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the ghostly lover

First things first, let’s get it out of the way – this title is terrible. No doubt the title wouldn’t have been quite so cringey when it was first published in 1945 – however these days a title like that makes us think of Mills and Boon. Elizabeth Hardwick however is a serious writer – and The Ghostly Lover; her first novel is pretty serious, don’t let that title fool you.

I had read this novel before – probably almost thirty years ago – I remembered the title and the cover and nothing else really except that I found it quite hard going. Now I know why, The Ghostly Lover is an intelligent, introspective coming of age novel – which I can’t imagine having engaged with in my late teens, but which I enjoyed very much indeed this time around. Four years ago, I read Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights – which is an altogether different kettle of fish, it’s an elegant novel of little plot, beautiful imagery and quiet wisdom. The work of an older more accomplished writer. The Ghostly Lover, however is an astonishingly good first novel – and I remain a fan of Elizabeth Hardwick’s.

“Life seemed to be an enormous subterranean existence in which nobody spoke and in which people died for want of a few words they needed.”

Marian Coleman is sixteen in the long hot summer of depression era Kentucky. Marian and her brother Albert have been living with their grandmother, while their unreliable parents are absent, moving from job to job, chasing the seemingly unobtainable American dream. Sitting on the porch of her home as the novel opens, Marian becomes aware of a man watching her. Bruce, is a neighbour, ten years older, he is already divorced, and rather attractive, he wanders over to talk to her. As Marian sits talking to Bruce that day, she is awaiting the return of her parents, who have been absent on this occasion for two years. Their return is anticipated with a mixture of nerves and excitement.

Lucy and Ted; Marian and Albert’s parents arrive, late at night hours after they were expected, and immediately begin to upset the quiet balance of the household. They are disorganised and incapable of good parenting, but Marian has yet to realise this, sorry that soon they will be off again, her father chasing yet another job that will make their fortune. When Lucy’s childhood friend Mary calls, and suggests to Lucy that perhaps her daughter might have need of her, Lucy is unrepentant, determined to see Marian as grown up enough to do without her.

“‘I know everyone thinks it’s terrible that I go away and leave the children. I know they think it’s disgraceful that we can’t stick to anything.’ Lucy paused, and she saw that Mary’s face was heavy with emotion. She was like a child, gratefully partaking of some choice confidence. Lucy thought sadly that there must always be women like Mary in the world, women with faces that showed deep concern over ever triviality, women who wore the drawn brow of sympathy like an emblem, who specialized in the quick, hushed, understanding reply. Now she had nothing to say. Whatever she hoped to tell had vanished. ‘I simply cannot live here,’ she said and turned away.”

Hattie is the young black cleaner who works for the family, a sharp tongued, cynical young woman, with whom Marian attempts to have some kind of superficial friendship. Through Marian’s critical examination of her attitude to Hattie, Hardwick touches on race relations in the South at this time (there is some use of language we wouldn’t use now, although it is in keeping with the times the novel was written in, and is not overly offensive.)

“There had never been a real stranger in this house: only the native. Dark ones, swarthy-skinned, strange-tongued, foreigners with thick, alien eyebrows never entered the unknown homes, the America lying cunning and anonymous in the rich earth. In every corner, in every face, there was a quiet, lawful, unchallenged exclusiveness, unplanned, unrecorded and violent. But the members of the family made strangers of themselves to elude and trick the pale faces the soft voices, the calm acceptance. Mother, daughter, father, and friend; each behind the mask saying, in steady rhythm to the heartbeat, in answer to the actuality within him, the relentless refrain: They would die if they knew

The Ghostly Lover of the title is Bruce – largely absent in the novel – he is the provider of Marian’s first significant male attention. During their short sojourn at home, Marian waits for her parents to show their disapproval – Bruce is after all ten years older, and Marian little more than a child – naturally they don’t and even then, Marian seems to know that this is all wrong.

Marian decides to go to college in New York, a year for which, strangely perhaps, Bruce pays. Here Marian lives in a hostel with other young women who are studying alongside her – develops new relationships, sometimes remembers Bruce, writing letters to her mother and grandmother – still in denial at her mother’s hopelessness. It is during her letter writing home that Marian makes a discovery about her grandmother, altering her view of her a little. There are some wonderful peripheral characters, one of the most fascinating (and elusive) is Gertrude – a woman living in the hostel, she is an older woman, foreign and rather awkward – she attaches herself to Marian, and then suddenly disappears.
In time, Marian is forced to recognise her parents for who they are when she pays them a visit, shocked by their selfishness and greed – she is finally ready to make her own way in the world.

Last week was such a slow reading week that I actually took six days to read this novel which is less than 300 pages, in one way that was hugely frustrating, however I was forced to appreciate Elizabeth Hardwick’s beautiful intelligent writing, which I think benefits from reading slowly. In the end, it was a joy spending such a lot of time with this novel. I look forward to reading more by Elizabeth Hardwick, hopefully I won’t wait so long next time.

Elizabeth Hardwick

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sleeplessnights
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.

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