TRANSFERENCE: AN EXPLORATION OF ELIZABETH HARDWICK’S SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
I must define my project. Sleepless Nights has breadth. It is a retrospective non-novel. It is genre-less. Don’t be negative—tell us what it does. Sleepless Nights is multi-faceted. (It has many faces). It is a collection of short stories. It is a memoir. It is fiction. It is autobiographical. It is a series of letters. It is terribly sad. It is hopeful. It is philosophical. It is written.
Here is a history: Elizabeth Hardwick loved and feared New York. “It is not true that it doesn’t matter where you live,” she wrote. This from a woman who hailed from Kentucky—a small town belle with blue eyes. It matters, she argues, where you choose to place your shoes when the day ends, where you rest your eyes, what the sidewalks feel like. You are in a bar with your feet dangling from a stool and you watch a woman stand up and stretch her shoulders and you wonder if anyone loves her. In the subway, you rest your body against a pole and there are rats running across the tracks and no one notices you. This is precisely why the city matters. But Sleepless Nights is not that story.
Hardwick struggled with what it meant to be a southerner in New York. She was the ninth of eleven children from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and in 1939, after graduating from college, she hopped a bus north and never went back. She immersed herself in the city, taking stock of the way people moved, noting the length of traffic lights and the utter need for escape—New York was, for Hardwick, “a gathering of refugees.” The city took on the feeling of a haven, of a place for its inhabitants to breathe. In 1944, she published her first story in The New Mexico Quarterly Review, followed shortly thereafter by two stories in Harper’s Bazaar. At this point, there was no going back. So Hardwick dove into the New York intellectual scene—she spent nights in a cocktail dress sipping whiskey with Mary McCarthy, laughing with Susan Sontag in her Chelsea penthouse. Then she met Robert Lowell and threw up on his feet. Everyone warned her of his tensions, his anger, but she married him anyway. And, as expected, Lowell was a brilliant but feared man. He slammed car doors and published personal letters (even though Elizabeth Bishop told him not to). He died clutching a portrait of his wife (Caroline Blackwood) in a cab on the way to his ex-wife (Hardwick’s) house. Following Lowell’s death, Hardwick returned to writing fiction. But Sleepless Nights is not this story, either.
What Hardwick does is look back on a life, maybe not her life, but a particular life. She muses about what a city could be, or what it was, but the importance is that as readers, we don’t really care one way or the other. I asked my professor and he says Lizzy was as lovely as she seems and one hell of a teacher. She was brutally honest. She would say things like: this is terrible and draw red Xs across the page. This may or may not have happened.
I stumbled upon this book in 2008, and I have a record of emails that say: I am about to open a book that will change my life. Or: I am reading a book that is changing my life. Or: I want to write this book. It must have been the softness of the cover, the design, or the vulnerability of the language, the font or the first few words: It is June. Immediately, we are thrown into the preciseness of time. We, as readers, experience June with Hardwick—as she writes, we read. It is June and I’ve never thought of this month before. It is June and I will die in August. It is June and impossible. It is June and I am immersed. But I pick up the book and I underline and curse and I couldn’t read it all at once. I take the book from shelf to shelf in city to city. I poise it carefully between two elephant bookends. I close and reopen it. It is June.
Sleepless Nights is or is not a memoir—it is written in first person about a woman named Elizabeth Hardwick whose life follows the contours of the author’s, but it is very much not the author. (As Pinckney has pointed out, Hardwick’s character didn’t have her financier brother fund her grad school). Still, this woman is so fully-formed that we, as readers, cannot imagine she doesn’t exist. She is mean and distant and harsh. She likes birds and misses her mother. She is from the country where there is space and intimacy. She misses the closeness of people, the distance of things. She lives in the city now and watches humans move beneath her building. She has a twin bed and men who call upon her. She is lonely and comforted by that loneliness. Hardwick published this book in 1979. She was born in the 20s, but this is not a book about a 50 year-old woman living in New York. This is a book about a young girl wandering the streets in her trench coat and heels. I told you already, this doesn’t matter.
