Friday, December 7, 2007

ELIZABETH HARDWICK 1916-2007


Among the obituaries in the New York Times the other day was one for the writer, Elizabeth Hardwick. She was aged 91 and I would not have guessed that she had been still alive in 2007. Until quite recently, I had never read anything by her, and knew her primarily as the sometime wife of the American poet, Robert Lowell (with whom she is pictured here), with whose work I was fairly conversant. I first came to read Hardwick when a paperback copy of her short roman à clef, Sleepless Nights, caught my eye in a bin at a fund-raising sale of used books at the public library, and I brought it home.

It was not what I would consider to be an important piece of fiction, but I enjoyed it for its convincing depictions of life in New York City. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Midtown—look toward the east, toward many beautiful and bright things for sale. Turn the eyes westward—a nettling thicket of drunks, actors, gamblers, waiters, people who slept all day in their graying underwear and gave off a far from fresh odor when they dressed in their brown suits and brown snap-brim hats for the evening’s inchoate activities.

Although I never in my life donned a snap-brim hat, nor knew anybody who owned one, that passage is still familiar to me from my years in New York, and many nights spent on the streets of the theater district on the West Side of Manhattan. Here’s little more, touching briefly upon her acquaintance with jazz diva, Billie Holiday:

And the shifty jazz clubs on 52nd Street, with their large blow-ups of faces, instruments, and names. Little men, chewing on cigars, outside in the cold or the heat, calling out the names of performers… And there she often was—the “bizarre deity,” Billie Holiday.

…She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron… The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian.


The Times obituary interested me in looking into a least one of the books of short non-fiction pieces Hardwick had published. From the university library I borrowed the collection entitled Bartleby in Manhattan. I was pleased to find that the volume included an article on Simone Weil. It is the only one that I have read thus far. Unlike several of the essays on Weil by literati that I’ve read over the years, Hardwick’s is unreservedly positive. Simone Weil’s life was one of such extremes that many of her contemporaries were simply unable to accept it all as genuine, and not at any time the strange doings of weird poseur.

Characterizing Simone Weil as “one of the most brilliant and original minds of twentieth-century France”, Hardwick noted, “What sets her apart from our current ascetics with their practice of transcendental meditation, diet, vegetarianism, ashram simplicities, yoga, in that with them the deprivations and rigors are undergone for the payoff—for tranquility, for thinness, for the hope of a long life—or frequently, it seems, to fill the hole of emptiness so painful to the narcissist. With Simone Weil it was entirely different."

With the passing of Elizabeth Hardwick, we have clearly lost a woman of keen perception and deep understanding.

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