Lost & Found: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

It is impossible to write about Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights without writing about Elizabeth Hardwick.  The novel –– if it can be called a novel –– is the story –– if it can be called a story –– of a woman named Elizabeth.  She is a writer, a Southerner, born and bred in Kentucky, as was Hardwick.  She spends much of her adult life living in an artist’s studio on West Sixty-Seventh Street, and summers in Maine, as did Hardwick.  She is divorced –– “I am alone here in New York, and no longer a we” (51)–– as was Hardwick, who was famously married to, then not married to, then reunited with the poet Robert Lowell just prior to his death.  Before her marriage, she shares quarters and a tempestuous friendship –– a “mariage blanc” –– in New York City’s Schuyler Hotel with a young homosexual man from Kentucky, as did Hardwick. “He was quite handsome, but also soft and rounded and as determined against sports as if he had been born with a handicap.  But one year he began the recreation of himself in a daily horrible contest with barbells, push-ups and excruciating exercises.  And slowly the neck thickened, the chest expanded, the muscles of the arms were visible…by enormous effort, he finally succeeded in looking like the others.”  (38)   Hardwick and her friend spend time with Billie Holiday –– a time she describes in a 1976 essay in The New York Review of Books that contains many descriptions and details, sentences (“One winter she wore a great lynx coat and in it she moved, menacing and handsome as a Cossack, pacing about in the trap of her vitality”) that are identical to the corresponding scene (p 33) that she later wrote as fiction in Sleepless Nights.

Why does this matter?  Gotcha?  Hardly.  Hardwick, one of the great critics and intellectuals of her time, and a founder, along with Lowell, and Jason and Barbara Epstein, of The New York Review of Books, openly defied genre.  As a critic, she was less interested in theory than in what the critic Denis Donoghue called a “working psychology” and this psychology –– the shape of a mind, thinking –– is what shapes Sleepless Nights.   Incandescent, elliptical, challenging, her language itself is the story, and question of what is true and what is invented, what is fiction and what is memoir –– arguably one of the more tiresome literary questions of our current day –– pale against the excitement of watching Hardwick’s formidable (and at times hilarious) mind at work.  Reading Sleepless Nights, we are absorbed, not by the momentum and velocity of story, but rather, by the fascinations of inner life.

Action, Aristotle once wrote, is not plot, but merely the result of pathos.  And pathos itself is what forms Sleepless Nights.  Pathos does not exist in a temporal realty.  Nor is it linear.  It moves along a poetic circuitry that creates itself, much the way consciousness creates itself.   “If I want a plot,” Hardwick once commented in a Paris Review interview, “I’d watch Dallas.”

And so these layers, transparencies, of the fictional Elizabeth laid atop the real Elizabeth are like the layers of time and place that make up Sleepless Nights.  We are led into a fretting, sleepless mind occupied by its agitated turning, a life expanding and collapsing upon itself so that it’s all playing out at once.  Hardwick’s mind is a bit like her beloved New York, which she describes in terms at once acerbic and nostalgic:  “The Hotel Schuyler is gone now.  Uncertain elevators, dusty ‘penthouse’ suites, the greasy, smoking ovens of ‘housekeeping units,’ the lumpy armchairs –– a distracted life, near the Harvard Club, The New York Times, the old Hotel Astor, the Algonquin, Brentano’s.  In the halls you would sometimes hear a baby crying –– child of a transient –– and it was a sound from another world.  The irregular tenants were most pitiful when they received visits from relatives, from their ex-wives, their grown children.  They walked about sheepishly then, as if they had met with an accident.  Soon the disappointed sons and daughters left, wives went back home, and at the Schuyler, free once again, our people returned to their debaucheries, their bills, and that stain of life-giving paranoia –– limited, intact –– each one wore like a tattoo.”

Aside from the sheer joy of reading a writer who nails character the way Hardwick repeatedly does (I confess several times, while reading, I found myself grateful that she never had the opportunity to turn her gimlet gaze on me) it’s striking too, that the vanishing city of which she writes has since been painted over by several generations of ever-vanishing cities. Brentano’s has been shuttered for years, not to mention Scribner’s, B. Dalton, and The Doubleday Bookshop –– all within a few blocks that now teem with tourists getting good deals at Prada.  The old Hotel Astor has faded from memory.  Even The New York Times has moved to a soaring tower a few long blocks west.  Institutions.  You can’t count on them.  And yet, Hardwick’s city –– “New York, with its graves next to its banks” (50) –– is at once a ghost, and alive as it ever once was.  “A brilliant night outside in New York City.  It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants, jumping in taxicabs, careening from West to East by way of the underpass through the park.”  (108)

It is only fitting that this literary excavation of the pathos of interior life should contain, near its end, the phrase “the battered calendar of the past.”  Indeed, the entire slim volume is a battered calendar, its pages flipping back and forth as if by a gusty wind.  The experience of reading Sleepless Nights is a profoundly intimate one.  Hardwick will never read these words, but I wanted to do her proud.  I hoped to apply my “working psychology” to hers, and in so doing, add a layer to the ongoing, ever-evolving, edifice of transparencies, as soaring and beautiful somehow as real as her New York––or mine––or the cities still to come.  No matter.  “In truth,” she writes “moments, months, even years were magical.  Pages turned, answering prayers, and persons called out, Are you there?  The moon changed the field to the silvery lavender of daybreak.”