Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tales from the Life of an Observer

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 held together as a narrative.

Memory, Truth, and Fiction

Reading Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick was at times like reading poetry. The quality of the writing is meditative and episodic. There is no beginning-middle-end plot. The book is what you might find yourself thinking of if you couldn't sleep at night. Not the worried about this and that stuff but the, I wonder how so-and-so is doing? And whatever happened to--? And I remember when--.

The novel is about a lot things but for me what stood out were the ideas about memory, truth, and fiction. These Hardwick sets up in the second paragraph of the book:
If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can talk it down like a can from a shelf. Perhaps. One can would be marked Rand Avenue in Kentucky and some would recall the address at least as true. Inside the can are the blackening porches of winter, the gas grates, the swarm.
Statements of certainty followed by words that throw everything into doubt. Nothing is sure in this book. The narrator is named Elizabeth and her life is like the author's but it isn't. Elizabeth is writing about her life in letters to someone named M but the novel is not epistolary. She is telling about her life but she isn't, instead giving us stories about maids and Billie Holiday and other people.

Everywhere sprinkled throughout the book are references to memory and truth and fiction and how little or how much we know about ourselves and each other. At one point she writes, "Marie, I do not understand your fear of disillusion. Don't you see that revision can enter the heart like a new love?" And in the end:
Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hinderance to memory.
Facts getting in the way of memory, in the way of revising the past to suit your memories. If others know the facts it gets in the way of your revisions.

But the narrator isn't against everyone knowing the truth. There are some, the ones she cares for, who she "love[s] to be known by" and is always talking to them either by phone or letter. I can't help but wonder, however, with Elizabeth's penchant for revision, for making her life a fiction, how well she knows herself and how well she can really be known by anyone. Perhaps it is not the facts that matter but what one does with the facts? The story one makes out of them can be more revealing than the reality.

For such a short book there is much to think about. This is a book that would benefit from a re-reading. Like poetry, it will only get richer with familiarity.

Cross posted at So Many Books

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

I’ve been trying to decide what to say about Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick for quite a while now, and I’m still not sure. I feel conflicted not so much about the book itself but about what I actually feel and what I think I should feel about this book. I want to like non-traditional, experimental fiction. And I’d really like not only just to like it but to unequivocally enjoy the reading of it. But that doesn’t always happen. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress I appreciated it and thought about it a lot and am glad I read it, but I didn’t savor the experience. I didn’t mind putting it down after a while.

With Sleepless Nights I felt something similar. I appreciate what she’s doing, and I enjoyed the reading of it — more than I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Mistress — but I also didn’t mind putting it down after a while. I read this book in short chunks — and the structure of the book makes that easy, with short “parts” and shorter sections within those parts — and I don’t think I could have read it fast if I’d tried.

Maybe the most damning thing I have to say about it (in my mind) is that I find myself not having a whole lot to say about it. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, at least, I felt like I had a lot to say. As I sit here and try to pull together my thoughts on Sleepless Nights, what comes into my mind most often is the question of how I felt as I was reading it. I have already forgotten many of the book’s details, and I don’t have a strong sense of the book’s mood or atmosphere or a strong sense of character that might make me look back on my reading experience with pleasure.

But — enough of this navel-gazing. The book is short, about 130 pages, and is a collection of the thoughts and memories of a woman named Elizabeth. This is way the book opens:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today ….


If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from the shelf.

This makes a suitable introduction to the book, as it introduces the narrator and her task — to gather her memories and write them down. But it also warns us that what she remembers may be distorted, that she is not giving us a history of her life, but rather a picture of her life as she remembers it now. Everything is filtered through her present consciousness.

The narrative doesn’t follow chronological order, skipping around from place to place and year to year, as our memories do. So we get glimpses into her life — a youth spent in Kentucky and adulthood in New York City, Boston, Maine, and Amsterdam. She describes lovers, friends, and acquaintances, events and observations. There isn’t any connective tissue to any of this, no transitions that tell us how one story relates to another; instead they are simply bump up against one another, again, as our memories tend to do.

The narrator’s mother haunts many of the pages; early on she describes her life:

My own affectionate, tireless mother had nine children. This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature. It was a thing, a presence, and she seemed to walk about encased in the clear globe of it. It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.

