So, as I was still undecided as to what to read, I asked Youngest Child to pick a book at random from my shelves. She asked if I’d read all my Viragos and when I said I hadn’t she plucked “Sleepless Nights” off the shelf – and so that was my next read!

I looked up Elizabeth Hardwick and she had quite a remarkable life – part of the Partisan Review, one of the founders of the New York Review of Books, critic, novelist and married to the poet Robert Lowell for a large number of years. “Sleepless Nights” is presented as a novel but it seems to be a lot more than that.

The book is not one that you can give a simple plot summary of because of its structure. The narrator is called Elizabeth, presumably the author, and in the book she recalls episodes from her life and past. But in this volume, linear structure goes out of the window; instead, Hardwick tells her tale in a series of lyrical fragments. Each part of the book focuses on a particular aspect of the life – hanging with Billie Holliday in New York; her relationship with her various maids; the fate of a gay flatmate; life and acquaintances in Amsterdam. But despite the fragmentary nature of the work, there is a constant theme of loss and loneliness – this may be what causes the sleepless nights of the title. Alternatively, the sleepless nights may have been caused by the current events at the time, which caused her to write the book.

Despite the term “fiction” being applied to the book, it is very hard not to read it as autobiography and to look into the events Hardwick’s life to see if they match the story. One obvious element is the fact that she had been deserted in 1972 by husband Robert Lowell, who had used much real material from their lives in three poetical works published at the time. “Sleepless Nights” was first published in 1979 and it seems rather obvious that it was inspired by Lowell’s desertion. The men and women in the book struggle with loneliness, dislocation and attempt to find coping strategies. Living on one’s own is represented as painful and difficult, but marriage is also portrayed as mainly hollow. This is a bleak book written at a time when Hardwick had a very bleak outlook.

In some ways, Hardwick can be seen as reaching out to women – many of the short pieces are addressed as letters to “Dear M.” and I wondered if this was the author Mary McCarthy, to whom the book is jointly dedicated. The other dedicatee is Hardwick’s daughter Harriet, who was also of course abandoned by Lowell and who may well have suffered from having her private life splattered all over his poetry. However, on reading up a little about the book, it seems that M was simply to represent the reader whom Hardwick was addressing. The Virago edition of the book was published in 1980 and contains no introduction or additional information. This can be a good thing or bad – I read the book with no prior knowledge at all and loved it for its language, imagery and evocation of different places and times. However, reading up on it afterwards gave me more context for the book which I think helps because it is so strongly autobiographical. The more recent NYRB edition also has a helpful introduction covering the style of the book, which you can download from the Internet here.

There is another level in this book which is highlighted by its being called a “fictional autobiography”. The work questions the very nature of autobiography, memory and memoir – so many autobiographies are neat, linear, clearly told stories but memory itself is fragmentary. We remember incidents, episodes, vignettes but not our life as a cleanly laid out whole. Therefore, a work like “Sleepless Nights” is much truer to autobiography because of its structure. The NYRB introduction actually ignores the issue of Hardwick and Lowell’s divorce which I think is a little ingenuous, because the book is obviously grounded in Lowell’s desertion and his exposure of their break-up in his poems. Where his work reveals all, hers is elusive and evasive, naming very few names and very briefly mentioning a husband, or a ‘him’ or ‘the master’. But enough is revealed for us to understand her situation and empathise with her.

I enjoyed this book very much. The prose is beautiful and hypnotic and once I got into the rhythm of the way she tells the tale, I was carried along by her life story. Whether it is fiction or fact or a mixture of both didn’t really matter in the end – it was the story of many women’s (and men’s) lives, their sadnesses and losses, their travels and homecomings, all told in lovely prose. It’s inspired me to send off for Hardwick’s other two Virago novels and the NYRB collection of her short stories – so that’s one off the tbr, and three on!!

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