So this isn’t a memoir. After all, it is hardly about Elizabeth herself. Instead, we are introduced intimately to Judith the sad Ph.D, Alex the ex-lover, Josette the sick housekeeper, and the narrator’s mother, among others. We are given brief snapshots of characters who are on the periphery of the narrator’s life. And, when we expect the book to be intimate, Hardwick pushes us further away—keeps us at a distance. But Sleepless Nights is, somehow, the most realistic book ever written. This book, like real life, lacks transitions. It tells the story of a woman through the stories of other people. We learn basically nothing about the eponymous narrator. One sentence you are in a club watching Billie Holliday sing and then immediately you are home in bed thinking about the love. This book does not apologize for such lack, but instead Sleepless Nights thrives in the in-between; the place where words are everything and nothing, where as soon as you begin to trust the narrator, she abandons you in a city full of billboards.
Listen: no one’s life is solitary. Do we pay attention because the narrator is named Elizabeth Hardwick? W.G. Sebald did this in The Emigrants—he gave us pictures and a history we could grasp, and he did it so well that no one wants to believe that it wasn’t the truth. Hardwick just uses her name to make us listen—here I am, she pleads, a transplant.
I have the feeling you don’t like to talk about yourself, at least not
in a formal way.
Well, I do a lot of talking and the “I” is not often absent. In general
I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to
say, character analysis.
Sleepless Nights is reticent, perhaps, but it certainly has the tone of lived experience, of a kind of autobiography.
I guess so. After all, I wrote it in the first person and used my own name, Elizabeth. Not very confessional, however. And not entirely taken from life, rather less than the reader might think.
In In America, Susan Sontag writes, “What is the point of telling stories, if not to stir up the longing everyone harbors for an alternative life?” If telling stories fuels our need to live an alternative life, what exactly is Hardwick doing? Hardwick’s narrator expects the reader to understand her through her interactions with other people—instead of telling us what she feels and how the city affects her, she tells us stories about past lovers and soul singers; she lets her reactions and stories about people comprise a clue into her inner turmoil. Part five reads:
I saw Alex A. on the street recently. He is still handsome. I suppose that is, with him, the first thing one thinks—that and the waving shadow, the shadow of his own self-reproach. Not quite liking himself, he whom everyone adores. I must say he was wearing a very good-looking raincoat and so the “presentation” isn’t much altered. That’s something, isn’t it? But what is his intention? I mean the intention of his life.
This brief introduction tells us precisely nothing about the narrator except that she thinks Alex A. is handsome and has a nice raincoat. Her relationship to him, at this point, is undefined. She goes on to define Alex, highlighting the type of person he is, as well as her relationship to him, but the reader initially learns little about the narrator. Here are two sentences that utilize the “I”:
“To Alex I said on the telephone: you cannot imagine how well I am set up, how comfortable I appear to be,
although a pauper.”
[This tells us the narrator is poor but appears comfortable. Is she poor or is she comfortable? What is her life
in New York actually like?]
“I am alone here in the New York, no longer a we.
[We know she is alone, but is she lonely? Does she desire to be with someone else?]
These brief images give hints of intimacy with the narrator, but ultimately leave readers knowing little. Then, in a rare moment, she lets the personal seep through:
“I slept with Alex three times and remember each one perfectly…I was honored when he allowed me to go to bed with him and dishonored when I felt my imaginative, anxious, exhausting efforts were not what he wanted.”
Here, for a few sentences, we have a narrator with personal substance! She allows herself, momentarily, to be vulnerable. Hardwick is interested in defining things; whether it is the way a city feels, the people she is with, or the way the world works, she will, eventually, define it. With this project, she is aiming to control the chaos of her world, the chaos of a city full of fear. Hardwick makes sense of these big-picture things in her semi-connected and semi-vague descriptions.
For Hardwick, to tell too much would be a betrayal of her project. She presents readers with the facts of a situation—she shows us a woman teary-eyed in a fourth floor walk-up, but doesn’t tell us what it means. She gives us the aftermath of an affair, but doesn’t bother to tell us who it was with or if it matters. Hardwick never really pursued the middle ground between fiction and essay—she wrote Sleepless Nights like an article of facts, and her essays, compiled in Seduction and Betrayal, had a touch of the personal, allowing the first person to sneak into a discussion of literature. And Hardwick is consistent in her inconsistency. She condenses whole years into a sentence and narratives into a paragraph, but then she’ll spend four pages talking about an anonymous doctor who cured her, once. Additionally, Sleepless Nights has no sense of chronological time. These are the time stamps:
page 4: 1954
page 6: 1962
page 12: 1940
page 24: 1940s
page 113: 1972
page 114: 1950
page 115: 1960s
page 116: 1973
If this book is not chronological and has no discernible plot, what then, does it claim to be?
