Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick


I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) for the Slaves of Golconda this month. If I had to give the book a subtitle, it would be "Tales from the Life of an Observer." This book is probably the novel least like a novel that I have ever read. There’s not a real way to summarize the plot, because it doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is a novel of fragments, snatches of memory from a woman’s life. The narrator seems to be Elizabeth Hardwick, and not Elizabeth Hardwick. It is an autobiographical novel, but Hardwick is cagy even about categorizing it thus. And she reminds us in the first paragraph of the book that memory is not to be trusted. She writes from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life, and calls this story “work of transformed and even distorted memory”. And then she says, “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.”

The back jacket copy of the book calls the book a “scrapbook of memories, reflections, portraits, letters, wishes, and dreams”, and I like this description. It is this, and it is a portrait of a woman as seen out of the corner of the eye. The narrator doesn’t really tell us about her life, she tells us about the lives of the people around her, and we have to read between the lines to figure out who she is. So it seems that we are the ones assembling a scrapbook or collage, sifting through the details that seem to make up this woman’s life. It is an odd experience, reading this way, but I don’t think it’s unpleasant, just different for me. I’m used to a more straightforward narrative, and though it can be frustrating, it is also sometimes like reading poetry.

And as I got to know the narrator, I found that she is, like many writers, an obsessive observer. She is distracted from her own life by watching others, and finds meaning in her own life by watching others. She observes these peripheral characters in her life--people like a young prostitute in her Kentucky town, her homosexual roommate in New York, a guilty, sad woman with a mentally ill son, a neighbor who was an opera singer but becomes a bag lady, even Billie Holliday—she watches them and comments on their pain (mostly their pain, as this is not a book about happy people), and we can tell that she is compelled to do so, and defines herself by doing so.

Hardwick’s minimalist descriptions often pack a real punch. What seems at first to be a mere list of words could eventually bring tears to my eyes.

Here’s a description of life in New York for those of a certain class:
How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors. Divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable and the unattainable, ennui filled with action, sad, tumultuous middle-age years shaken by crashings, uprootings, coups, desperate renewals. Weaknesses discovered, hidden forces unmasked, predictions, what will last and what is doomed, what will start and what will end. Work and love; the idle imagining the pleasure of the working ones. Those who work and their quizzical frowns which ask: When will something new come to me? After all I am a sort of success.
She goes on to say: “There was talk about poverty. Poverty is very big this year, someone said.”

But then she goes on to describe poverty on the streets of New York, a very personal description of the bag ladies, who seem somehow emblematic of all women, to Hardwick:
A woman’s city, New York. The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies. Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon. Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes. One lady holds an empty perfume bottle with a knuckle on top of it indistinguishable from her finger. They and their rubbish a parasitic growth heavy with suffering; the broken glass screams, the broken veins weep; the toes ache along with the ache of the slashed boot. Have mercy on them, someone.
Hardwick's descriptions are always raw, always thought-provoking. As Geoffrey O'Brien says in the introduction to the novel, "The experiences that are evoked, described, brought to life, are at the same time shown to be words, tokens, emblems." I felt that the words, tokens, emblems were beautiful, but sometimes hard to decode.

This is a novel about a woman’s thoughts and observations, and through those thoughts and observations, we get glimpses of her life, but it’s a picture we have to put together ourselves. I found this plotlessness at times frustrating and at times mind-expanding. Sometimes her observations would send my thoughts off on surprising tangents. And the writing was often poetic and beautiful, so I enjoyed reading it, though I didn’t feel it always stuck together as a narrative.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, you can join in the discussion about this book at MetaxuCafe.

16 comments:

Literary Feline said...

What a great review! This novel sounds interesting--and different. I will have to look further into it.

Gentle Reader said...

literary feline--it is interesting, and very different. Not the sort of thing I usually read, but I enjoyed it. And lots of the Slaves seemed to feel similarly, if you check out the website. But lots of people got frustrated with it, too...so it's a little controversial, which is always fun!

litlove said...

This is a beautiful review, gentle reader, and it helps me get a great deal more out of the book than I did initially. Thank you.

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--now that's a compliment! Thank you!

Joy said...

I ditto what Literary Feline said. :) Seems like a very unique work and that can be very intriguing.

Gentle Reader said...

joy--it is unique--I can honestly say I've never read anything like it!

Bookfool said...

It definitely sounds unique. I peeked at the conversation and I'm particularly intrigued that someone noticed she went on and on about teeth. Teeth? Hmm. Thanks, cool review!

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--I know, I saw that about the teeth! Wasn't that funny? I did not notice an excessive amount of teeth, but that person had the evidence to back it up! He he he!

iliana said...

This was a great review. I had such a hard time with this book that I gave up half way! It's not even a big book - what's wrong with me!! :)
You touched on something that I guess was the reason that I couldn't get into it. The feeling that it was or wasn't Hardwick who the book was about. I just felt lost basically.

Gentle Reader said...

iliana--I understand the lost feeling. It took me awhile to get into it, and I definitely had to read it as an experimental form, not as a normal narrative. Imani (at The Books of My Numberless Dreams--sorry I'm not sure how to make that into a link in comments--pathetic, I know) wrote a great review and said that rereading it was really helpful for her. I liked the book, but not sure I'm going for a second time!

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