On ‘Sleepless Nights’

Elizabeth Hardwick’s compressed, singular work Sleepless Nights was described when published in 1979 as a novel. It bore, however, a peculiar relation to the genre. It was a novel without a plot, with a protagonist who shared the name of its author, and whose successive circumstances followed the known contours of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life; a novel that could allow itself to move in any direction in time that it chose, that could shift its attention from one person or situation to another as abruptly as a filmmaker might splice two incongruous images; a novel that seemed to declare the impossibility of separating itself from life, yet admittedly one “seeming to be true when all of it is not.” (“A good deal of the book,” Hardwick stated in an interview at the time, “is, as they say, ‘made up.’”) Sleepless Nights might be taken as an exploration of the problem of genre, the problem of distinguishing fiction from what is so coarsely described as “nonfiction,” except that the book is more like a demonstration that the problem is illusory.

The book inhabits that divide in so inevitable a fashion as to dissolve what was then—and is often still—perceived as a natural barrier. The norms of fiction, the reader of Sleepless Nights might well conclude, are after all a constriction, or at least a superfluity. Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one? At the same time strict reportage, with its prohibition against invention, has its own aesthetically intolerable demands. Sleepless Nights, an alchemical tour de force, reports by inventing and invents by reporting. It continues to serve as a powerful reminder of how the novel can become richer by permitting itself the resources of essay, journal, memoir, prose poem, chronicle. It is a commonplace that every book needs to find its own form, but how many do?

Sleepless Nights enlarges on Hardwick’s earlier novels (The Ghostly Lover and The Simple Truth) by allowing itself the structural and stylistic freedoms of her literary essays. For Hardwick the essay has always been a form capable of the sudden transformations that seem to change one genre into another. Frames dissolve; writers become characters; characters reenter the world as independent beings; real events assume the stylization and symbolic weight of scenes in novels. A description of the last days of Dylan Thomas has the density found in some ancient chronicler—Plutarch or Tacitus—whose every sentence has a ring of calm fatality:

The people near him visited indignities upon themselves, upon him, upon others. There seems to have been a certain amount of competition at the bedside, assertions of obscure priority. The honors were more and more vague, confused by the ghastly, suffering needs of this broken host and by his final impersonality.

Discussing Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in her famous essay “Seduction and Betrayal,” she does not merely allude to or analyze Clarissa and Mr. Lovelace but rather allows them …

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