I found this little novel in a charity shop while on holiday, I hadn’t heard of it – although I seem to remember reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel The Ghostly Lover many years ago (which I’m pretty sure was not as Mills and Boons as it might sound). It has turned out to be a rather delicious little find. There are books where nothing much happens – and somehow it is still immensely satisfying – in this book not only does nothing much happen – there is no plot at all, and yet from the moment I started reading I was blown away by the style, the wise and wonderful writing – and the images it leaves behind.
Sleepless Nights is an unusual book to describe, and difficult to do justice to. Although categorised as fiction, there is nothing novel like about it. Instead Sleepless Nights reads like a random series of memories, wonderings and stories. Our narrator is Elizabeth, an old woman in a nursing home, looking back over her life and loves. The structure of this book – though it is fairly formless – is such that reading it becomes like delving into the hidden recesses of someone’s mind, the sometimes unconnected letter extracts, wonderings and reminiscences that come unbidden in the quiet of the night.
“If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember. Make a decision and what you want from the lost things will present itself. You can take it down like a can from a shelf. Perhaps.”
From Kentucky, to Boston, New York, graduate school at Columbia, Vermont, Montreal and Europe, Elizabeth’s memories and stories of the past offer a tantalising glimpse of a life, for no work of fiction has ever felt so autobiographical.
Elizabeth Hardwick’s astonishingly good prose beautifully captures the spirit of New York – 1940’s jazz clubs and the fabulous Billie Holiday.
“And there she often was – the “bizarre deity,” Billie Holiday.
Real people: nothing like your mother and father, nothing like those friends from long ago now living in the family house alone, with the silver and the pictures, a few new lamps and a new roof – set up at last, preparing to die.
At night in the cold winter moonlight, around 1943, the city pageantry was of a benign sort. Adolescents were sleeping and the threat was only in the landscape, aesthetic. Dirty slush in the gutters, a lost black overshoe, a pair of white panties, perhaps thrown from a car. Murderous dissipation went with the music, inseparable, skin and bone. And always her luminous self-destruction. “
Elizabeth’s stories of friends and lovers, of people her parents knew of college days and the changing face of New York city, is like taking a detailed look at someone’s photograph album and private diaries. Disjointed, poignant meanderings of a life, dreams politics and music all play a part.
Elizabeth comes across as a woman I want to spend time with, curled up on brightly patterned scatter cushions in a New York apartment building – listening again to the stories of Billie Holiday, communists and cleaning ladies, to an accompaniment of subway trains and jazz.