Hardwick, Elizabeth 1916–
Hardwick is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor. Although she is a noted writer of fiction, Hardwick was attracted to the essay early in her career, and has become a brilliant exponent of that form. Associated for many years with the Partisan Review, Hardwick is also one of the founders of The New York Review of Books. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The Simple Truth, Elizabeth Hardwick's second novel, follows the trial of the boy, Rudy Peck, in order to describe and to judge the efforts of those trying to find out what happened that night, and why. The reader receives information as it is given the jury, which represents society. But he also is made privy to the speculations of two individual observers at the trial, a man, Joe Parks, and a woman, Anita Mitchell. The townspeople, who staff the jury, are, says Miss Hardwick, "utterly of this world," while Parks and Anita, who belong to the university, are in a sense "sophisticated." This double contrast between group and individual, simple and sophisticated is maintained throughout the story.
But beneath these contrasts is a common denominator: all these people, in the author's view, are pretentious fools. The jury, in its simple way, succumbs to sentiment and accepts an unsatisfactory explanation of the girl's death. Parks and Anita, rigorously analytical, project their private emotional disorders into the situation and pompously produce grotesque distortions of judgment.
So the author's statement comes to this: simple or sophisticated, neither the collective nor the single mind is equipped to distinguish reality from appearance; to pretend otherwise is absurd.
[The Simple Truth] is made or broken by its people, by the way the author sees and handles them rather than the plot. The...
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[Seduction & Betrayal: Women & Literature] is so original, so sly and strange, but the pleasure is embedded in the style, in the way [Miss Hardwick] flicks the English language about like a whip. One is reluctant to start taking its epigrammatic charm to pieces and asking dull critical questions about its structure and intention. Yet the issues she raises are both complex and momentous. Her subject is not so much the seduction and betrayal of women portrayed in literature …, as seduction and betrayal itself, in literary contexts; the implicit axiom being that the arrangements made between men and women are never satisfactory….
Miss Hardwick is best on women as characters rather than creators, both fictional characters and actual women whose importance is for what they were and felt rather than what they created—Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle. Her critical approach is psychological and moral, not formal…. The literary devices that reproduce intangibilities, the feel of the moment and the structuring of time, are not things which engage her very deeply.
Her real concern is to present her own angry and witty view of the sexes, and for this she has more scope with the fictional beings and the companions of writers than with the great creative women, for these less easily align themselves with the victims. She writes sensibly of the Brontës, slyly of Bloomsbury, and compassionately of...
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[Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature] is a titillating title, and the contents bear it out—though not as some might think.
Miss Hardwick is no hand-wringer. She is a literary surgeon, admirably equipped to expose the nerves. The Brontës are her first patients and she sets to work on them with precision. Diagnoses: 'In the Brontë sisters there is a distinctly high tone and low spirit'. Charlotte 'underneath the correcting surface' is 'deeply romantic, full of dreams and visited by nightmares'. Emily has 'a spare inviolate centre, a harder resignation amounting finally to withdrawal'. Anne's 'religious earnestness' covers 'a secret suffering, a mute, hidden torment'. All three, quiet and repressed though they are, possess 'a disturbing undercurrent of intense sexual fantasy'. By the time Miss Hardwick has stitched them neatly up, and pronounced them heroic, we not only know the Brontës better, we also marvel. (p. 38)
One by one, the august literary bodies are wheeled into the theatre. Miss Hardwick selects another scalpel and reveals fresh aspects…. Her betrayed ladies emerge wonderfully changed under the inspection. Hester Prynne wearing her Scarlet Letter 'is an ideologue, making by way of her adulterous isolation a stand against Puritanism'. Hetty Sorrel 'is merely romantic in an ordinary way … we weep for her—but she is not a heroine'. Roberta in An American Tragedy 'We cannot quite forgive her the simplicity'. Clarissa 'seeks the net she flees from'. But Tess D'Urbeville 'is the most perfectly conceived of the modern betrayed heroines'. Miss Hardwick ends by reporting the death of sex as a tragic, exalted theme. We have, with the aid of contraception and a new attitude towards sexual morality, robbed it of drama. Venus, to quote Zola, is rotting! (pp. 38-9)
Elizabeth Hardwick's stringent perception, her elegant prose, her wit and commonsense, her objectivity, her knowledge of human nature, are enviable. I am prepared to swear that she would have survived somehow, as a feminine writer, anywhere and at any time in history. But I am grateful that she is writing now, when we can breathe more freely and appreciate her all the better. (p. 39)
Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Jean Stubbs 1976; reprinted with permission), January, 1976.
"I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man," we are told near the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick's subtle and beautiful new book ["Sleepless Nights"]. "It has come many times and many more it has not. This began early." What follows eludes immediate summary or categorization. "Sleepless Nights" is a novel, but it is a novel in which the subject is memory and in which the "I" whose memories are in question is entirely and deliberately the author: we recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick's life not only from her own earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell…. The result is less a "story about" or "of" a life than a shattered meditation on it, a work as evocative and difficult to place as Claude Lévi-Strauss's "Tristes Tropiques," which it oddly recalls. The author observes of her enigmatic narrative: "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."
This strikes an interesting note, a balance of Oriental diffidence and exquisite contempt, of irony and direct statement, that exactly expresses the sensibility at work in "Sleepless Nights." "But after all, 'I' am a woman." Triste tropique indeed. (pp. 1, 60)
In certain ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic "difference" of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick's great subject, the tropic to which she has returned incessantly: it colored both of her early novels, "The Ghostly Lover" in 1945 and "The Simple Truth" in 1955, as well as many of the essays collected...
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Sleepless Nights [is] a very beautiful and concise probe of the past told by a woman called Elizabeth.
I have almost nothing negative to say about this book: There are a few dead phrases, i.e., "moral unease hurt" and "I stepped into [the rooms] with the feeling of falling into a well of disgrace." Also, the second half of the book is a small letdown—stories of disappointment, despair, and the bittersweet ironies of aging—by comparison to the first half's extraordinarily powerful stories of promise, reckless extravagance, and determination.
But mostly Hardwick's sentences sing. By saying just enough, and never too much, she has perfected the art of making private meaning public. Hardwick passes the test autobiographical works always set: to write about passion, anger, and betrayal without blathering, sentimentalizing, or fuming. She sees the past with a clarity and a freedom from judgment that come not so much from remembering acutely—as forgetting acutely the feelings that blur.
Sleepless Nights is about a romance with memory, a habit of mind that defines the writer—at any given moment—by the way she "transmogrifies" the past. Hardwick seldom focuses directly on Elizabeth. She is revealed, instead, as she remembers and by what and whom she remembers. Unable to talk with her phantoms over a bottle of wine, as Elizabeth would prefer, she spins insomniac "letters" to the sleeping, the unreachable, and the dead. They are love letters...
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