Author(s): Elizabeth Hardwick
'A series of fleeting images and memories ... united by the high intelligence and beauty of Hardwick's prose.' - Sally Rooney
I am alone here in New York, no longer a we ...
First published in 1979, Sleepless Nights is a unique collage of fiction and memoir, letters and essays, portraits and dreams. It is more than the story of a life: it is Elizabeth Hardwick's experience of womanhood in the twentieth century. Escaping her childhood home of Kentucky, the narrator arrives at a bohemian hotel in Manhattan filled with 'drunks, actors, gamblers ... love and alcohol and clothes on the floor.' Here begin the erotic affairs and dinner parties, the abortions and heartbreaks, the friendships and 'people I have buried'. Here are luminous sketches of characters she has met that illuminate the era's racism, sexism, and poverty. Above all, here is prose blurring into poetry, language to lose - and perhaps to find - yourself in.
Society tries to write these lives before they are lived. It does not always succeed.
“Fact is to me a hindrance to memory,” writes the narrator in this remarkable collage of passages evoking the ways in which past experiences have impressed themselves indelibly upon her. The sleepless nights of the title are not so much those of the narrator’s youth, though these are either well documented or implied and so the title is not not about them, but those of her present life, supposedly as “a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home”, waking in the night “to address myself to B. and D. and C.—those whom I dare not ring up until morning and yet must talk to through the night.” As if the narrator is a projection of the author herself, cast forward upon some distorting screen, the ten parts of the book make no distinction between verifiable biographical facts and the efflorescence of stories that arise in the author’s mind as supplementary to those facts, or in substitution for them. Elizabeth the narrator seems almost aware of the precarity of her role, and of her identity as distinct from but overlapping that of the author: “I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today.” Hardwick writes mind-woundingly beautiful sentences, many-commaed, building ecstatically, at once patient and careering, towards a point at which pain and beauty, memory and invention, self and other are indistinguishable. Spanning over fifty years, the book, the exquisite narrowness of focus of which is kept immediate by the exclusion of summary, frame or context, records the marks remaining upon the narrator of those persons, events or situations from her past that have not yet been replaced, or not yet been able to be replaced, by the ersatz experiences of stories about those persons, events and situations. “My father…is out, because I can see him only as a character in literature, already recorded.” Hardwick and her narrator are aware that one of the functions of stories is to replace and vitiate experience (“It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will soon read like a stage direction”), and she/she writes effectively in opposition to this function. Observation brings the narrator too close to what she observes, she becomes those things, is marked by them, passes these marks on to us in sentences full of surprising particularity, resisting the pull towards generalisation, the gravitational pull of cliches, the lazy engines of bad fiction. Many of Hardwick’s passages are unforgettable for an uncomfortable vividness of description—in other words, of awareness—accompanied by a slight consequent irritation, for how else can she—or we—react to such uninvited intensity of experience? Is she, by writing it, defending herself from, for example, her overwhelming awareness of the awful men who share her carriage in the Canadian train journey related in the first part, is she mercilessly inflicting this experience upon us, knowing it will mark us just as surely as if we had had the experience ourselves, or is there a way in which razor-sharp, well-wielded words enable both writer and reader to at once both recognise and somehow overcome the awfulness of others (Rachel Cusk here springs to mind in comparison)? In relating the lives of people encountered in the course of her life, the narrator often withdraws to a position of uncertain agency within the narration, an observatory distance, but surprises us by popping up from time to time when forgotten, sometimes as part of a we of uncertain composition, uncertain, that is, as to whether it includes a historic you that has been addressed by the whole composition without our realising, or whether the other part of we is a he or she, indicating, perhaps, that the narrator has been addressing us all along, after all. All this is secondary, however, to the sentences that enter us like needles: “The present summer now. One too many with the gulls, the cry of small boats on the strain, the soiled sea, the sick calm.”