on October 17, 2000
Part fiction, part autobiography, part a collection of lovely pensees on literature and life, this exquisite short novel moves fluidly between the narrator's Kentucky past and her New York present, with stops along the way in Europe, Maine, Boston, and elswhere. Employing a spare, pared-down prose of great beauty and oringinality, Hardwick approaches her subject--memory and the transformations we work upon it, and it upon us--with great restraint, bringing the novel's people and places vividly to life with an odd, knotty phrase or unexpected choice of word. Rather than focus with gushing self-indulgence on her own experience in the manner of contemporary tell-all memoirs, the author is more often probing the lives of the ignored and downtrodden she has known--cleaning ladies and laborers, small-town prostitutes and impoverished radicals, failed writers and homeless piano teachers. Hardwick broods over these small, burdened, often overlooked lives with a wry, unsentimental tenderness and a gentle pessimism. I can't tell you how often I've picked up this book since I first read it just to savor a paragraph or two or its gorgeously austere prose.
on April 26, 2000
On almost every page, a truth, poetry, carefully crafted prose: " The large, lonely house in the lovely, lonely northern town. The cold nights and the copper bottoms of the pans slowly losing their sheen. Nothing to smile about in the afternoons on the improvident sun porch. Bachelors again, in their depopulated settings,like large animals in their cages in the zoo, with the name of their species on the door." Plotless, apparently autobiographical, with telling observations on humanity encountered, I loved reading this exquisite work, inflamed as it is with the acknowledgement of what it is to be human.
This small novella from NYRB is a much-lauded work by Elizabeth Hardwick from the mid-Seventies; essentially plotless, it's a work of memory (both Proust and Tenessee Williams seem to haunt these pages... as does, oddly, Djuna Barnes) that encompasses autobiographical material from Hardwick's life growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, at Columbia as a graduate student in NYC, and in Boston as the partner of Robert Lowell (though he is never named in the narrative). The prose is often gorgeous (although there are times when it does get a bit NEW YORKER-precious in its sensory observations); the narrative passes much like a very vivid dream or a hallucination, so that though there is little to follow it will stay with you for months afterwards. This new NYRB edition comes with a spectacularly beautiful cover that suggests the hyperreal quality of the narrative, and a vacuous preface that tells you almost nothing about the book .
on October 30, 2000
I can really only reiterate what the last reviewer stated. This is one of the three or four books I pull off the bookshelf constantly to reread. Hardwick is a remarkable stylist and can evoke in a few pages (if not lines!) what it would take other writers whole novels to achieve. The section on Billie Holliday is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. This is the book that made me want to write.
on August 26, 2010
It took me a long time--months--to finish this little book. It might not necessarily invite intermittent reading, but clearly it's not preoccupied with the striptease of suspense and can be left for days, weeks, for as long as one wants, to be resumed when the mood suits its peculiar but indisputable beauty.
Anyway, it rewards sampling. A couple of passages tonight; more tomorrow night; more again in three weeks.
I always thought, returning to it: How nice to return to this.
In other words, it's not an expedient book. It's generous, leisurely, stylish--I think Hardwick is a topnotch stylist: her line is instantly recognizable (still true today), energetic, American, muscular, yet--here we go--feminine. Pre-occupied with minutiae, humane, not exactly gossipy but certainly concerned with social dynamics, long-suffering, efficient, and elegant.
While not a necessary book, it's emblematic of a kind of American writing that we must not lose. I speak of Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Miller. The autobiographical, the personal, rendered, at its best, acutely, passionately--but without sentimentality; or with sentimentality conveyed with such elegance and lean self-assurance that it a acquires a kind of youthful indisputability--in the sense, I guess, that young love or American power is indisputable. The book is just about beyond logical critique due to its sheer gorgeous intensity.
This is a wonderful gift-book for someone who loves English prose. Hardwick stands with William Carlos Williams as one of our master prose stylists.
on November 5, 2005
Heads up, all of you with M.F.A.s and those aspiring to write narrative non-fiction and autobiography. Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece of the genre avant la lettre. Through an effective use of sentence fragments, notes and letters sent and received, and sketches of people she has known intimately, Hardwick gives the reader a solid picture of New York City in the 1940s and after. But what Hardwick teaches us is that if writing can be taught, it must first be lived. Underneath Hardwick's combination of intimate conversational style and terse analysis of a lost era, one feels the author is a person of stable character, one who is a fully-conscious human being. Stylistically, Hardwick's method of composition is a pastiche of styles, a Post-modern hybrid, grounded in the fierce Modernist belief that every human being is essential to life.
