[15 July 2010]
To review Elizabeth Hardwick transcends the presumptuous: you may as well announce your critical opinion of Shakespeare. This comparison may seem grandiose. In defense I offer Hardwick’s writing.
If you are student of writing, lover of short fiction, or somebody who appreciates the work of a master in any form, Hardwick is for you. Her sentences elicit adjectives like luminous, lapidary, exquisite—words we use when describing diamonds. Reading Hardwick is a shock to the system. Sontag longed to emulate her; Didion, intentionally or not, has. Hardwick’s writing is structurally perfect, utilizing a flawless grammar no longer taught, each word as carefully placed as the individual roses comprising a bridal bouquet. They really don’t make ‘em like this, anymore.
Hardwick’s skill lays a strong foundation for the book’s theme: New York stories, dated from the ‘40s through the ‘90s. While times may have changed, Hardwick’s work remains surprisingly fresh. The people of her New York may have worn hats and gloves, and somehow survived sans texting or twittering, yet theirs are the same desires and shallow gestures found in today’s endless stream of New York novels.
Many of Hardwick’s characters are, to quote my grandmother, too heavy for light work and too light for heavy work. In “The Final Conflict”, Russell Simmons (no, not that Russell Simmons), a young man working in a dusty antiques shop, lives a minimal life whilst dreaming of owning a small bar, where he envisions himself a worldly wise bartender. As it is, he spends his days nearly alone, his evenings in the bars he models his shallow dreams upon.Yet he speaks to nobody.
When the practical, slightly prudish Marianne Gibbs appears in the shop, Russell soon has a girlfriend. Neat, careful Marianne is interested in a conventional life, however. She learns about antiques, suggesting the couple marry and purchase the shop. Russell is horrified by the idea of settling down even as his visions of bartending remain elusive, his life lacking any serious plan.
Hardwick harbors a special animosity toward these vague, opportunistic moochers. Most are men, but a few, like Adele Wayland of “A Season’s Romance”, are remarkable for both their accomplishments and profound deficits.
Adele is beautiful, from a good family, with a recent Ph.D. in art history. She is preparing to study in Europe as she and her mother, Lily, live pleasantly off the generosity of their wealthier friends. Lily is all too happy to accept theatre tickets, shoes, and furs while Adele works hard at her studies without any plans to apply them.
On the boat to Europe she meets the wealthy if rather coarse Matt McGraw. McGraw is older, divorced, and sober. Adele throws her over study plans in favor of McGraw’s attentions. There are trips to Cannes, dining in the finest European restaurants, lodgings at the nicest hotels. There are pretty dresses and coats.
When the couple returns to New York, McGraw is equally generous with Lily. Both women accept the man’s attentions and gifts as their due, but when Matt proposes marriage and a move to Texas, where a job awaits, Adele withdraws, horrified by the prospect of suburban life, no matter how comfortable or loving.
In “The Oak and the Axe” journalist Clara Church is described as brutally honest, bright, and a hard worker. Her efforts have afforded her a fine salary and penthouse apartment, but these offer scant comfort when her husband abandons her for his secretary.
After a period of stunned misery, she meets Henry Dean. Henry has a bit of an income from his family, enough to do exactly nothing. He informs Clara that his lassitude stems from depression. Clara, her practicality filmed over by love, accepts this explanation. She will make it all better. To this end, she moves Henry from his seedy rooming house, installing him in her apartment, where ...”a pleasant, mild rainy season had set in the tropics of the penthouse.”
Clara all but demands Henry marry her, despite his protests. He will, he warns, take her down with him. To Clara’s bewilderment, he does just that.
In “The Classless Society” Hardwick manages to skewer both social snobbery and academia in a one story. “Evenings at Home” finds her attempting to confront her southern roots and attempts to escape them, along with their crushing racism. Nobody escapes her writer’s scalpel.
In “The Purchase”, painter Johnson Palmer is embarrassed about his fine Park Avenue apartment, acquired via family, and his fading success beside the young, vigorous Thomas Frazier, who is desperately trying to sell Palmer a painting. Palmer consoles himself by attempting to sleep with Frazier’s wife; failing that, he refuses to purchase the, but guiltily mails Frazier’s wife a check nonetheless. In later works Hardwick pins the unpublished writer, the millions who wish to publish: “What is to prevent your writing?”
The work takes an interesting leap from 1956 to 1980—the final five stories, written from 1980-1993, are a departure from their more conventionally constructed forebears. These final five are sketches of New York City and its denizens, nearly without narrator, are precursors of an almost postmodern style.
In “Crosstown”, the narrator describes her neighbors, the woman who walks her dog at odd hours, the painter of modest talents, the acquaintances who traded their genteel southern comforts for New York’s “fast life”, never realizing how marginally they are living in this city of dreams. “The Bookseller” is just that, the sort of man found in all large cities, devoted to the stock of his bookshop, fonder of hoarding than selling, hiring the occasional beautiful girl whose job duties are as dubious as the writing the bookseller himself does—piles of unread manuscripts destined for the rubbish heap.
In “Back Issues”, displacement and change are acidly viewed by the narrator, who is spending the day at the New York City Library. Here she is on former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s the “clean-up” of 42nd street and the rush to gentrify:
They say 42nd Street will be reclaimed… not unlike the state highway department decides upon a new road, makes its plans, and the plans cut through the middle of an old widow’s house… with the rotting barn, its roof beautifully smashed in like a felt hat… All of it collapse, desuetude that you might call irreplaceable. Goodbye. Off the widow goes to the trailer park where her “assessment” buys her a cozy, oblong piece of tin fitted together in the early 1950s. At least there she is in another rural environment and soon at night she can hear the trucks, magnificent transcontinental donkeys carrying hard tomatoes across the country on their backs.
Selfish, self-serving, cheap, foolish, forever on the prowl for undeserved success—these are Hardwick’s New Yorkers. She spares them nothing, and in so doing, crafts a timeless collection of work. Shove your vampire books and summer beach romances aside and open these pages for a bracing dose of the real thing.