Hard-Going Hardwick

Forgive me, fellow Slaves of Golconda; I had the very best of intentions and I wanted to like it so very much, but Sleepless Nights defeated me about 40 pages in. I wasn’t going to post on this today; in cowardly fashion I was going to see what everyone else put and hope that you might convince me to pick it up again (as indeed you might), but after reading Danielle’s post, I wanted to show some solidarity and talk about the ways in which it might be even more interesting not to like a book than to fall head over heels in love with it. There is no reason why abandoning a book should ever indicate poor readerly skills or a lack of quality on the book’s part. Instead we need to fall back on that comfortable old adage about being unable to please all of the people all of the time, and think about the kinds of pleasure we each individually need in order to keep reading.

Sleepless Nights is a fragmentary mosaic of a book, what academics would probably like to call a ‘text’ rather than a novel, because it doesn’t do any of the things we usually associate with novels. It has no beginning, middle or end, no sense of progression or development, no problem posed or quest initiated. It’s written from the perspective of an elderly lady looking back over her life and sifting through her memories the way a CD player might select tracks on random mode. Generally when the past returns through memories, it’s because they have something to tell us; they are picking on us, insisting we have a good look at them, niggling at us with their hidden meanings. Generally what’s interesting about memories is that they get slightly squashed out of shape each time the present moment leans on them, and in this way they can tell us a lot about the emotional climate of the present. Now what struck me as odd about Elizabeth Hardwick’s book was the apparent absence of a thinking, feeling, perplexed or nostalgic individual looking backwards. What we learn about the narrator’s past tells us little about her present, or indeed little about the kind of person she was. The fragments of past we were presented with were not intended (it seemed) to cohere into a story we could grasp hold of and take away with us. Now of course, I say all of this with only 40 pages of the book under my belt. Maybe it blossoms out later on into the kind of story in which memories illuminate each other and intertwine to give us a rich and vibrant patchwork of a woman’s life. If it does, tell me, maybe I’ll give it another go. But there was something so resistant to that kind of meaning creation in the first few chapters that I was assailed by radical doubt. I didn’t understand why I was being given this information, and I missed my readerly pleasure of piecing together details and clues that would come to be important as the narrative progressed.

Now intellectually, I can see why this might be clever. Narrative insists that lives have centers, major events, chains of causality and so on, when in fact most lives don’t. They are just a string of events that might be intriguing or colorful in themselves but don’t really produce the patternings that make stories so reassuringly woven. I can imagine that many people might appreciate this kind of honesty in a book, but unfortunately, not me. I get my kicks out of making connections and listening to reverberations and solving riddles. That’s the promise of pleasure that pulls me through a novel; the hope that I’ll emerge at the end with a beautiful little knot of meaning that I can pull apart and tie together again as I think over and over what happened. Curiously enough this novel reminded me of why I don’t like the huge French cult writer, Boris Vian. Now Vian’s novels are miles away from this one by Hardwick. They are bionic-speed romps with masses and masses of surreal plot and are supposed to be very funny. If you like cartoon violence and difficult (for non-native readers at least) French puns then I guess they are funny, but once I’d realized that no particular section mattered, that I could pretty much leave out any given paragraph without detriment to understanding the story, well, then I found myself unable to carry on. That’s the problem for me with discontinuous narratives; I suddenly find a laziness in me that I would never have guessed was there in my otherwise zealous reading life.

Now I have read plenty of fragmentary stories in my time and I wondered again why I’d been able to keep going with them but not with this one. And I came to the conclusion that it was because I’d found this book emotionally cold. Again, I make this judgment on the first 40 pages, and who knows what fires and torments our narrator may have encountered in its later stages. But I would have appreciated her fragments if they had been electrifyingly charged with passion, or grief, or excitement. Instead I found them very beautiful, but in a manicured, or put-under-glass kind of way. I like my emotions a bit more raw than that, a bit more throat-grabbing. As a person I’m very polite, but I don’t need the books I read to be so; in fact I rather like to sit back and watch the conflict and the danger and the heartache begin while perfectly safe, lounging on the sofa.

