In an essay on fiction and moral philosophy, Iris Murdoch has remarked that both virtue and freedom are concerned with “really apprehending that other people exist,” and that this is also the essence of art. The artist “is the good man; the lover who, nothing himself, lets other things be through him”; and she adds that this is probably what “negative capability” means.
These remarks are apposite to Elizabeth Hardwick’s virtuous and liberated new work, or novel, to beg the question of its genre. One feels its beauty and goodness; it is not so certainly a novel, or, more important, it seems that the ways that, although it is fiction, it is not a novel, are themselves meaningful and perhaps admonitory. The charity and empathy with which the author experiences others in the world might not extend to the shrill “I”s of much contemporary fiction. Could Henry James have imagined a self-center? This is a work of negative capability.
The narrator is a woman, Elizabeth, thinking back on her past, of her childhood home in Kentucky, of time spent in Boston, New York, Amsterdam, Maine. She remembers people she has known, is mystified and moved by their courage and separateness, and brings them to life for us in vignettes connected by the thread of her own life and thoughts. She remembers rooms, houses, associations prompted by a hairpin, a lipstick stain on white paint. The memories which frame her contemplation of the lives of others eventually also define her own, of which she at first says, without apology, that 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 is not mere dinner-table diffidence, the hostesslike stance of the well brought up (“tell me about yourself”), but the essence of the sensibility that informs the work and the nature of its virtuousness, born, perhaps, of the need to confirm, as one might worry an aching tooth, “the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.”
Hers is a pessimism with a long tradition, “the fierce pessimism of experience and the root empiricism of every troubled loser.” It is the abiding preoccupation of our oldest literature and the burden even of the great nineteenth-century novels most expressly contrived to conceal or deny it with conventions involving progress or retribution. For all its modern inconclusion, it is to nineteenth-century European literature that one feels the affinity of this work. Causality, that essential ingredient of things we call novels, has been left out, but a dignified conception of personality has been left in. Sleepless Nights might be a notebook called “Ideas” for Chekhov or Zola to work from; if it were longer, because of the nature of history, it would become as dramatic as Proust. All the characters would meet up; Alex, the bachelor intellectual, would rescue Miss Lavore from her roominghouse. As it is, we use other names for works of this kind—memoir, meditation with exempla, spiritual exercises with a common theme: “despite the kindness of damp afternoons, the solace of opening the door and finding everyone there…the cemetery waits to be desecrated.”
This book rejects crisis, denouement, and also confession. Some may find the narrator’s reticence disappointing. The rewards offered for personality are always, it seems, larger than those offered for thought, though why this should be is unclear. Nor is it clear why the spectacle of another contemplating his Self should fascinate, or why selflessness has lost its moral charm. When Matthew Arnold said of Charlotte Brontë that her mind was filled with hunger, rebellion, and rage, he meant to reproach her. Now it would be considered a compliment.
“After all, ‘I’ am a woman” is not said with a sense of injury, although it is said with the knowledge that womanhood presents special difficulties. Here, as in many of her essays, Hardwick claims for a woman the rank of person, differently preoccupied but as worthy as men to attract the notice of fortune, to be in the game and to be dealt a hand good or bad. This is not to be a victim but a gambler. There are few female gamblers in modern fiction—there are more victims—and consciousness, and the power of reflection, are more usually the properties of male protagonists and gamblers. (Not of victims—not, say, of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. If the women in this book have harder fates, if the men in it feel sorrier for themselves than she feels for them, it is not because she lacks sympathy; this is just something women notice about men.) Of women—of her mother, for instance, the narrator concludes that she should not “make too much of my mother’s dreadful labors, labors laid to rest long ago.” In the long run she gives every human being a lot of credit.
That is, she forbears to feel that people get what they deserve. Character is not necessarily destiny. She is sympathetic to “the balm of the vices,” has a “prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes,” and keeps in mind that “what began as a green start may turn overnight into a desert filled with alarm.” Eventually this particular tone of awareness and acceptance makes of the narrator the main character, the person of Character, an unusual heroine in the era of the injured tone.
