Winter 2015–2016

Sentences / The Cunning of Destruction

Elizabeth Hardwick’s exquisite diffidence

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.
—Elizabeth Hardwick

In some respects—the brevity of her mature work, a certain hampering mandarin tone even in the midst of literary or political ferment—Elizabeth Hardwick was a minor writer. As a critic and essayist, she was industrious but hardly prolific. As a writer of fiction, she had a couple of early misfires with her novels The Ghostly Lover (1945) and The Simple Truth (1955), followed by the obliquely fragmented triumph of the svelte, semi-autobiographical fiction Sleepless Nights (1979). She spent most of her writing life at or near the heart of a liberal American literary establishment. Her marriage to the poet Robert Lowell, whom she eventually divorced, obscured her achievements for a time. She was part of a group that established the New York Review of Books in 1963; the magazine’s founding editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein had been partly inspired by a mordant Harper’s article of Hardwick’s on the decline of book reviewing. Her best pieces are book reviews or occasional essays—best because most acute, most peculiar, most daring in pursuit of an elegantly weird style.

The sentence in question appears midway through a piece about Billie Holiday that Hardwick published in the NYRB of 4 March 1976. (There is a version of the sentence, much inferior, in Sleepless Nights, but let’s leave that aside for now.) In her mid-twenties, she had befriended the singer in New York. In darkling fashion, her essay recalls textures and spectacles of the 1940s: the “underbrush” of cheap hotel interiors, fingertips split while rummaging through secondhand-record racks, the birdlike figures of great jazz musicians as they stooped out of taxis and into the clubs. And at the center of it all, the “puzzling phantom” of Holiday herself, who is heard to speak only once in the whole piece. Her character leaches out instead in performance, in relations with her tired and flummoxed entourage, in vignettes of addiction, illness, imprisonment. Most of all in the odd, skewed language Hardwick has fashioned to evoke her, with its vexing repetitions and sly inversions: “She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat.”

Billie Holiday, ca. 1936. Photo Robin Carson.

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor. (In the Times Literary Supplement in 1983, the British novelist David Lodge called Hardwick the first properly lyric critic since Virginia Woolf, but this cannot be true: the lyric mode is indispensable even to a criticism that imagines it’s doing something quite else.) Joan Didion has approved Hardwick’s “exquisite diffidence,” and in an interview for the Paris Review, she herself remarked: “The poet’s prose is one of my passions. I like the offhand flashes, the absence of the lumber in the usual prose.” There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is a self-involved and sufficient whole. She advances (if that’s the word) paratactically: impression piled upon impression, analogy stacked against analogy, till she runs out of conceits and gives it to us relatively strict and straight.

The metaphors in Hardwick’s essays are always unusual, which is what one wants from a metaphor. They are often simply bizarre, or strained as far as they will go. She can be straightforwardly graceful and apposite, as in the opening sentence of “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”: “Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season.” But what are we to make of the moment when, having told us that Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography had been buried, she goes further and says that Zelda lies beneath the “desperate violets” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memories? Hardwick, who had abandoned a dissertation on metaphysical poetry to become a writer, was ever committed to the vivid, cumbrous oddity that could be canvassed in metaphor.

Consider the possibilities broached in “Billie Holiday.” Here is Hardwick describing a young trumpet player (most probably Joe Guy) with whom the singer had recently become involved: “He was as thin as a stick and his lovely, round, light face, with frightened, shiny, round eyes, looked like a sacrifice impaled upon the stalk of his neck.” Or recalling Holiday’s coiffure: “And always the lascivious gardenia, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear…. Sometimes she dyed her hair red and the curls lay flat against her skull, like dried blood.” Holiday’s huge dogs, always present, are “like sculpted treasures, fit for the tomb of a queen.” As an admirer and hanger-on of the perennially “over-scheduled” performer, “one felt like an old carriage horse standing at the entrance, ready for the cold midnight race through the park.” In her most dismally concise image, Hardwick writes of Holiday’s death: “The police were at the hospital bedside, vigilant lest she, in a coma, manage a last chemical inner migration.”