So, as much as I could see there would be a great deal to appreciate in Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel, I was not the person to appreciate it. I don’t think this particularly matters; in thinking about my lack of relationship with the book I felt I gained a lot of insight into my own reading preferences, and that can be very useful in its way. I have on order some of Hardwick’s literary essays, and I am thinking that these may well appeal to me far more than Sleepless Nights, as the qualities I look for in criticism are very different to those that please me in fiction. I’d be delighted to give her a triumphant write-up in a different genre. And Slaves, you know I respect your opinions. If you think she’s worth it, I’ll return to this one on your recommendations.

12 thoughts on “Hard-Going Hardwick

  1. I feel ambivalently about this book too, but I still would like to read her criticism — disappointment in one genre doesn’t have to disappointment in another! I think if you read on you’d find more of the same, so if the first 40 pages didn’t do it for you, the last 80 or 90 won’t do it either. I like what you say about solving the riddle and I like to read that way too — I did enjoy this book at least in moments, but it wasn’t a fabulous read for me because of the same reasons you describe.

  2. Yup, if you didn’t like the book in the first 40 pages, the next 40 aren’t going to change your mind because it continues on in the same way. I enjoyed the book enough to want to read it again to try and make more comprehensive sense of it as I feel like there was a lot I missed that would become clear on a second go-round.

  3. Very nicely written–I feel the same way about wanting to make connections in a story. I think I decided to set the book aside at page 43 as it wasn’t engaging me, and I thought if this is it, I don’t think finishing it is going to make the experience any better–better to spend time with another book that is more enjoyable to me. I guess I shouldn’t have said it makes me realize my limitations as a reader (I hate to think I have limitations), but it does show me what appeals and what doesn’t. I kept looking for something in the text, and I wasn’t finding it. I am certainly willing to try new things, but perhaps this sort of writing is just not my thing. I think I’d like to try her essays instead.

  4. Dorothy – I thought you had some wonderful things to say about this book in your post, even if it did arouse ambivalent feelings in you! I do think her criticism is the way forward for me. Stefanie – if you liked it then I will have to think twice about it, because I respect your opinion enormously. I’ll be very interested to read your post. Danielle – I’m looking forward to reading her essays – I think they will suit me much better. Reading your post just made me feel very relieved that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble getting along with it!

  5. While I’ve never read along with any of the Slaves of Golconda choices (too many towering stacks of books around here to take care of first), I have been intrigued by the dramatically differing opinions of Sleepless Nights that I’ve read on a number of my favorite blogs (yours included, though I’m only now commenting). Generally these are the kinds of books that intrigue me enough to buy or otherwise apprehend them. I always like to find out which side I’ll fall on.

    Great post! Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Andi – you are warmly welcomed to the site! And thank you so much for your comment. I’m just about to go on a tour of the Slaves to see what everyone else thinks and I’m very intrigued to know that opinions differ (although I can quite understand why). I like reading the books that divide opinion too, and will be very interested to know what you make of this one.

  7. Oh good. One I don’t feel inclined to add to my TBR list. Meanwhile, though, I agree that sometimes it can be more interesting to discuss why one didn’t like a book. My experience is that the most interesting discussions come when some liked a book and some didn’t: it seems to add clarity (and sometimes doubt, which isn’t always bad) to both perspectives.

  8. Pingback: “The Sun is sinking fast” « The Books of My Numberless Dreams

  9. This book was not what I expected at all. And, I gave up on it half way through. I feel so bad about it as I really wanted to like it and discuss it with the fellow slaves but well there’s always the next book right.

  10. Emily – I agree, that can be a wonderful forum for debate – so long as those concerned agree not to take it personally if a book they thought wonderful didn’t go down so well with others! Iliana – I am very relieved to know that others couldn’t make it to the end either – thank you for being so comforting! And yes, there’s always the next book.

  11. I am relieved to see I am not the only one who prefers a tight plot. I have had immense difficulties finishing Mrs Dalloway recently (and have not yet found how I would blog about it). To me, the best plot should be as tightly woven as a 5000 psi kevlar helium tank or a gordian knot, i.e. there are no loose strands. Not that Mrs Dalloway has no plot: at least, it is neatly packed in a good old unity of time; but I found it way too hairy and dishevelled. An angora novel.

  12. Mandarine – I love the term ‘angora novel’ and will borrow it shamelessly! Love the comment about the helium tank too, but am less likely to be able to keep that one in my mind 🙂 Plotting is a great pleasure in books, I couldn’t agree more.

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