So we become involved with “Elizabeth,” as we do with the main protagonist of any fiction; yet we have a sense of her unwillingness that we should. She wants neither to complain nor to dominate. Her observations and emotions nonetheless become the account of her own passage. The “I” has watched and inquired (in “asking a thousand questions of many heavy souls, I did not learn much”), has learned much, and is now wise, resigned, a lover—an excellent spiritual condition which in her reticence she cannot call attention to, or, absorbed in art, is perhaps unaware of.
For the narrator-artist, the thing is to describe and reflect, to carry us on the flow of each interesting episode, each paragraph, each interesting word. She exercises care. She has a tremendous power of summary and analysis which she alternately indulges and corrects, mindful that our sense that other people are heroes to lead the lives they do is to some extent patronizing, in need of correction. Her summarizing self is witty, shrewd, incisive: Alex “was very handsome and a little depressed by nature, but anxious to please and in this pleasantness somewhat impersonal. For that reason he was doomed to more fornication than he wished.” “His handsomeness created anxiety in me; his snobbery was detailed and full of quirks, like that of people living in provincial capitals, or foreigners living in Florence or Cairo.”
The corrective is pity, charity, and love: “Her large, muscled arms hold me for a moment in a pounding embrace. The smell of the laundry is, truly, like a bitter, sacred incense. Her cropped hair is damp. Her legs are swollen, the large, aching ankles seem to groan as she pulls her weight along. She stands there, the great teeth throbbing in her round, gleaming face. Oh, Ida.”
“The bag ladies…have mercy on them, somebody.” Of course if this book contented itself with instancing the pathetic, which is always apparent to everyone, it would not be so impressive. It is harder to venture into people’s happiness. Of the cleaning woman, Josette, and her timid husband Michael, “many, many beautiful memories they had of the way the water and lights hooked up, the wandering people with their news of other parks, good sites and bad, the comradeship, the radio, the cans of beans for the miraculous little stove, the cans of beer from the perfect cooler.” Or Miss Lavore, who “had a life”:
Nearly every night of the week she went to Arthur Murray’s dancing classes. A framed, autographed portrait of Murray and his wife hung over her bed. It would be florid to say it hung there like a religious icon, but certainly the two secular persons filled Miss Lavore’s heart with gratitude. It could be said they had changed her life.
In this Hardwick runs the greatest risks, but faces down the danger that haunts the writer of fiction: how do you know? Do you presume? How do you know Miss Lavore dreams of being “Lavore and –-, famous European dancing team”? Perhaps her dreams are simpler, or grander, than this. The specter of condescension is routed by the sincerity of the narrator’s love—in turn somewhat belied by the astonishing inventive language. Brilliance always calls suspicions down on itself. Easy to imagine the narrator sharing in the sadness of Michael’s decline, harder to imagine that she can imagine the pleasures of a trailer park.
Yet finally she can, and more than that. As James remarked of Balzac, she does not love these characters because she knows them so much as she knows them because she loves them. And here, finally, is why this, although not a novel, is a work of fiction, or a “new novel,” but not history, not autobiography. It makes the invisible visible, it goes beyond the evidence, to borrow E.M. Forster’s phrase: “each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence.” Hardwick’s power of embodying it is singular.
For the artist, the material and the state of grace are the same thing. Her attention is on others and on the manner of speaking of them, the brilliance of her language almost a liability, like one more vanity the virtuous artist must mortify. Ultimately the language is the triumph here. “Tell me, is it true that a bad artist suffers as greatly as a good one?” she asks, but she finds with ease, it seems, the startling adjective, the amazing simile: a city has “contaminated skies like a suffocating cloak of mangy fur.” Of possessions she writes “of course these things are not mine. I think they are usually spoken of as ours, that tea bag of a word which steeps in the conditional.” She is at once a Symbolist and a master of the ordinary discursive properties of language. It is a style that is literary, learned, manly—how many women have such courage of their aphorisms?—and womanly bounded by images of windows, mantelpieces, the behavior of people indoors.
Prose fiction cannot show us ourselves, it can show us others, better than poetry or pictures or essays can. If it is true, as seems likely and in the face of much contemporary talk to the contrary, that we know ourselves through the recognition of the otherness of others, with whom we share the condition of humans, then prose fiction can do the best that can be done for us to console and affirm. That is why, in spite of its traditional skepticism, this book brings happiness.