Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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.]


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review. I find it interesting you made so many connections to drama while reading the book. I kept thinking of poetry. And of course both fit since the book is no one thing. You make a good point about how memory doesn't have to be chronological. Our memory does jump around--free association in a way--and that's almost what this book is, but not quite.

darkorpheus said...

Great review. I love some of the passages you quoted - some of which I've also underlined because they just stand out. The bit about travel: "When you travel, your first discovery is that you do not exist" and "that tea bag of a word which steeps in the conditional"

I find myself just re-reading those outsanding lines, passages, letting my thoughts just roll around them.

The book seems to me to be sifting through memories, and once in a while, a nugget of a memory, a thought - just comes up.

I really need to ask the source of the Sontag quote that describes this book as: "a novel of mental weather" - because well, it makes me go "Hmm...." in a good way. :)

darkorpheus said...

Oops, just saw the blurb from Susan Sontag at the back of the book.

Sycorax Pine said...

Thanks, stefanie and dark orpheus! I have to admit that I probably made connections to drama first because drama is what I study, rather because of any inherent theatricality in the book. But perhaps it is all part of the genre-defying nature of the work.

As for the Sontag quotation, I too would like to know whether it was a true blurb or a quotation from Sontag's writings. I can't remember whether it said on the back of the book...

Gentle Reader said...

Great review. I also love the passages you quoted. I really loved the one about ours being conditional--that stood out to me, too!

darkorpheus said...

Pour of Tor Located the Songtag quote - it's from "Where the Stress Falls", and essay Sontag wrote for The New Yorker. And very conveniently found in the collection, Where the Stress Falls.