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: