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,…
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