when his mother died and his father had a nervous breakdown. Satie and his two siblings are separated and gre up in different homes. Satie goes on to achieve notoriety on the Parisian art scene as his family struggles, and often fails, to hold onto their relationships.

Horrock’s awards include the Plimpton Prize and fellowships at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. She is on the advisory board of the Kenyon Review, and she teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Grand Rapids.

Horrocks will read with Joe Sacksteder, the author of Make/Shift, at Michigan News Agency, 308 Weest Michigan Avenue, in downtown Kalamazoo at 6 p.m. on August 28.

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