The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.



William Gerhardie, ‘Of Mortal Love’

There are bad or badly flawed women in post-1900 literature who annoy (even repel) but also interest us as readers, charm us or the men they encounter (and usually hurt): there are any number in the hardbitten crime novels that inspired the Film Noir femmes fatales, for example. Then there’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a character I have never managed to find attractive, despite the radiant beauty and cinematic presence of Audrey Hepburn in her portrayal of her).

Often treacherous or unfaithful, promiscuous or superficial, in the hands of a gifted writer they can still intrigue us, or else there’s some redeeming feature – a sense of sadness or regret, perhaps, or else the men who love them counterpoint their selfishness with a weary resignation or high-minded tolerance of the suffering they cause – I’m thinking of poor Guy Crouchback’s serially unfaithful wife in the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the similar betrayals by Sylvia of her stoically faithful husband Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Brown’s modernist tetralogy Parade’s End (broadcast with partial success and some outstanding performances on Britain’s BBC 2 in 2012).

And of course there’s Evelyn Waugh, who in many (especially earlier) novels delighted in portraying scheming vixens (the amoral Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust is an example), offset by male victims usually too stupid, spineless or unimaginative to inspire much sympathy. The socialites and dandies in Brideshead Revisited are drawn with layers of complexity and nuance, and an often ironic witty ambivalence, that enable us to see beneath the characters’ apparent superficiality and place them in a socio-historical context that resonates.

Gerhardie, Of Mortal Love

My Penguin Modern Classics edition was published in 1982

I find William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love a pale imitation or reflection of Waugh’s satirical acerbity, with a touch of Wildean (or would-be Wildean) epigrammatic humour; its depiction of foppish bohemians and glittering but vacuous debs and artistic types lacks Waugh’s or Wilde’s exuberant edge and mordant wit. Gerhardie is too in love with the very characters who inspire in me a sense of repulsion and distaste. I’m conscious of the fatuity of disliking a novel because one dislikes the central characters, but hope my rather rambling introduction to this post indicates that I’m capable of enjoying a good, well-written novel about nasty characters. This is a bad, often well-written novel about nasty characters. I’ll try to substantiate this claim.

The protagonist is a composer called Walter, a penniless Londoner whose initial success in the concert hall has not been consolidated by his subsequent work. Although he’s an indefatigable womaniser, he falls in love with Dinah Fry – a woman who we’re frequently told is the most beautiful in London. The fact that she’s married doesn’t deter either of them from starting an affair. Her justification is that her husband is dull and doesn’t pay her anywhere near enough attention, whereas Walter makes an effort to make her feel wanted.

When his attentiveness falls away, because he’s immersed in composing a new opera, she simply goes back to the boring spouse, who has realised he wants the fickle Dinah after all. She also keeps a fop called Eric on hold in case circumstances change.

That’s the plot, pretty much. There’s some rather horrible anti-semitism and casual racism – inexcusable even for the historical period (the rise of fascism is noted with chilling insouciance by these amoral egotists).

Gerhardie has Dinah gush nonsense and baby-talk with Walter in some hair-curlingly awful scenes (‘kissy-kissy’, ‘drinky-drinky’), and her egocentricity is matched only by her lack of empathy with anyone. Even with Walter she’s really just defining herself through his adulation: ‘concentrate on me’ is her mantra. The opening section of the novel is called Woman is not Meant to Live Alone, which is Dinah’s sole rationale for her promiscuity and infidelity.

Here’s the opening of Ch. 4, which should give a fuller indication of her nature:

Dinah was like a plant, who had been starved of sun and rain, and after a shower and a warm day had blossomed out. Walter attributed to his own ministrations the welcome change. He saw before him a young woman who had been starved of love and was now blooming and content. [Dinah meets his mother and this passage continues:] Dinah, when Walter next saw her, never mentioned his mother to him. She was completely uninterested. Walter discovered that though Dinah could be charming to people while she was with them, she contained in herself a supply of attention and concentration for two people only – herself and Walter.

Despite the superficial gloss of the prose in this free indirect discourse, in which form the whole novel is narrated, this is poor, clichéd and fatuous. Although Gerhardie presumably intends a certain satiric irony (Walter is hardly the most reliable of narrators), he surely expects us to find Dinah, as Walter does, disarmingly ingénue and attractive; she has the opposite effect on me. When she’s out walking with Walter, for example,

she held him by one finger like a dog on a leash. If Walter lagged, she tugged at his finger and – ‘Walky-walky,’ she said, prompting him like a child.

As their affair cools, Dinah’s importuning and petulant jealousy of any woman Walter might possibly encounter (‘Be nice to me’ she simpers) unsurprisingly begin to grate even on him.

I’m afraid I found Gerhardie’s misogynistic portrayal of women poorly disguised in the attitude of the Wildean character of Walter’s roué: the world-weary artistic self-proclaimed genius cannot commit, but Dinah’s childish self-centredness is so egregious it’s unbelievable that he could even contemplate a lasting relationship with her, so incapable is she of any kind of mature emotional engagement. When he tells her how heartbroken she has made him by abandoning him for the pedestrian husband, Dinah is genuinely astonished:

Walter [near the novel’s end] remembered how at one time when he had been cold and selfish in love she had finally demanded a less one-sided arrangement: ‘I want tenderness, and I’m damn well going to have it.’ 

She had had that, too. She had had everything, it seemed, and she would not have you think otherwise.

 The final section is intended to tug at our heartstrings; instead I couldn’t wait for the novel to end. It was the last unread book I had with me on holiday in Europe this summer; there was nothing else to read, otherwise I’d have abandoned it unfinished.