The narrator makes sure that she does not share this fate; instead her own story is of freedom and independence, of writing and travel and experience. She rejects her mother’s femininity (”an ineffable femininity, tidal”), and yet she’s aware of how it shapes her writing:

Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian — all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient — never mind that it is the truth. 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.

She is not writing an adventure tale of the type that men can much more easily experience and record; rather, her life and therefore her book are shaped by the domestic and by the reading she has done in those domestic spaces. This passage declares her refusal to write a traditional novel with a clear beginning and end and with action and adventure and drama; the novel that will portray her experience as a woman cannot be traditional. Instead it experiments with the elements of storytelling that have been passed down to her, in an attempt to write something new that can capture the memories circling around in her head.

There were moments when I read with pleasure, enjoying a portrait of a character Hardwick drew with skill. Her description of Billie Holiday, for example, is devastating. The book didn’t sustain that level of interest or pleasure, however. I’m very curious to hear what other people thought!

Words steeped in the conditional

Elizabeth Hardwick is the possessor of an amazing life: founder of the New York Review of Books, married to Robert Lowell, critic, novelist, essayist. Sleepless Nights, an odd hybrid of genres and ontological stances, may be her account of that life.

Or perhaps not - she did say, as Geoffrey O'Brien recounts in his introduction to the NYRB edition, that "A good deal of the book is, as they say, made up." This "as they say" is a bit of brilliance; it plays off the convention that memoirs are as much exercises in the weaving of fictions as novels are devices for sublimating personal demons, but it also asserts Hardwick's nearly infinite capacity to inhabit two stances at once. There is the fictional character Elizabeth, the protagonist of Sleepless Nights, and the outsider observing her fraught fictionality. Creating a protagonist who is both you and not-you is innovative, but it also reveals the anxiety of fiction writing, which demands a complex dance of revealing and concealing from the author.

In these identity games, Sleepless Nights reminds me of Martin Crimp's play Attempts on her Life, in which various efforts at the creation of a central character (via the lenses of screenwriting, celebrity, journalism, autobiography, archeology, fiction, and performance) reveal their inner violence as well as the multiplicity of identity. Attempts on her Life, famously, can mean either efforts at the ineffable holistic understanding of identity, or murderous attempts to eradicate it. But Hardwick's novel/memoir/genre-cracking performance also reminded me strongly of Adrienne Kennedy's work, perhaps because of the strong presence of New York as an environmental character, and perhaps because Kennedy chooses both writing and the stage as a means of negotiating the relationship between art and personal trauma, fiction and biography.

It seems strange to me that Sleepless Nights should fall into dialogue (in my mind) primarily with dramatic texts when, for all its generic experiments, it is fairly clearly prose. It is a novel of fragments, in which the events of Elizabeth's life are recounted as through the diffusing impulse of memory, an impulse which seems centrifugal, but in fact connects disparate elements as no linear narrative could do. Time never presents a problem for memory: associations skip freely over the years on thematic or imagistic lines, outlining a character, a relationship or a place without any reference to temporal development, to the arcs or lines of a well-made play or a realist novel.

Oddly, the novel begins with an assertion of time, the time of writing, before establishing memory's power to transform the order of history: "It is June," goes the first line, "This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today." Living and writing cannot be separated. Both are actions that irrevocably transform everything that came before, as well as everything that comes after.

In one very famous section, Billie Holiday's bold and shattered life kisses up against Elizabeth's, and yet these encounters are no more or less formative than the quasi-marital relationship she develops with her gay roommate in roughly (always roughly!) the same period. Elizabeth lives life as an experiment in hybridity; a relationship cannot simply be friendship, but must partake in complexities of eros and convention that confuse the received wisdom on sexuality.

Some of the novels fragments are set out in letters, some as reflections on character (it is primarily a work about character, rather than about plot), some as responses to epigrammatic interjections from other famous writers. In fact, Sleepless Nights is considerably more aphoristic than it is novelistic, as you can probably tell from this unusually abstract review. Any attempt to summarize the plot of Sleepless Nights seems to me to be a flirtation with madness (Susan Sontag spoke beautifully to the subtlety of its shifts when she called it "a novel of mental weather"), but there are passages from every part of the short work which make this a thrilling read.