And then there is this sentence—here it is again: “In her presence on these tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.” It is one of those Hardwickian moments when the figural falls away and we’re faced, she and we, with the calamitous, gnomic essence of her subject: a woman who has never been a Christian, who cannot believe in family—Holiday’s mother fusses at the edges of the essay—and still less in the men she meets. A person whose sole commitments are to her “felonious narcotism” and perhaps to her art. The realization is stark, and unadorned by simile. But it is also not simple: it was “possible,” merely, to apprehend (or is it to inhabit?) Holiday’s absence of faith, and then only “sometimes.” Why?

Of course it is a beautiful sentence, perfectly weighted, its comma-pivoting parallelism drawing on venerable lessons about the rhetorical virtues of repetition with difference. Some writers, or editors, might have thrown the delicate thing off by inserting a comma after “nights.” (Hardwick’s commas are always well placed. She was a connoisseur of twinned adjectives with comma, as in “mean, horrible.”) As the sentence stands, that first comma is something like the hinge of the whole essay. Either side of it sits a pleasingly sinister decor of alliteration—all those plosives in the first part of the sentence, and sibilants in the second—as well as the slow, maybe drawled, but definitive diagnosis of “a thorough suspicion of destiny.” (Which phrase, by the way, is remarkably unclear in its meaning.)

Hardwick’s syntax is seamless here, and seductive, but the sentence is rattled by the ghost of an ambiguity that is general in her writing. The best example I can think of is the opening sentence of her 1956 Partisan Review essay “America and Dylan Thomas”: “He died, grotesquely like Valentino, with mysterious, weeping women at his bedside.” Was the poet’s death grotesque? No doubt, but, shifting the first comma back a word, Hardwick tells us as much and something more—the grotesquerie was not even his own, which in itself is grotesque. Subclauses are frequently strange and estranging in Hardwick; as Wayne Koestenbaum puts it in a short essay on his love for her sentences, an interjection or aside may arrive “like a great raw piece of beef soliciting our appetite.”

Our sentence has its own exciting morsels. So much in Hardwick’s prose depends upon her curious word choices. Often she favors the adjectival “-ing,” as in the opening line of her NYRB obituary of Susan Sontag in 2005: “Except in unusually desolating circumstances, human beings do not want to die.” “Desolating” does something that “desolate” would not: it points to a fragile passivity in the mortally minded person, and indicates a process that may or may not be coming to an end soon. In “Billie Holiday,” there is “the freezing perception” that the star is feared by her own retinue. Note also Hardwick’s use of the definite article—whose perception? And again in our sentence (our lesson?) “the mean, horrible freedom.” We might say this sentence is all about—because it so economically undermines—the possibility of sympathy or proper identification. What of “mean” and “horrible”? They might as easily describe a willed state as a corralling predicament.

Here at last is the version of the sentence in Sleepless Nights: “In her presence on these bedraggled nights, nights when performers all over the world were smiling, dancing, or pretending to be a prince of antiquity, offering their acts to dead rooms, then it was impossible to escape the depths of her disbelief, to refuse the mean, horrible freedom of a savage suspicion of destiny.” The adjectives are weaker because melodramatic—“bedraggled,” “savage”—and the digressive global panorama of performers almost ruinously sentimental. But the main lapse from the version of 1976 is this: “the mean, horrible freedom” now cannot be fled or refused, so we’re told, when in fact (in both versions) a failure or unwillingness to follow Holiday into her dauntless nihilism is all of the point. In the essay and the novel, the next sentence says: “And yet the heart always drew back from the power of her will and its engagement with disaster.”

We do an injustice to Billie Holiday, writes Hardwick, if we imagine the value of her art to lie in the lyrics of the songs she sang. “Her message was otherwise. It was style.” Which is to say—what? That she was ultimately in control of her art, or quite the opposite? For what is style if not precisely the oscillation, a refusal to choose, between mastery and accident, between determined artifice and ineludible character? Hardwick liked to say that all her first drafts read as if they’d been written by a chicken. There was a deal of labor involved in becoming otherwise, in seeming or sounding not-chicken enough, and the sentence dramatizes that effort, for it was also a work of affinity and solicitude.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London. His books include The Great Explosion (Penguin Books, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet Books, 2012), and The Hypochondriacs (Faber& Faber, 2010). He writes regularly for Artforum, frieze, the Guardian, and the London Review of Books. He is working on a book about essays and essayists.

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