I know that I certainly owe my readers an apology: I have been away from the posting box for several weeks now, and during that time, occasional checks have shown me that my readers are a great deal more faithful than I am. Readers from all over the world have been reading or possibly re-reading all my posts thus far, while I have been doing other things that called me away from the computer
What have I been doing, you ask? Or possibly you’ve lost interest by now–let’s hope not, though. I have been busy starting to get handmade gifts ready for Christmas in a few months. And, I have been up early and late when I would have preferred to have been getting a good night’s sleep, many a night. I am either sleepless thinking of all I have to get done, and have been wakeful in the wee hours (and finally, I usually give up and get up to start my day), or I’m up late at night, finishing up some aspect of one of my projects. Sometimes, I have actually been up all night in my eagerness to get work done. Little by little, I have been aware of how much more people could get done if only they didn’t sleep. But finally, last night, my hectic schedule caught up with me: I was so sleepy that all I could do was eat, read the very last of a book which has supplied me with a few moments here and there of literary pleasure during my work, and go off to sleep.
The book? Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless NIghts. How appropriate, I hear you say! Yet, I have preferences in general for books which are not all about style and issues of style, whether of writing or of life. But I had simply chosen this book off the shelf at random out of the sort of idle curiosity which has led to some of my most favorite literary adventures, so I persisted with it. Though accordingly it’s not really my type of book, it was perfect for the episodic and halting manner in which I had time to read it.
The book begins by announcing an apparent scenario, topic, and theme, which I give here in brief: “How nice it is–[this crocheted bedspread,] this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle–that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street….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.” From that point onward, however, one gets lost in a kaleidoscopic shifting back and forth from one place and time to the next, from a girlhood (based on Hardwick’s own) in Kentucky, to homes in New York, Maine, Connecticut, to many life stories not her own, for example of some of the cleaning ladies and laundresses she has known. These are all short sketches, then the topic is switched to someone else, some other locale. Perfect to me for reading from moment to moment, a few pages one night, a few pages the next!
There are literary riffs played on the life and times of Billie Holiday, detailing her behind-the-scenes experiences as viewed by a close outsider, close in proximity if not in emotional terms. Yet, it is hard to tell just how much of the meandering and rather plotless narrative (one cannot reallly call it a story) is actual fact and how much is made up. Hardwick mentions at one points that her mother criticized her for making up some things which weren’t true and putting them amongst things which were, and if one were out to get either a purely fictional story or essay or conversely a memoir, then the demand to separate fact from fiction might be apt.
However, this book is a book about getting one’s insomnia steaze on, about all the ideas, notions, pictures of the past and speculations about the present and future which occur to one when one is wakeful, and if one accepts the book on those terms, then one will be more than satisfied. Yet, it is not, curiously, the author’s own insomnia which gets main mention, first mention, or even predominant mention in this book. She tells about Louisa, for example, an acquaintance who actually suffers from insomnia, and says: “After a dreamy day, Louisa went into her nights. Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment. She was forever like one watched over by wakefulness in her deepest sleep. She awoke with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the indescribable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness. The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her shaking eyelids. No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac. These were redundant but stirring epics, profoundly felt and there to be pressed upon each morning, in the way one presses a bruiise to experience over and over the pain of it….Her hypnotic narration is like that of some folk poet, steeped, as they say, ‘in the oral tradition.’ Finally, it goes, sleep came over me…At last…It was drawing near to four o’clock. The first color was in the sky…Only to wake up suddenly, completely….Unsavory egotism? No, mere hope of definition, description, documentation. The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning: Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches in the incision. Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed. Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.” Thus, insomnia is compared poetically to a sort of illness or medical condition for which one requires surgery, and which must be kept track of by someone to assure the patient’s health and well-being.
Romances of the author’s fictional self are sketched out (for one must remember that none of this book actually purports to be a memoir, while it prefers to blur the lines and distinctions between fact and fiction). There are also portraits of romances and life histories in miniature of other sets of lovers of whom the author knew, or with whom she was acquainted, not necessarily anyone as famous as Billie Holiday, but people who form part of the landscape of the author’s mind. In short, these are all the topics and scenarios about which a fictionalized version of the author has thought in the small hours, and the connection amongst them is maintained by the style of masterful reminiscence of a long life, though without the sort of condescension to “elderly” memories that one might see as a danger to be avoided in this style of writing.
Thus, it seems that it can truly be said, in the “Urban Dictionary” slang of our own time, that Elizabeth Hardwick is in this work showing her “steaze” ( I am told this word means, among other things, “styling with ease,” making it an appropriate if anachronistic accolade for such a writer). It’s not essentially my kind of work, since I prefer to be reading a consistent or at least a less episodic story line. Still, it kept me reading from night to night as I got my own insomnia steaze on, and a good literary companion is not to be cast down upon. I would recommend this book for its sense of control of a difficult and querulous subject, a subject as difficult and querulous as an insomniac herself. And who knows, you might come greatly to admire a writer who can seem to meander and wool-gather without once losing track of her readers’ interest and willingness to go along in an exploration of the places and times and acquaintances of a single, remarkable, if fictionalized, life.