Sleepless Nights

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Although brief, Sleepless Nights is a powerful and evocative work. Divided into ten sections, the work loosely traces the life of its narrator from her birth in Kentucky, through her years in graduate school at Columbia University, her adult life in Boston, Maine, Europe, and New York, to her present life, alone, in an apartment in New York. One must stress “loosely,” for this is not a conventional autobiographical narrative. Instead, it consists of sharply drawn moments of time, people known, and places visited, interspersed with meditations and comments. The shape of a life is clearly present, but it serves mainly to locate people and places within a narrative frame. The stress in this novel is much more on the evocation of mood, feeling, and impression, than it is on the recounting of a chronology of events.

We also need to note that the narrator of this work, Elizabeth, bears some relationship to the author of the work, who also is named Elizabeth, was born in Kentucky, went to graduate school at Columbia, and lived in at least some of the places in which the fictional Elizabeth remembers living. This is not, however, autobiography, even lightly fictionalized autobiography. Instead, the author’s aim in this book seems to have been to create a character and to present her to us through having her offer us highly selective memories. Our role is to build up her portrait by reading her memories and her comments on them. In Sleepless Nights, we in effect spend some time in the company of this fictional Elizabeth and listen to her one-sided conversation. She is a lonely lady given to spending sleepless nights in the company of her memories. It is our privilege to spend one such night with her and to find that her experience speaks to the lonely human being in all of us. We must find her, finally, a woman of great humanity and courage, a person willing to live out the life she has decided to live, one who is painfully honest about herself and those she has known.

The tone of honesty is set at the very beginning; Elizabeth finds the crocheted bedspread on her bed evocative of the “niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see.” And so her life will consist of moments of all three—the splendor of New York and its life of culture and the mind, but also the squalor that hides in the glare of bright lights and the sorrow of so many people who live there. Stand in one place and look, she invites:Midtown—look toward the east, toward many beautiful and bright things for sale. Turn the eyes westward—a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snapbrim hats for the evening’s inchoate activities.

Many of the people we meet in this book, in their brief appearances through the aperture of Elizabeth’s memory, have this double quality. Every great city, she says, “is a Lourdes where you hope to throw off your crutches but meanwhile must stumble along on them, hobbling under the protection of the shrine.”

Thus, in Elizabeth’s world, we meet Alex, the perpetual bachelor, who is always going to write a book about democratic architecture, and who never will. He lives off a succession of women who want to be with him when the work is done, but disappear when they realize that he will never write it. We meet the...

(This entire section contains 1134 words.)

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homosexual J., who loves jazz but is afraid of black men. We meet a succession of maids and servant-women whose work kills them yet also gives them purpose in life. We meet failed husbands and wives, failed scholars, failed Marxists and revolutionaries.

Yet the theme throughout is not failure, but courage, the courage to make decisions and to realize that one’s life is the result of one’s decisions. Miss Lavore, for example, the old-maid woman, “large and strong and homely and in her late fifties,” who lives in a women’s apartment building in New York, works all day at a menial job, yet spends her nights at an Arthur Murray dance studio. It would be easy to satirize her, easy to note the shallowness of the glamour that makes her life bearable. But Elizabeth does not do that; “Miss Lavore had a life,” she says:She is, in her dreams, part of a team and when she whirls and dips she is caught by a slim man in a black tail coat, a man with a Balkan name like people in the circus. She spins around him, brilliant as a cockatoo in a cage. They are Lavore and ———, famous European dancing team.

Elizabeth’s tone is one of sympathy and compassion, as well as honesty, for in her honesty she is sure that everyone’s life is like that, a mixture of the nice and the squalid, the dream and the failure.

What is most interesting about this book is that Elizabeth’s honesty extends to herself. She is clear about her own loneliness, about her own sense of the gulf between dream and reality. Yet she is also clear about the fact that her life has been her choice. The book itself is the result of her decision, “what I have decided to do with my life just now.” She often compares her own life, filled with travel and a variety of men, with that of her mother, settled, constant, with one husband and lots of children. Her memories are rich with longing for such a life, yet they are also honest about what her mother’s life must have been like. She is also aware that her life has been different because she has chosen to make it so.

What comes through the entire book, then, is a powerful sense of acceptance—of self and of others. It is all right, for example, that Billie Holiday, the great black jazz singer, in effect destroyed herself with drugs, that Elizabeth’s mother lived the life she lived, and that Elizabeth herself is living the life we hear about in this book. In the light of clear vision, our lives, with both their niceties and their squalor, their dreams and their illusions, are pretty much the same. What matters is that we are honest, that we decide, that we accept our decisions. The Elizabeth we meet in this book has the courage to do that; to share her life and her vision of life is an ennobling experience. We must be grateful to Elizabeth Hardwick for providing such an experience as Sleepless Nights.

Form and Content

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Sleepless Nights is the title of Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel and the recurrent image that identifies both the narrative’s characteristic atmosphere and its inspirational source. It might have been titled nocturnal remembrances, a memoir of New York, for New Yorkers and New York City—in its supportive and destructive influences— constitute a major portion of the work’s focus. Divided into ten short chapters, it is a first-person, confessional novel (a subcategory of the autobiographical) that, in its concern for the literary process of reconstructing life and human experience through memory, is highly self-conscious and allusive, taking as it does the act of writing from a woman’s perspective and sensibility as a principal issue of the text: “But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

Elizabeth, the narrator, begins her story in June of an unspecified year and, through interspersed letters written at different times and places and to different people in her past, ranges over fifty-six years, from the 1920’s to 1978, emphasizing the period from 1940 (the year of her arrival in New York City from Lexington, Kentucky, to study at Columbia University) to 1973, the year of the last dated letter included in the narrative.

