I didn’t quite want to do a post on this one because it is one of those books I feel went slightly over my head, but I made myself a goal to blog more than once a month so here it is. I recently read this as research for my ever-fluctuating dissertation, and I’m actually pretty glad I did. It reminded me of what I didn’t quite want my dissertation to be like. However, that is not to be taken as a criticism towards the book itself. I picked it up after researching books that contain similar themes to Jean Rhys’ writing, without any prior knowledge of Elizabeth Hardwick herself.
“In Sleepless Nights a woman looks back on her life – the parade of people, the shifting background of place – and assembles a scrapbook of memories, reflections, portraits, letters, wishes and dreams.” The narrator dips in and out of her memories, and narrates the lives of people she has encountered in her life from maids to men to families and even Billie Holiday in mini stories and snapshots. The parts (or chapters) seem to be divided by the people she reflects about, sometimes via letters to ‘M’. Who ‘M’ is, is unknown, though at the end of the book she does address ‘Mother’. The book is neither fiction, nor non-fiction; the narrator is and isn’t Hardwick herself, even though her name is Elizabeth and those who have better knowledge than me of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life associate many events as autobiographical. There is no plot, yet you get an urge to read it like a novel due to the writing style. There simply seems to be a need to put all the memories down on paper to store them, tell them.
“I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man.”
Hardwick plays on the idea of memory as unreliable. “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember”, remarks the narrator at the beginning. Memory is fragmented and subjective. This is by no means a neat and tidy factual memoir, if even a memoir. We know less about the narrator’s life in comparison to those she observes, and there is a great deal of observing. From noisy Canadians on trains to to the life of her homosexual roommate in New York, the book is about people and how they come in and out of our lives, and the shifts in perspective when they go from being the minor characters of our lives to the central character in their own. Hardwick creates huge empathy for the lives she tells, and the differences in living, situation and class. The book has a very distinct sense of class due to the artistic lifestyle that is depicted in different cities.
And the stories hurtle out like the thoughts that go through one’s mind on a sleepless night. Jumping from this to that in a muted haze. The writing is thought provoking, lyrical, descriptive, yet economical. In fact I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it much if it wasn’t for the writing because at times I was frustrated by the lack of plot. The book is pretty short in terms of length – about 130 pages and it has a sense of wandering to it due to the writing. Every now and then you come across a line or a paragraph that stops and makes you think and smile a little at the wording of it. For example: “Pasternak’s line: To live a life is not to cross a field. It is not to climb a mountain either.”
I would say it is not to be approached as a text from which you should deduce great analysis and between-the-lines snapshots of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life, but simply as a collection of fragmented memories from the past. I feel like I understand it no better having gotten to the end and part of me wants to re-read it to do so. It is less about the future or the now, or the punch at the conclusion, but simply a reminiscence of a life lived. The overall tone of the book is sad. At the beginning the narrator reflects on her time and New York, saying, “I was then a “we””. This is a book about men and women’s loneliness and loss.