I’ve been trying to decide what to say about Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick for quite a while now, and I’m still not sure. I feel conflicted not so much about the book itself but about what I actually feel and what I think I should feel about this book. I want to like non-traditional, experimental fiction. And I’d really like not only just to like it but to unequivocally enjoy the reading of it. But that doesn’t always happen. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress I appreciated it and thought about it a lot and am glad I read it, but I didn’t savor the experience. I didn’t mind putting it down after a while.
With Sleepless Nights I felt something similar. I appreciate what she’s doing, and I enjoyed the reading of it — more than I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Mistress — but I also didn’t mind putting it down after a while. I read this book in short chunks — and the structure of the book makes that easy, with short “parts” and shorter sections within those parts — and I don’t think I could have read it fast if I’d tried.
Maybe the most damning thing I have to say about it (in my mind) is that I find myself not having a whole lot to say about it. With Wittgenstein’s Mistress, at least, I felt like I had a lot to say. As I sit here and try to pull together my thoughts on Sleepless Nights, what comes into my mind most often is the question of how I felt as I was reading it. I have already forgotten many of the book’s details, and I don’t have a strong sense of the book’s mood or atmosphere or a strong sense of character that might make me look back on my reading experience with pleasure.
But — enough of this navel-gazing. The book is short, about 130 pages, and is a collection of the thoughts and memories of a woman named Elizabeth. This is way the book opens:
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 ….
If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from the shelf.
This makes a suitable introduction to the book, as it introduces the narrator and her task — to gather her memories and write them down. But it also warns us that what she remembers may be distorted, that she is not giving us a history of her life, but rather a picture of her life as she remembers it now. Everything is filtered through her present consciousness.
The narrative doesn’t follow chronological order, skipping around from place to place and year to year, as our memories do. So we get glimpses into her life — a youth spent in Kentucky and adulthood in New York City, Boston, Maine, and Amsterdam. She describes lovers, friends, and acquaintances, events and observations. There isn’t any connective tissue to any of this, no transitions that tell us how one story relates to another; instead they are simply bump up against one another, again, as our memories tend to do.
The narrator’s mother haunts many of the pages; early on she describes her life:
My own affectionate, tireless mother had nine children. This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature. It was a thing, a presence, and she seemed to walk about encased in the clear globe of it. It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.
The narrator makes sure that she does not share this fate; instead her own story is of freedom and independence, of writing and travel and experience. She rejects her mother’s femininity (“an ineffable femininity, tidal”), and yet she’s aware of how it shapes her writing:
Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian — all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient — never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, “I” am a woman.
She is not writing an adventure tale of the type that men can much more easily experience and record; rather, her life and therefore her book are shaped by the domestic and by the reading she has done in those domestic spaces. This passage declares her refusal to write a traditional novel with a clear beginning and end and with action and adventure and drama; the novel that will portray her experience as a woman cannot be traditional. Instead it experiments with the elements of storytelling that have been passed down to her, in an attempt to write something new that can capture the memories circling around in her head.
There were moments when I read with pleasure, enjoying a portrait of a character Hardwick drew with skill. Her description of Billie Holiday, for example, is devastating. The book didn’t sustain that level of interest or pleasure, however. I’m very curious to hear what other people thought!