Sleepless Nights has a minimal amount of external action. Embodied in the complex sequence of narrated events the reader comes to understand, however, are the experiences that have shaped the writer before she begins to shape them in writing: Southern childhood in a family of eleven, with parents who paid the price of “intimacy” and adapted themselves to the disillusioned coupling of marriage; films and the imaginative freedom of reading; postadolescent loves and a surreptitious affair with an older man; university study; ill-fated love relations, a broken marriage, the gaining and losing of friends through deaths and misunderstandings; the spiritual malaise of urban social gatherings; the disorientation of change through real and imagined travels from South to North (from Kentucky to New York, from New York to Boston, from Boston to Maine, from Maine to Europe, always “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”); and the ever-present consciousness of old age and death. All these experiences (interwoven so as to stress the theme of developing awareness) draw constant attention to the narrator’s attempt to control and impose an order (and therefore meaning) on her past—in retrospect—in a way that she could not while experiencing it as life.

Recurrent in the novel from beginning to end is the narrator’s awareness of the female condition. Most relevant to Elizabeth’s developing consciousness as writer and woman are the numerous observations she makes of society’s broken women: women in “squalid nursing homes” crocheting bedspreads; bag ladies who “sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies”; and women such as Josette, whose economic marital dependence upon Michael left her directionless at his death, and Ida, in Maine, whose “disaster” arrived in the form of Herman, a local man who one day “vanished for good,” taking with him everything of use he could find in Ida’s house, including, eventually, her sanity. There is also Miss Lavore, whose lonely life is redeemed by her nightly excursions to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where she engages changing strangers, keeping her life and theirs at a safe distance; and there is the British-accented Miss Cramer, whose earlier life of glamour and expensive possessions contrast dramatically with her lonely wait in old age for death.

The novel abounds in such illustrative perceptions of lives on the margin. Elizabeth’s own experiences of men and male betrayal are epitomized by her memories of the old “gentleman in the black suit” who gave little girls chocolate (“the predator’s first gift”) in the darkness of the movie theater so that he could run his hands under their dresses and up their thighs, and young, intellectual, politically radical Alex Anderson, whose remembered “handsomeness” brings back images of a time of “fascinated, passionless copulation.”

The longest and most symbolically revealing episode is Elizabeth’s memory of bearing witness to the tragic demise of “the bizarre deity” Billie Holiday, the jazz singer whose life and relationship with her mother, Sadie, bear a striking resemblance to Elizabeth’s life and relationship with her own mother. Holiday’s artistic aspirations, moreover, confront Elizabeth with the isolating power of art in the life of the artist.

The novel ends as it begins, returning to the narrator’s self-conscious awareness of reconstructing the emotional truths of her past through memory and the act of writing “throughout the night.”

Context

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As do her two earlier novels, Sleepless Nights dramatizes—although from a much more personal vantage point—Hardwick’s concern with the almost ineffable nature of human experience and the self-conscious awareness of “difference” which is the perspective of the female writer. As a contribution to the modern confessional novel—a genre extending back to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes From the Underground (1864)—Sleepless Nights portrays the ways in which women struggle with modern problems such as loneliness, alienation, the difficulty of establishing meaningful and lasting relationships, and the emotional uncertainties and inner chaos that frequently accompany a consciousness of personal physical decay, economic dependence, and political marginality. Hardwick continues in this novel her exploration of the inscrutable flow of life from a perspective that is simultaneously feminine and dissident.

Essentially a writer accustomed to tackling ideas and whose preferred form is the essay as social criticism and belles-lettres, Hardwick nevertheless has been praised for her complex narrative structuring of “reminiscences” in Sleepless Nights, for her wit and understanding, and for the “sheer loveliness” of her sentences. Hardwick’s plotless fusion of autobiography with fiction uncovers the female self as it turns toward women’s experiences as a fountainhead of autonomous art. Like the theoretical articles and critical reviews that have established her presence in the ongoing feminist debate over woman as both subject and object of the literary text, Sleepless Nights, her most acclaimed novel, secures Hardwick’s place as an important voice in that continuing discourse.

Bibliography

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Caplan, Brina. “The Teller as the Tale.” Georgia Review 33, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 933-940. An essay-review of Sleepless Nights which classifies it as a “novel-memoir” and compares it with Lillian Hellman’s Three (1979). The narrative style is criticized for being too morally disengaged and fragmentary, producing the effect of an attempted “collage” that degenerates to “pastiche.”

Lamont, Rosette. “The Off-Center Spatiality of Women’s Discourse.” In Theory and Practice of Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gabriela Mora and Karen S. Van Hooft. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. Focuses on Hardwick’s “fragmentary aesthetic,” a style of indirect progression which has affinities with the treatment of narrative voice in Marguerite Duras’ films, plays, and novels. Both writers are seen as feminist dissidents whose anarchic style reflects a rapprochement between women and their female condition of marginality.

Faust, Langdon Lynn, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1988. A biographical overview with brief commentary on the thematic content of principal publications.

Peters, Margaret. “Fiction Under a True Name: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.” Chicago Review 31, no. 2 (Autumn, 1979): 129-136. A feminist analysis of Sleepless Nights, emphasizing the autobiographical nature of the novel. The essay laments the oblique method of narration that distances the author from the narrating Elizabeth by “obliterating” much of Hardwick’s known past. Offers comparisons between Sleepless Nights and Hardwick’s first novel, The Ghostly Lover (1945).

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