Old favourites: Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

 Author Elizabeth Hardwick  in New York City in 1983: Sleepless Nights reads at times like poetry, at times like an essay, at times like tongue-in-cheek social commentary, at times like a suicide letter. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

Author Elizabeth Hardwick in New York City in 1983: Sleepless Nights reads at times like poetry, at times like an essay, at times like tongue-in-cheek social commentary, at times like a suicide letter. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty

 

Sleepless Nights demonstrates what is, to me, so essential for both the understanding of, and the taking pleasure in, art: the pre-eminence of truth, rather than verifiable fact. Whatever else one might say, this book is startlingly, magnificently true.

In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick achieves that ever-sought impression of effortlessness, making apparent as she does so the non-existence of any imagined division between fiction and non-fiction. Understanding the strictures in place regarding literature, and only then (with a beautiful and brazen confidence so often lacking in women’s writing), totally disregarding them, she takes our preconceptions of both the novel and the memoir and “makes them new”. The result is stunning. Sleepless Nights reads at times like poetry, at times like an essay, at times like tongue-in-cheek social commentary, at times like a suicide letter. Taking notes in my journal for this article, I found myself writing that it felt as though one was “reading the flitting thoughts of an insomniac”, which I suppose only evinces my dim-wittedness, and the perfect suitability of Hardwick’s title.

As much of the book is addressed to a lost love, “M”, and as, throughout, she tells stories of loneliness, divorce and love, gently alluding to the intimacy lost, to old, familiar open wounds, I feel I should mention Robert Lowell; their awful break-up, and the perhaps more awful near miss of their reunion (Lowell died of a heart attack while travelling in a taxi through New York that was, after many years, bringing him back to Hardwick, his second wife – this, as he clutched a photo of his third wife, Caroline Blackwood).

But then, to mention any one influence when discussing this book, is to reduce it. The book is slim, yet in its brevity, its softly sweeping gaze, like dusting snow, briefly covering in Hardwick’s crisp clean prose all those remembered landscapes; the places, people, things seen and heard, moments quickly passed (and perhaps even more so, in all the things she doesn’t say), Sleepless Nights somehow manages to encompass the entirety of the world.

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