Hardwick on travel:
I took a journey, and of course, immediately everything was new. When you travel, your first discovery is that you do not exist. (5)

Travel as self-annihilation, as an exercise in proportion. How very different from the common assumption of tourism, that travel means having the world conform to your comfort, your wishes. Touristic travel is a way to bring back the whole world in convenient, manageable, diminished photographs. To reassert the reality of your quotidian life.

Speaking of photographs:
Photographs of marriage. records of blood, decisions, sacraments observed. In my apartment, around us, in the old fading red-pine chest, in the mahogany desk, in the Swedish desk too, in the fumed oak blanket chest, in manila envelopes marked "trip to Europe" are my own photographs, three hundred or more, that bear witness to form; pictures in the drawer, in the old box, photographs that make one his own ancestor. Of others I have cared about, cared for years - not a trace, not a fingerprint. As it should be. Those who leave nothing behind cannot be missed for long. (60)

And, perhaps my favorite, Hardwick on possessions, family, and sharing:
Of course these things are not mine. I think they are usually spoken of as ours, that tea bag of a word which steeps in the conditional. (6)
Here we are back to social hybridity, the double-stance of the "usually spoken of," cousin of "as you say" - myself/not-myself.

This is a fairly extraordinary document of a life and a character. Sleepless Nights feels as if someone had written the most vivid and witty of diaries for several decades, then ripped out all the pages and tossed them into the air. The reader wanders into this experiment in Dada with Hardwick, picking up a moment here, an encounter there, trying to make meaning out of seemingly random conjunctions. And how, after all, does one make meaning out of a life?

[The original version of this review can be found at Sycorax Pine.]

Characters on the periphery

There came a point in Sleepless Nights when I began to think of a bit of dialogue from Anne Tyler's Searching for Caleb:

You want to hear about my movie?"


"I'm going to buy a camera and walk around filming to one side of things, wherever the action isn't. Say there's a touchdown at a football game, I'll narrow in on one straggling player at the other end of the field. If I see a purse-snatcher I'll find someone reading a newspaper just to the right of the victim."

"What's the point?" Justine asked.

"Point? It'll be the first realistic movie ever made. In true life you're never focused on where the action is. Or not so often. Not so finely." He stopped and looked at her. "Point?" he said. "You don't usually ask me that."

This isn't exactly what Elizabeth Hardwick does in Sleepless Nights, but it is close enough to give me pause. Much of this novel--"this work of transformed and even distorted memory," as the narrator calls it in the opening lines--is concerned, to a great extent, with characters who would have been more on the periphery of her life than at the center, the "unfortunate ones" she has known, who live "surrounded by their own kind."

Perhaps here began a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.

The narrator, a woman named Elizabeth like the author, who has lived a life similar to that of the author, has landed as "a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home." She chooses to remember people and places from her past, from the Lexington, Kentucky, of her youth, to the cities of her adulthood, Boston, Amsterdam, New York, and put her memories into a type of order. But she omits most of what would provide the reader with a solid ground for understanding how and why she's come to this and what has happened to those who would have been at the center of her life, other than that they have died:

Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.

Readers learn the distilled life stories of a maid, a laundress, an Appalachian communist. We catch glimpses of an uncle who writes letters to Elizabeth's mother from a mental hospital and various roommates, constructing lives out of Arthur Murray dancing classes or phonied-up prior job experience. We learn of Elizabeth's gay friend J., who dies young, the offstage Billie Holliday, a carpet sweeper and the residents of the squalid Hotel Schuyler, instead of the relationship that caused her to need an abortion, dealt with in two brief paragraphs that focus on the abortioners and their wives. Misdirection.

Elizabeth has lots of sex, not all of it enjoyable, but does not allow herself to become a victim of "fateful fertility" as her mother did, although she says she has always, "all of my life, been looking for help from a man." She and her childhood girlfriends learned "the tangled nature of bribery" via a predator who paid their way into movie theaters and fondled them as they ate chocolates.

To think, that is to wonder what I would be forgiven for remembering or imagining. What do those of my flesh and blood deem suitable, not a betrayal? Why didn't you change your name? Then you could make up anything you like, without it seeming to be true when all of it is not. I do not know the answer.

Narrator or author speaking here?

All we know for sure is is that Elizabeth, who "loves to be known by those" she cares for, writes down her memories of those she dares "not ring up until morning and yet must talk to throughout the night."

I'm definitely looking forward to discussion of this one.