Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

35 thoughts on “Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. Yes, there’s definitely something unsettling about it, a sense of isolation or remoteness that gets under the skin. I think you’d find it an interesting read.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I only came across it because it had been published by NYRB. It certainly has a strange dreamlike quality that’s rather hard to capture in a review!

      PS Someone in my book group has just chosen Philip Kerr’s March Violets, which I see you’ve reviewed on goodreads. Given your reservations about the book, I’m not holding out much hope of it being a successful pick!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Lots of people absolutely adore that Philip Kerr series, including March Violets, so you may be pleasantly surprised. Fingers crossed for you!

        o/t: Last night we watched Like Father, Like Son and enjoyed it, too . . . though Pam was saying a little while ago that she’s still mad at the pigheaded father!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thank you! I’ll let you know how I get on with it, probably via GR as yo’re review is there.

          Oh, and I’m glad you enjoyed Like Father, Like Son. Pig-headed is definitely the right description for that father. There were times when I really wanted to shake him or give him a slap!

          Reply
          1. realthog

            Ha! I just read your comment to Pam, who said, “Well, I would have wanted to do more than that.” These Americans . . .

            I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with the Kerr.

            Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very appealing. Retrospective books where folks look back upon thier lives can have such a poignant undertone. These types of novels often work well when thier narratives are disjointed. That is kind of like how memory works.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, great point about the way in which our memories work. That’s kind of what I was getting at with my comments about the seemingly unconnected fragments and images that emerge from nowhere to occupy the mind. It’s a beautifully-written book, very elegant and intriguing.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I’ve not read this author but the quotes you pulled are so stunning, I’ve put it on my list to buy once my book-buying ban is over! I like the idea of the fragmentary style too – as Brian says, it reflects the experience of memory.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. I think it’s definitely worth reading for Hardwick’s prose alone. Plus, you’re going to love the sections on Billie Holiday – they’re so evocative in a melancholy kind of way.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I read this back in 2012, and had to go back and check what I thought about it! I remembered loving it, and I was right that I did. Her prose is lovely and although the structure is unusual I got much from the book. I also thought the perhaps hidden autobiographical elements were fascinating. You remind me I intended to read more of her work!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I didn’t know that you had reviewed this, Karen – I’ll definitely take a look at your piece. Yes, I too was taken with the idea that some of the elements were autobiographical in origin – that blurring of the margins between the real and fictional is always an intriguing element in something like this. Funnily enough, I also have a collection of Hardwick’s New York stories, a lovely NYRB edition that a friend picked up for me in a charity shop as she thought it would be my kind of thing. How right she was to pounce on it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, haunting’s a great word for it – some of those passages have a way of getting under your skin. You know, I sometimes struggle with elements of contemporary autofiction — Rachel Cusk’s did very little for me whatsoever – but not the Hardwick. Maybe it’s something to do with the period and setting as well as the author’s style? Either way, I was really quite taken with it.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Fabulous review Jacqui of a book I really enjoyed. I loved the atmosphere of it and that sense of looking back. It is a hard book to describe but you have done a great job, and I live the quotes you have used.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. As you say, it’s not an easy book to capture in a review, so I’m glad you think I’ve been able to convey something of its flavour! Have you read Renata Adler’s Speedboat? If not, I think you’d find it a really interesting comparison (or companion piece) to the Hardwick.

      Reply
  5. bookbii

    This sounds lovely. I enjoyed Speedboat very much, and have a particular love of fragmentary books – Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet also springs to mind, as does Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. NYRB is another publishing house with a sterling track record. How are you enjoying reading from your own shelves?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, earlier today I was thinking about who might like this and your name was one of the first that came to mind. I think you’d love Hardwick’s prose style as it has that luminous, almost poetic quality you tend to favour. Plus, there’s the fragmentary nature or structure in its favour too, so I’d say that’s a pretty good fit all round.

      As for reading from my shelves, it’s something I’ve been trying to do for a while for various reasons – and I’m definitely finding it rewarding. There’s something very satisfying about finally getting around to a book you’ve had on the shelves for the best part of ten years, especially when it turns out to be a winner.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I’ll definitely add her to my reading list, thanks Jacqui. Glad to hear the own shelf reading is going well. It’s nice to find unexpected treasures languishing on the shelves. From your recent readings, I think I definitely have a couple of guaranteed good ones waiting for me.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really loved that line too. She’s very good on the transition from being part of a couple (and everything that represents) to finding oneself single again.

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    Beautiful review Jacqui. It sounds lovely and I’m pretty sure I e got it somewhere, so I’m glad. I do want to stick to my piles, as clearly it’s worth exploring such gems. The passages about New York sound very appealing. Was it never frustrating not to know what exactly is fact and what is fiction or was it clear?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad to hear that you might have a copy of this as Hardwick’s prose style should be right up your street.

      In the end, I tried not to worry too much about how much of it was purely fictional vs reflections of (or inspired by) elements from the author’s own life. The writing was so good that I was happy to go with the flow to see where it would take me. You might find that a little frustrating though, I can understand that. As an aside, I’m reading some of Maeve Brennan’s short stories at the moment, and it’s very easy to tell which pieces are autobiographical and which are purely fictional. With the Hardwick, the whole thing feels as if it could be a blend of the two.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    This sounds really interesting – though unfortunately I am making some attempt to follow your example and reading more of the books I already have. Like you I am discovering that many of them are excellent and then wondering why I’ve left it so long!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is very good. That said, I’m wondering whether it would suit you as I have a feeling you weren’t so keen on Speedboat? (Have I remembered that correctly or am I getting mixed up?) Anyway, it’s good to hear that you are also getting a kick out of reading from your TBR. It seems that Lizzie’s NYRB fortnight has come at the perfect time for us both!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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