“The Sun is sinking fast”
Posted August 3, 2007on:
Is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick an experimental novel? If it is, as Dorothy described it, it’s the first I’ve unabashedly enjoyed after a shaky start. It is fragmentary but not in the sense that any section or chapter is disposable. It’s a collection of connected portraitures that, by their different colours and brush strokes one can create an idea of the writer. The fragmentary style, the focus on romantic relationships, many ending with betrayal and divorce, reminded me of The Good Soldier; but it’s more like Caroline Greenwood’s Great Granny Webster in its short length and focused depiction on memorable characters. Two different kind of sensibilities.
The woman in the novel is going through her memories, sifting through old letters in an effort to reconstruct her past. I don’t know if the reading experience was intentionally meant to mimic the difficulty of the task but I found the first few pages disorienting. There was nothing for my mind to glom onto and up until her Kentucky memories, found it an easy book to set aside for another day. After that I found the descriptions of her characters compelling enough that I rushed to the end. Some of her descriptions were marvellous: unique in their diction yet captured recognisable qualities. One of my favourites is a description of Ida in part nine, the most memorable chapter for me because she recalled the cleaning women, Ida and Josette, with such sincere warmth and affection.
Large head, large teeth, large carpet slippers, and the large arms that have been wringing, pulling, lifting for a lifetime. All of the large parts of the body hurt in some way, even if all are strong….Twice a week she goes touring about town…and she makes her laundry deliveries. Groans and loud, hoarse laughter as she hauls first herself and then the laundry baskets out of the sinking back seat. Not much over thirty years old then, but no hint of youth except for the curls which have been formed by pins clamped next to her ears. Reddish curls, large, round, reddish face, and a voice large and reddish.
Its vibrancy was emphasized by the very different Josette, a contrast Hardwick employed often to clarify the distinctive characteristics of the people, places or objects she remembered.
Josette raced around Boston like a migrant bird. Sometimes Irish maids, fresh-faced even into old age from birth in a countryside somewhere, were taken aback by her industrial grayness, that discoloring gene of the mills and the shoe factories.
Josette’s compassionate and accepting nature cannot obscure her physical bleakness that hints at biological weaknesses. She has cancer, a mastectomy on both of her breasts. Death is a constant, with its different facets presented as Hardwick presented different sides to love. From Kentucky, the “cemetery of home” that “waits to be desecrated”, to the wildly self-destructive force of Billie Holiday, Manhattan’s embalmed rich with their hoarded treasures, and the living “hearse of love” that is an elderly parent unexpectedly foisted on to an offspring. There are the early deaths of the writer’s friend J.; Billie Holiday ; an old (perhaps her first) lover; a young prostitute from her first home in Kentucky; to the more “natural” deaths of her husband’s parents, one before and during their one year stay in Amsterdam; and Josette and her husband Michael. If they are not dead, they are nearly there, like Ms Cramer. Alex, a friend and transient lover, is one of the few characters left in their prime, but Hardwick counters this by connecting his then bachelor life to a gloomy future as shown in two elderly men in Vermont who unwillingly returned to the bachelor life: a wife of one had left him for another, and the second was a widow.
It is not strange for someone who has lived a long life, as it seems the the writer in the story has, and Hardwick herself was 60 when the book was published. Love and death are elemental parts of life’s existence. What’s interesting is how unobtrusively it is inserted, how pragmatically it is often noted. For all its frequency on the first read it is does not produce an overbearing, dramatic, or depressing effect, at least it didn’t for me. One simply nods and takes it in, perhaps too taken with the persons when alive to notice the inevitable undercurrent too much.
Love is depicted depressingly enough, or at least portrayed in all its very modern condition. Or perhaps the better word is sexual relations? The Elizabeth of the novel mentions a time in her youth when she had sex “merely to have it” but never recalls a time when it was pleasurable; suggestive because she was married for an unspecified number of years. Persons of various sexual persuasions have relationships that are doomed from the start because of the personalities involved. Divorce is the rule of the day with the novel’s Elizabeth no exception. Women are left to soothe themselves with art or to seek reassurance from similar victims that life post-divorce is OK:
Two women recently divorced came up to me with inquisitorial and serious frowns. Are you lonely? they asked.
That’s marvelous, the first one said, smiling. The second said, gravely: Terrific.
The earliest mentions of sex in the book is the predatory bribes of a “very nice-looking old man” to young girls, shame-tainted episodes in a house in a seedy side of town with an older gentleman when she was 18, and the lurid end of a young prostitutes life from STDs. And she makes brief allusions to drunken encounters with drunk frat boys.
Again it’s odd how the details look very glum so baldly laid out, but attain a natural, flexible life in the story in which one merely accepts it as part of the story and is not disturbed or unduly bothered by it. But Hardwick acknowledges the intentional tone behind the recounts of such moments: “Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone — many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.”
In the end I can only be pleased at a writer who places in an autobiographical novel everyone but herself at the forefront. For a New York novel it misses all the stereotypes. It encompasses persons who are truly from all levels of society — in which “starving artists” are certainly not the most destitute — with those of the working class meriting more vibrant descriptions that almost anyone else. There are deadly swipes at the “frozen intellectuals”, depictions free from clumsy inclusions of a plucky, white middle-class hero. On the first read through I retained a vague pleasure. On the second I leave with a finer view into the unending facets of the people one meets in ordinary life, provided in superior form by an inveterate observer. Connections between chapters were easier to catch and a discernible if not cohesive design emerged. It’s a book that requires rereading, I think. (Only for those who enjoyed it the first time through of course. I’m no proponent of torture.)