One thing it isn’t is a response to her divorce from Lowell. The story is this: Lowell and Hardwick were married until 1972. That same year, Lowell had a son with his lover, Caroline Blackwood. Then, Lowell published a tell-all poetry book that included supposedly verbatim letters that Hardwick had written to him. Some critics say Sleepless Nights is Hardwick’s response. She respected him too much to say he wasn’t a genius. His death allowed her the freedom to write, but she was too smart to resent him.
Derrida says to give something a genre is to limit it. In the essay, “Law of Genre”, he begins with a statement, “Genres are not to be mixed; I will not mix genres.” He asks readers to recognize the depth of that sentence—what is it? A credo? An essay? A declaration? A poem? How, then, would a piece of literature belong to a single genre?
Genres are self-constituting. Artistic works always exceed the genre in which they are classified. A text participates in a genre, but doesn’t necessarily belong exclusively to it. Genre can always exceed the boundaries that bring it into being. Sleepless Nights is, essentially, a book of essays linked by a common narrator. As readers, we seek a story, but it has no plot and a myriad of settings. Yes, it is based in New York, but mid-book, the narrator takes us back to the south, and then towards the end, we are given brief descriptions of other worlds: Holland, Amsterdam. Sleepless Night plays with form and narration—it cannot be defined, and I have no desire to constrain it; I must let it grow. So I keep it on my shelf at eye-level where I can see it. These are the other books that matter, too:
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. This has characters and a plot—an explorer describes glorious places and they are all the same city. His words are meaningless and essential all at once. He says all the airports are the same—when you are inside, you could be in Germany or Australia or Siberia. There is always chocolate, tea, and pictures of the outside. It is always gray. Calvino makes us yearn for these cities, these worlds where everything is a reflection, where the roads are paved in silver. He says many men dreamed of one woman running through the streets, her hair flowing across her back. Night after night then men slept and sought the city of the fleeing woman, so they built it—a twisting and harrowing land found ugly by all those who don’t dream.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This is a newspaper article masquerading as a novel. You care about the characters only in that they are reoccurring. You aren’t so much invested in their future as you are in the fact that they exist. There was a murder and people have died.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. This book is a prime example of how genre is fluid. Smart refuses to call the book a poem or memoir, so it is catapulted into the novel genre. But, unlike most novels, it has no plot and it’s essentially true, and it’s completely self-aware, much like poems.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Tell me in your own words what this means. There is blueness in all of the earth—the tarp, the sky, a button, the ground. Nelson gives us something to grasp—a love story, an ailing friend, and the difficulties of a singular life. These stories are presented in short blurbs of language—poems, if you dare.
Perhaps no one has written more clearly about the ways women do and do not understand the role of femininity, the lack of physical strength needed to open a window or move a box of letters from one tabletop to the next. Dear C, one reads, I actually loved you, which is precisely why C never appears in the text.
But to be a female in such a city that despises women is to be aware of eyes glued to your lips or the empty martini glass near your elbow. Observations and tangents take readers to the opera via the subway, days that make proper ladies sip soda from a glass bottle as the horn blows.
Page three: A man with a rugged jacket brought me a pair of reading glasses so I went to bed with him. But are we not all this woman? A girl foolish enough to bed the first man who offers her lemonade or a biscotti? I believe this woman cried when she woke to empty sheets, a lip-stained glass on the bedside.
She could have said: I met C at a hotel, found him glamourous and threw up on his feet. Could she have shown us a house with open shutters and streaming light? Perhaps the library was full of unopened books, but this is a woman who read War and Peace over breakfast.
But the author will not honor C with his existence. Instead, we focus on a peculiar sense of timelessness—progression must not exist, must not matter.
I sat down with Darryl Pinckney and asked what Lizzie was like.