"Sleepless Nights," published in 1979, was heralded in recent years along with her republished literary essays. After a series of disappointing books, I turned to Hardwick's novel late in the year. Hardwick's evocative language, original narrative voice, variety of characters and zest for experience revived my long-lost passion for fiction.
Packed with autobiographical details, the book is more of a memoir than a novel. Her poetic, musical language sounds like a late-night reverie, a fugue recounting a life of adventure and strange characters.
Unlike other first-person voices in American literature, Hardwick's narrator rarely resorts to the pronoun "I." The narrator comes across as a camera-like observer, curiously unaffected emotionally by the people and experience she encounters. Hardwick's stoicism, her indomitable refusal to register regret, covers a deep gulf of pain, especially to those familiar with her heroic loyalty to Robert Lowell.
Details of her marriage to Lowell arise during the book, yet he remains unnamed, barely present. The book was published two years after Lowell died in a taxicab on his way to Hardwick's apartment in New York City. She had taken him back after his betrayal of her with Caroline Blackwood and his shameless use of her anguished personal letters in his collection "The Dolphin."
Hardwick and Lowell's homes on Marlborough Street, New York City's Upper West Side and Casteen, Maine are evoked in "Sleepless Nights." A long passage recalls several months they lived in Amsterdam. But Hardwick's caring for Lowell after his manic attacks, and his frequent affairs, are never mentioned. Nor does the book talk about the daughter she had with Lowell.
Lowell's cousin, Harriet Winslow, who left Hardwick the Lowell family home in Casteen, is alluded to. But Lowell is never present. I sometimes got the impression that he was in another room, smoke still rising from the cigarette he'd left in the ashtray.
"Sleepless Nights" examines a rich life outside of her years with Lowell. The narrator examines Hardwick's childhood and early adulthood in her hometown of Lexington, Ky., with vivid portraits of her mother and father and recollections of parties, sexual abuse, and the loss of her virginity.
After moving to New York City, she avidly seeks sexual adventures. In a shocking moment, she mentions encountering her abortionist, who gives her a card for his funeral business. The love affairs are recounted with a clear-eyed absence of regret.
In an exciting surprise, the narrator remembers her friendship with Billie Holliday, whom Hardwick met during her frequent sojourns to New York City's then vibrant jazz clubs on 52nd Street. She frequented the clubs with her gay roommate, with whom she had a relationship that she describes as a bad, sexless marriage. The narrator's affectionate, tragic portrait of Holiday shows her immense talent ravaged by addiction and physical decline.
Hardwick published the novel at age 63, emerging from her disastrous marriage to Lowell to increasing acclaim as a literary critic. A precursor of today's metafiction and memoir-dominated literature, "Sleepless Nights" established Hardwick as a distinctive American novelist. The narrator's voice, shocking, poetic, comic, indomitable, is forever vital.