Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (Book acquired, 3.07.2016)

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 I picked up Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights yesterday. (I was browsing the “H, classics” for something else, which I did not find, but I found this). Here’s the beginning of Joan Didion’s 1979 review in The New York Times:

“I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man,” we are told near the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick’s subtle new book. “It has come many times and many more than not. This began early.” . . . “Sleepless Nights” is a novel, but it is a novel in which the subject is memory and to which the “I” whose memories are in question is entirely and deliberately the author: we recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life not only from her earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell. We study in another light the rainy afternoons and dyed satin shoes and high-school drunkenness of the Kentucky adolescence, the thin coats and yearnings toward home of the graduate years at Columbia, the households in Maine and Europe and on Marlborough Street in Boston and West 67th Street in New York. We are presented the entire itinerary, shown all the punched tickets and transfers. The result is less a “story about” or “of” a life than a shattered meditation on it, a work as evocative and difficult to place as Claude Levi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques,” which it oddly recalls. The author observes of her enigmatic narrative: “It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

This strikes an interesting note, a balance of Oriental diffidence and exquisite contempt, of irony and direct statement, that exactly expresses the sensibility at work in “Sleepless Nights.” “But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.” Triste Tropique indeed. By way of suggesting his own intention, Levi-Strauss quoted Chateaubriand: “Every man carries within himself a world made up of all that he has seen and loved, and it is to this world that he returns, incessantly.” In certain ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic “difference” of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick’s great subject, the tropic to which she has returned incessantly: it colored both of her early novels, “The Ghostly Lover” in 1945 and “The Simple Truth” in 1955, as well as many of the essays collected in 1962 as “A View of My Own” and all of those published in 1974 as “Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature.”

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