Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Elizabeth Hardwick, _Sleepless Nights_

THIS IS TURNING into the Summer of Lowell for me. I read this--not exactly a memoir and not exactly a novel, musical rather than chronological in structure, elliptical and impressionistic--because I wondered what kind of glimpses it would afford of Lowell (Hardwick's husband for about twenty frequently stressful years). Not many, it turns out, and the relatively few times we glimpse what I assume is Lowell (proper names are scarce in Sleepless Nights), he seems unpleasant and a little difficult, but not dramatically so. Given the ammunition Hardwick had available (vide Hamilton, Mariani, Jamison, et al.), her tone is remarkably mild.

The most memorable passage, for me, was about Billie Holiday--an unusual portrait in that it avoided the mythologizing that other portaits of Lady Day are prone to indulge in.

What I was most struck by, though, is the prose, which had what I may as well call a pre-Didion elegance, a willingness to luxuriate in unusual adjectives and slightly récherché similes, a bit like James Agee, say. Sometimes this had a doilies-on-the-armrests effect--now that one is used to Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay--but it can be appealing too.

For example: "The tall trees, altered by the snow and ice, loomed up in the arctic landscape like ancient cataclysmic formations of malicious splendor."

Not sure how helpful this is--do any of us really know what an ancient cataclysmic formation of malicious splendor looks like, and if we do not, how are we going to know what the trees looked like? But it does roll musically in the mind.

Hard also to think of a contemporary writer who would risk a Latinate inversion like "To him was given heart disease and to her, cancer." The KJV cadence does lend a certain something, though--it's what James Baldwin has that Ta-Nehisi Coates does not.