Hardwick conveys human individuality through the technique of synaesthesia, a breathless juxtaposition of noun and adjective; for example, a young man was "a living, sturdy weed of gossip and laughter, of racing confessions about nights of fun and errors, of cooking recipes with unexpected olives, of fish sprinkled with chocolate..." Hardwick excites our desire to know the people she has known. I am a better human being for having read this book.
I first read Elizabeth Hardwick's short novel "Sleepless Nights" (1979) on a long trip early in the 1980s during a time of change for me. I was greatly moved by the book at the time. The factors which first drew me to the book have prompted me to read it again. The book is a beautifully sad evocation of memory and loneliness and loving one's life.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Hardwick (1916 -- 2007) became a New York intellectual who was a co-founder of the New York Review of Books. She is known for her sharp wit, her essays, and for this novel. Hardwick also endured a long, difficult marriage to the American poet, Robert Lowell. Although "Sleepless Nights" is partially autobiographical, it is unnecessary to know much about Hardwick in order to respond to the book.
Hardwick's novel is plotless. The story is told as a series of episodes disconnected in place and time with no underlying theme but memory. This was a deliberate decision on the author's part as Hardwick thought that the modern novel had to mirror modern life in its episodic, shifting character without the distraction of a contrived set of events. The book is told in the voice of an aged narrator, a "production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home", as she remembers or tries to remember events from her past. "Make a decision" she says, "and what you want from the lost things will present itself." A substantial part of the story is told in letters or other communications to the narrator's otherwise unidentified friend, M. The time frame of the story is from the 1930s to the early 1970s.
At the end of the book, the narrator offers a summary of her reflections as she remembers "the torment of personal relations", "the reading glasses and the assignation near the clammy faces, so gray, of the intense church ladies. And then a lifetime with its mound of men climbing on and off." The narrator concludes that "I love to be known by those I care for .... those whom I dare not ring up until morning and yet must talk to throughout the night."
Besides its lack of plot, "Sleepless Nights" is full of beautiful lyrically introspective writing. The writing is terse, reflective and poetical. The novel has sometimes been compared to a prose poem. It has a stream-of-conscious flow as the narrator recollects and tries to understand her experiences.
The book is at least as much about the people and places important to the narrator as it is about the narrator herself. While Hardwick was known for her ability to be sharp and caustic, the tone of "Sleepness Nights" is mellow and sad. Virtually all the characters experience sorrow and loss. Although there is a great deal of literary allusiveness in the book, the narrator's focus is not on her formidable intellect but is instead on love, sexuality, and attendant loneliness.
Much of the book is about down and out individuals: lonely men in Kentucky who take sexual advantage of the young narrator, prostitutes, bag women,cleaning ladies, and young lonely working women. Other characters include frustrated intellectuals, both male and female, who partake of the New York cocktail scene in the 1940s and 50s. An extended late chapter of the book describes the romantic adventures of a distinguished Dutch physician. The narrator describes a young gay man who was her roomate at Columbia at a sleazy hotel called the Hotel Schuyler, and who explored with her the jazz clubs of 1940s New York. The book includes an extended portrait of Billie Holiday. The narrator says of her:
"Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps even she was ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality."
The scenes of the book shift from the Kentucky of the narrator's youth, to New York City, Maine, Amsterdam, Boston, Connecticut, and elsewhere.
"Sleepless Nights" is a sad, eloquent meditation by person on her life as seen in memory and on transience. Lyricism,reflection, and acceptance of experience, even when unhappy, can bring meaning to life. Hardwick's little book may well be remembered when other louder and longer American novels of the late 20th Century have been forgotten.
on October 9, 2006
In this "novel," Hardwick writes a series of highly autobiographical vignettes tied together by... well nothing except her voice. The prose is, for the most part, excellent and this is a great book to pick up and read for a few pages to get your creative side working.
