Any novelist worth her salt wrangles with the music of her sentences, homing in on the harmonies and tempos offered up by her language. It’s no wonder, then, that musicians appear as protagonists in fiction, literary alter egos, as in Michael Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Nocturnes.” In “The Vexations,” Caitlin Horrocks re-creates the life of enigmatic French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), best known for his “Gymnopédies,” whose turbulent career and volatile relationships in fin-de-siècle Paris fuel this novel.

After his mother’s death, 6-year-old Eric and his toddler brother, Conrad, are taken by their father, Alfred, from Normandy to Paris while their sister, Louise, is sent to live with relatives. Horrocks’ opening chapters are deeply affecting in their portrayal of childhood grief and are also among the novel’s most vibrant, evoking the salt air and earthy people of the Norman coast while shifting between characters.

As young adults, the siblings reunite in the city, their father remarried and a publisher, but their early trauma shadows the Saties and steers them into cones of isolation, with both Eric and his sister determined to pursue piano.

“We’d all missed each other,” Louise observes, “and now those child selves had disappeared forever, devoured by these awkward giants: erratic Eric and clever Conrad and livid Louise, like the stars of an unpopular novelty song that Alfred might try to sell.”

Eric — now re-christened as Erik, to sound Scandinavian — falls under the spell of the Parisian avant-garde, mixing it up with fellow musicians, painters and writers at Le Chat Noir Café. He forms a lasting bond with Philippe, a Spanish poet, while plunging into experimental work. But the good times float on a dark lake: Erik’s one romance, with artist Suzanne Valadon, sputters, and he’s forced to work in cabarets. Horrocks shines as she renders the Montmartre demimonde in Day-Glo colors, as provocative as a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas. Deftly she plumbs the singular zeal — and occasional neuroses — that drive artists toward achievement as well as self-destruction.

In the second half, the novel’s tension slackens: The decades roll on predictably as Horrocks slips into a formulaic groove that traces the composer’s later years, although cameos from Jean Cocteau and Claude Debussy add sparkle.

Fortunately, an elderly Louise rescues the drifting narrative. A series of wrenching tragedies has compelled her move to Buenos Aires, where she teaches piano and muses on the quixotic spirit of the modern artist. Feisty to the end, she remembers her brother’s youthful triumph, a coda to the grand themes that “The Vexations” explores with grace and conviction: “A piano note is dying from the moment it is struck, hammer to string. … The last sounds of the third “Gymnopédie” hang and dissipate like smoke. … His life is long yet, but the thing people will love best about him is already finished. Let us hope he does not know it. How would he live, otherwise?”

 

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Vexations
By: Caitlin Horrocks.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 451 pages, $28.