The critic, essayist, novelist and editor Elizabeth Hardwick died last week at the age of 91. Most of the memorial writing about her will emphasize either her founding role at the New York Review of Books, or her marriage to Robert Lowell--- but she should be remembered for more than that.


If you read Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell, you will (I hope) come away with a sense of how hard it was to be Lowell, partly because of his fame but mostly because of his serious bipolar illness, and of how those difficulties became elements, raw material if you like, turned to great advantage not so much in Life Studies as in the books he wrote after that. And you will almost certainly come away with a sense of how hard it must have been, at times, to be Elizabeth Hardwick, to keep up a career as a critic and to raise a daughter along with Lowell.
Hardwick's final novel-- which draws on her early life in Kentucky and on her life in New York and in Europe with Lowell- deserves to last a long time, along with Lowell's poems. The beautifully written and fast-moving Sleepless Nights would matter as roman-a-clef even if it were not full of beautiful sentences, and it would matter for its beautiful sentences, sometimes disheveled and sometimes piercingly lucid, even if it did not pertain so often to the life that Hardwick, and Lowell, in fact lived.
It's not, though, a novel that chronicles, blow by blow and event by event, those eventful lives: for one thing, it's far too short, designedly so, and for another, it's sometimes lyric, sometimes slideshow like-- a lot like Woolf, not at all like (say) Humboldt's Gift. One of her great powers, I think-- you can see it in her essays, too-- was for sentences which give abstract nouns and nonsensory adjectives-- names for emotions, names for ideas-- the same heft and verve we associate with nouns for objects we can taste or hold in the hand. And yet she describe things and persons and settings in this last novel as well, descriptions that would have felt out of place in her nonfiction prose. Sleepless Nights isn't a novel you read for the plot, though it keeps touching upon Hardwick's real life: it's a novel you read for the things that Hardwick, sentence by sentence, says.
Here's a big PDF of Geoffrey O'Brien's introduction to the current (reprint) edition. And here are a few sentences from the novel itself, which I first encountered when I was a teen obsessed with Lowell and have returned to, without disappointment, since:
1. "My mother's femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. Not the assertiveness of opinion, for she seemed to have no opinion about itand would, even when she was past seventy, merely shrug and look perplexed when the subject of her own childbearing was raised. Or sometimes she might say: It did not make me miserable, if that's what you want to know."
2. (from one of the final paragraphs) "Pages turned, answering prayers, and persons called out, Are you there? The moon changed the field to the silvery lavender of daybreak.
"And yet the old pages of the days and weeks are splattered with the dark-brown rings of coffee cups and I find myself gratefully dissolved in the grounds as the water drips downward. As it must be, perhaps, for one who dislikes the theater and would instead stay at home reading the text out of which spring the actors in boots, letters on trays, and handsome women at the window, looking out on a painted backdrop of trees and factories."

Originally Published: December 7th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...