However, reading all these mostly unrelated fragements together gets reptitive and leaves you wanting something a little more coherent. If its going to be this loose and thin, why not just make it a series of prose poems instead of a novel?
Still, well worth the read.
on May 31, 2010
Melancholy suffuses "Sleepless Nights." A collage of memories, ruminations, vignettes, and character sketches, its 150 pages encompass a lifetime of poignant observations by a first-rate writer.
The book is most powerful as a remembrance of persons, mostly women, now dead ("They are gone, with all their questions unanswered"). Hardwick recaptures the essence of their lives, examining without compromise "the niceness and the squalor and sorrow." Hardwick's prose is a wonder. She assembles telling details in the service of building a series of fateful narratives. She produces writing that is in the best sense "novelistic" -- even if the resulting book falls outside the category of a novel. The book is beyond category, and is no less rewarding for that fact.
Every few pages Hardwick recounts another love story she either participated in or was a wide-eyed witness to. She refers to them as "love affairs with energy and hope." Each affair begins well. For example, she describes a temporary roommate in her Manhattan apartment, a gay man who "was one of those who look into new eyes and say: Now I am going to be happy." Yet every affair turns tragic, in its own way. These stories are so fully (yet economically) modeled that you'll swear, by the close of the book, that you've read several novels. With Hardwick, the relationships of men and women, of both high and low station, almost always lead to bitter endings. Closest to home, a sad bitterness attaches to Hardwick's own reflections on men, from her earliest encounters (among the "couples, looking into each other's eyes, as if they were safe") to her caustic memory, at the book's end, of "a lifetime with its mound of men climbing on and off."
Hardwick always shows a remarkable empathy for the life journeys of others, especially for the deprived, those she finds "worn down by life." Of a janitor, Hardwick notes: "He was one of those men who acted as if he expected to be shouted at and would not know how to reply." Early in the book she profiles the doomed Billie Holiday, whom Hardwick knew in New York City in the 1940's and 1950's. The author re-envisions the jazz singer's life, starting with a quick sketch of her physicality ("the heavy laugh, marvelous teeth, and the splendid head, archaic, as if washed up from the Aegean"), moving on to her performances, then offering the lesson of her early death ("she shared the changeling's spectacular destiny and was acquainted with malevolent forces"). A later chapter of the book, Part Nine, stands apart as a remarkable essay about the cleaning women whose lives intersected with Hardwick, as she moved from homes in Maine, Boston, and New York City.
The scope of Hardwick's curiosity is wide-ranging, yet three of her interests struck me as noteworthy. One is her fascination, or more accurately her obsession, with people's teeth. She introduces new characters with minimal physical descriptions, yet she invariably notes the person's dental health, as if it were a critical component of moral character. Is this a bit of folk wisdom absorbed in her youth spent in the horse-breeding state of Kentucky? A notable item in her bag of writer's resources is her familiarity with farm animals and their behavior, which she freely applies to people. A Depression-era socialist organizer in rural Kentucky "had the look of a clever turkey." Two city street people, homeless women, "wander about in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for." A final attachment is Hardwick's love/hate relationship with New York City. Early in the book she argues for a clear linkage between person and place: "It is not true that it doesn't matter where you live." Her verdict on Gotham: "This is New York, with its graves next to its banks." And then there's this surprising statement: "A woman's city, New York."
I recommend "Sleepless Nights" to writers who want to write better. Hardwick belongs to the elite class of "writers' writer"; come and learn from her. I also recommend the book to anyone fascinated with Manhattan of the post-WWII era, and to anyone who wants to spend a few hours with a companionate teller of women's truths.
on June 7, 2015
This is not an easy read. It requires the reader to suspend the need for completion and that can be tough. Hardwick's narrator looks back on her life and examines her intereactions with others, moments, places, decisions. She alights upon each and looks closely and deeply. In many ways, this is a collection of flash fictions, of lyric essays. Once I got my head around that, I settled in and began to enjoy it. I could see this as cinema, albeit avant garde! It's the kind of book I would hope to return to, to reread. It's the kind of book I'd like to think I might try to write one day as memoir...a continual dipping into memory. #bonesong