Master Class

Dominique Nabokov
Elizabeth Hardwick, New York City, 1991

Come again, Professor Hardwick said, doing that seesaw dance with her shoulders, as if to say, get a load of him. I’d no idea what she was talking about. She nodded toward the blue-and-magenta paperback on top of my notebook: it was by a distinguished, elderly member of the Columbia faculty. If I was reading that for a class, then I should drop that class right away. Who, she wondered, apart from the professor himself, would make students read him on the Romantics. Not much of interest there, she finished.

The exchange happened faster than it has taken me to recall it, from her getting settled in her seat, to me, the apple-polisher, claiming first chair and opening another notebook. She’d laughed at the class for our thinking we would want to take notes. Most of us persisted. She taught by quotation and aside, citation and remark, stone down the well and echo. Most of her lessons were for later. She would peer over the book and exhale, trusting to Fortuna that somebody sitting around the table might get it eventually.

Perhaps Professor Hardwick wanted to drift off, through the window and away, but she couldn’t. Literature meant too much to her and was the only kind of writing she wanted to teach, not that it could be taught. She hoped we’d learn to ask questions of ourselves as we wrote. How can you sustain this tone? Then enough was enough, on to the next person and her or his fifteen minutes of lip-parting attention. I’m afraid I don’t find that terribly interesting as an approach, she’d say. Your weekly offering was not much commented upon; she much preferred to be interested in what she was reading. Boredom was not listlessness, it was a nervous strain, while to be occupied with something like a great book could be wonderfully, sometimes painfully, liberating. Pedagogy—a word she would make fun of, starting from the dash. In the essays of Elizabeth Hardwick that dash is often a warning—beware of sting.*

We, her fascinated and silent creative writing class at Barnard College in 1973, knew who she was. Needful facts, as she would say: Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, left graduate school at Columbia University because she wanted to write. I don’t remember if she told the class that or not. Her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was published in 1945. The first thing I ever read by her was the opening chapter of Sleepless Nights, the novel she was writing then under the title The Cost of Living. That stunning first chapter was published in The New York Review of Books while I was in her class. She told me later—it has been one of the honors of my life to have studied with her and to have…


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