My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am sure I did not find this novel – and the presence in it of Elizabeth Hardwick – as endearing as some readers will do. But I think that’s my fault. Elizabeth Hardwick is an America Virginia Woolf, concerned with peripheries and with making them near-central. Woolf’s diaries are the closest thing I’ve read to Sleepless Nights. (Particularly Part Nine, which deals with Josette and Ida and Angela, Hardwick’s – as far as I can tell – cleaning ladies.) And Woolf’s diaries are one of my favourite books to go back to.
Sleepless Nights is an odd construction. Not always, I think, deliberately so. I wouldn’t say it’s fragmented so much as not assembled. If it’s a novel, it doesn’t concern itself with a central character’s gradual development. It is about a writer looking and writing. She looks well, and she writes even better. She makes of her little more than enough.
‘Oh, M., when I think of the people I have buried, North and South. Yet, why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentence in which I have tried for a certain light tone – many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.’
That’s an encapsulation, offered by Hardwick, on the penultimate page. For the tone of the book, nothing could be more accurate than ‘the jangle of carelessness at a distance’. And there are many sentences where you stop and think, ‘That couldn’t be bettered.’ Even when they seem not to connect with what goes before or after.
‘Everything has come to me and been taken from me because of moving from place to place.’
What flows within the book takes place as set pieces. Some of these are astounding. Part Three, about Billie Holiday is one of the best written portraits I’ve ever read.
‘The sheer enormity of her vices. The outrageousness of them. For the grand destruction one must be worthy. Her ruthless talent and the opulent devastation. Onto the heaviest addiction to heroin, she piled up the rocks of her tomb with a prodigiousness of Scotch and brandy. She was never at any hour of the day or night free of these consumptions, never except when she was asleep.’
This is a companion piece to Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘The Day Lady Died’.
Often Elizabeth Hardwick writes by compiling list after list of objects or attributes. There was an artwork I once saw, in the reception of Penguin Books. It was a vast sheet of paper, about the proportions of A4, listing every noun in War and Peace. At moments, with adjectives and attitude, Sleepless Nights resembles a Manhattan version of that.
‘Skirts and blouses and jackets of satin or flowered cloth, Balkan decorations, old beads, capes, shawls, earrings.’
Probably, you would need to know a lot more about the details of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life and influences to know where to place this as a work (published 1979). But I avoided finding out, because I wanted to take this book by itself. It is fascinating and sad, drab and brilliant. I am sure it’s better on the fifth reading than the first. But I’m not sure what it’s about, apart from watching lives disintegrate, and trying to integrate what one has seen of that into sentences.