Sleepless Nights

December 10, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

I have left out my abortion, left out running from the pale, frightened doctors and their sallow, furious wives in the grimy, curtained offices on West End Avenue. What are you screaming for? I have not even touched you, the doctor said. His wife led me to the door, her hand as firmly and punitively on my arm as if she had been a detective making an arrest. Do not come back ever.

I ended up with a cheerful, never-lost-a-case black practitioner, who smoked a cigar throughout. When it was over he handed me his card. It was an advertisement for the funeral home he also operated. Can you believe it, darling? he said.
That’s Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a week ago. The obits said that she was best known as an essayist, a co-founder of the New York Review and wife, for a time, of Robert Lowell. But Sleepless Nights is what I remember. It’s a novel that seems more like a memoir, that might well be a memoir. New York in the forties and fifties (as in the above passage), Louisville in the twenties and thirties.

Here’s a relgious campground of her youth:
Under the string of light bulbs in the humid tents, the desperate and unsteady human wills struggle for a night against the fierce pessimism of experience and the root empiricism of every troubled loser . . . .Perhaps here began a prying sympathy for the victims of sloth and recurrent mistakes, sympathy for the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking and crashing.
She did not stay long in the church

Seasons of nature and seasons of experience that appear as a surprise but are merely the arrival of the calendar’s predictions. Thus the full moon of excited churchgoing days and the frost of apostasy as fourteen arrives.

Living in New York in the forties, she went to jazz clubs to hear Billie Holiday:
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. . . . Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. . . . .Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.
She had heard jazz back in Louisville – Ellington, Chick Webb – but it was different:
When I speak of the great bands it must not be taken to mean that we thought of them as such. No, they were part of the summer nights and the hot dog stands, the fetid swimming pool heavy with chlorine, the screaming roller coaster, the old rain-splintered picnic tables, the broken iron swings. And the bands were also part of the Southern drunkenness, couples drinking Coke and whiskey, vomiting, being unfaithful, lovelorn, frantic. The black musicians, with their cumbersome instruments, their tuxedos, were simply there to beat out time for the stumbling, cuddling fox-trotting of the period.

You should read this book if only for the prose style. O.K., it’s not sociology, but it’s a finely observed rendering of these times and places and her life there.


yli said...

thanks for sharing, Jay. sounds interesting. i'll put it in my 'to read' list for next year.

SARA said...

I think it must have been awesome living in New York in the forties, and going to jazz clubs to hear Billie Holiday!
Thanks for sharing..think I will check it out.