Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
There came a point in Sleepless Nights when I began to think of a bit of dialogue from Anne Tyler's Searching for Caleb:
You want to hear about my movie?"
"I'm going to buy a camera and walk around filming to one side of things, wherever the action isn't. Say there's a touchdown at a football game, I'll narrow in on one straggling player at the other end of the field. If I see a purse-snatcher I'll find someone reading a newspaper just to the right of the victim."
"What's the point?" Justine asked.
"Point? It'll be the first realistic movie ever made. In true life you're never focused on where the action is. Or not so often. Not so finely." He stopped and looked at her. "Point?" he said. "You don't usually ask me that."
This isn't exactly what Elizabeth Hardwick does in Sleepless Nights, but it is close enough to give me pause. Much of this novel--"this work of transformed and even distorted memory," as the narrator calls it in the opening lines--is concerned, to a great extent, with characters who would have been more on the periphery of her life than at the center, the "unfortunate ones" she has known, who live "surrounded by their own kind."
Perhaps here began a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.
The narrator, a woman named Elizabeth like the author, who has lived a life similar to that of the author, has landed as "a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home." She chooses to remember people and places from her past, from the Lexington, Kentucky, of her youth, to the cities of her adulthood, Boston, Amsterdam, New York, and put her memories into a type of order. But she omits most of what would provide the reader with a solid ground for understanding how and why she's come to this and what has happened to those who would have been at the center of her life, other than that they have died:
Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.
Readers learn the distilled life stories of a maid, a laundress, an Appalachian communist. We catch glimpses of an uncle who writes letters to Elizabeth's mother from a mental hospital and various roommates, constructing lives out of Arthur Murray dancing classes or phonied-up prior job experience. We learn of Elizabeth's gay friend J., who dies young, the offstage Billie Holliday, a carpet sweeper and the residents of the squalid Hotel Schuyler, instead of the relationship that caused her to need an abortion, dealt with in two brief paragraphs that focus on the abortioners and their wives. Misdirection.
Elizabeth has lots of sex, not all of it enjoyable, but does not allow herself to become a victim of "fateful fertility" as her mother did, although she says she has always, "all of my life, been looking for help from a man." She and her childhood girlfriends learned "the tangled nature of bribery" via a predator who paid their way into movie theaters and fondled them as they ate chocolates.
To think, that is to wonder what I would be forgiven for remembering or imagining. What do those of my flesh and blood deem suitable, not a betrayal? Why didn't you change your name? Then you could make up anything you like, without it seeming to be true when all of it is not. I do not know the answer.
Narrator or author speaking here?
All we know for sure is is that Elizabeth, who "loves to be known by those" she cares for, writes down her memories of those she dares "not ring up until morning and yet must talk to throughout the night."
I'm definitely looking forward to discussion of this one at Slaves of Golconda and in the Metaxu Cafe forums and to reading more Elizabeth Hardwick. Thanks to Imani for suggesting this one!