elizabeth hardwick, “new york stories”/”sleepless nights”

Elizabeth Hardwick
The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick
(New York Review Books, 2010)

Elizabeth Hardwick
Sleepless Nights
(Random House, 1979)

Two books by Elizabeth Hardwick, both rather small. New York Stories is a posthumous compilation of Hardwick’s short stories involving New York: while this appears to be the first collection of her short stories in book form, I’m not sure offhand how complete a collection of her stories this actually is. At 200 pages, it’s a thin book. Sleepless Nights is a short novel from 1979; while it’s been reprinted by New York Review Books fairly frequently, my copy is an old hardback. Part 8 of this novel, first published in the New Yorker, also appears in The New York Stories under the name “The Faithful”: there’s almost the feeling that that book needed padding, that it might not have appeared substantive enough without more pages.

New York Stories is an oddly structured book. The earliest story here is from 1948; six are from the 1950s, and then there’s a twenty-year gap before “The Faithful” appears. There are three stories from the 1980s, and the last from 1993. The first half of the book, then, might be described as New Yorker-style stories from the 1950s; the second half deals with the fractured New York of 1980. Her novels seem similarly disjunct: The Ghostly Lover appeared in 1945, The Simple Truth in 1955; both of these, which I have not read, seem to have been out of print for a while, but maybe NYRB will get around to them. There’s no great secret for the gap in her fiction: in between these two periods, of course, Hardwick was busy founding, editing, and writing for the New York Review of Books.

The stories from the 1950s are good for what they are; I should admit that the American short story from that period isn’t a form of which I’m particularly fond, perhaps a myopia. There is sociological interest: Hardwick is a good observer, and her characters are sharply drawn. Here, for example, she delineates a professor seen at a dinner party:

Clarence, a bachelor and only thirty-eight, was nevertheless a lover of things as they once were. Everything seemed to him to have been subtly degraded, from the quality of bread to the high-school curriculum. Violent feelings of disappointment, exhausting worries about the future of culture, had a fierce dominion over Clarence’s existence. He was so fully and abjectly under the tyranny of these feelings that the feelings themselves were in his own mind mistaken for “work.” When he was angry with a colleague, defeated in a committee meeting, dismayed by the poor preparation of the students, these experiences seemed to him to be his job. They were much too devastating and severe for him to take lightly. In judging his extremity of emotion, he found it simply an example of his greater diligence and dedication, his superiority to the mechanics being turned out by the graduate schools. Clarence cared, he suffered, he worried. Nesbit’s Under-Secretary of State airs and his desire to be an important figure in the intellectual world seemed to his critic, Clarence, to be a slighting of the great career of education. (“The Classless Society,” pp. 93–94)

This story, as far as I can tell, is not a New York story at all as it takes place at the University of Chicago; although it might be argued that the characters behave much more like they would in New York than they might in Chicago. Hardwick’s interest is the intellectual set; artists and bohemians behave like artists and bohemians, people complain, inevitably, about how the Village isn’t what it used to be. My failure to engage with these stories isn’t because Hardwick’s writing is bad – it certainly isn’t, and it obviously wasn’t her job to please me at this date; rather, it’s because all of this seems so familiar.

When Hardwick starts writing again – both in the later stories in New York Stories and in Sleepless Nights – one almost senses that Hardwick herself might have been bored with what she was doing before, or realized that she’d run into a dead end. Sleepless Nights bears a certain stylistic similarity to Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which would have come out a few years before. In comparison to her earlier stories, Hardwick’s fiction from 1979 on seems decidedly more invigorated, with a new sensibility to the potentials of form; but it does come off as ineluctably dated, in the same way that color film can be pinpointed to the 1970s by that particular fade. Narration shifts to the first-person, of course; the protagonist of Sleepless Nights is named Elizabeth and is from Kentucky; the prose is considerably more fractured, and more explicitly literary: in a single paragraph early in the book, one finds reference to Pasternak, Leconte de Lisle, Hugo, and Ibsen.

Modernism has been taken into account in Sleepless Nights, as it isn’t particularly in Hardwick’s stories from the 1950s. Sleepless Nights largely dispenses with plot; there’s a central consciousness, Elizabeth, but the narrative shuttles back and forth across time and space (a central focus being New York around 1973), and each of the ten sections could function individually. Secondary characters come and go, generally not making it across the section dividers; the one stable character is an M., to whom Elizabeth writes letters included in the text, but it’s unclear whether these letters have been written to be sent. The language feels more free than in Hardwick’s earlier stories: compare another passage describing a party:

This is what I heard in the evening. At the party everyone was intelligent and agreeable, but not particularly good-looking. No person of talent had brought along a new, beautiful, young girl, who being new and not knowing all the names would seem rude and superior, thus sending arrows of pain into the flesh of the older people who were known for something. Eyeglasses glimmered. Academics, like old barons of the Empire, coughed out their titles and universities and yet quickly the badges dimmed and their faces returned to the resignation brought on from too many lectures, and the docile, not-quite-interested smiles of students. (p. 48)

This is more interesting to me than the prose of the earlier stories: there’s distance implied. It’s unclear from this party whether the narrator was at the party in question or heard this description from someone else (this is left vague in the broader context that this passage occurs in); but it implies an individual consciousness having digested experience in a way that’s more subjective than the omniscient third-person in “The Classless Society”: Elizabeth the narrator is tired of this sort of party.

For me, Hardwick’s fiction remains secondary to her criticism, though I probably would pick up her two earlier novels if I came across them. With a Harper’s account, “The Death of Book Reviewing” can be read online; she’s still right, of course, about the mediocrity of the NYTimes Book Review.

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