Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

22 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

  1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Wonderful writing, but the fragmentary nature of this novel/fictional autobiog gives it something of an ephemeral feel. That said, I love the vignettes on Billie Holiday – they really stand out in my mind.

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    • I was wondering if it was just me Jacqui! Maybe its more of a writers book than a readers book. I did really like it but I didn’t feel rapturous about it.

      The bits on Billie Holiday do stand out don’t they? She really captures something of the contradictory nature of the woman and her amazing talent.

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  2. The fragmentary, impressionistic style can be challenging, but so can life! She writes beautifully, and as you say creates memorable images. Renata Adler employs a similar approach, slightly more fragmentary and allusive

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    • I thought she handled the style really well, I was expecting it to be a much more challenging read than it was. It really flowed despite the fragmentary nature. I’ve not read Renata Adler, I’ll look out for her.

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      • I’ve only read Speedboat (early blog post on it here: https://wp.me/p3oBGt-5G). For what it’s worth, here’s the link to my post on Sleepless Nights [https://wp.me/p3oBGt-7I] – on rereading it I think I was right in saying it needs more than one reading; I was suspicious of fragmentary narratives at that time. Now I think I’m more tolerant of them. and you’re right: some of Hardwick’s imagery is astonishing, poetic

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, there’s no-one who puts over a song with quite as much emotion as Billie! The fragmentary memory stuff sounds as if it could have turned into a mess of not done well, so clearly the author did it well! Sounds intriguing…

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  4. Here’s a writer I’ve meant to explore: I’ve only ever dabbled in her essays (good). I love the quotes you’ve included. How simple the language is, but how much there is to contemplate afterwards. I wonder if there might be similarities to Rachel Cusk’s recent works, especially your comment (and Jacqui’s) that she might be more of a writer’s writer.

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    • I’ve not read her essays, I’d be really interested to now. She has a really masterful use of language. As you say, it’s simple but the ideas are complex. I’ve not read Cusk, she’s one of those writers I keep meaning to get to…

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