Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Moderate

Happily his moderate fate was matched by his moderate temperament, so much so that he could not even imagine extreme deprivation or interesting success for himself, and yet, reading newspapers or novels, he could sometimes experience those unpredictable circumstances that shrank or exalted other men.

— from "The Friendly Witness."

I'd never heard of Elizabeth Hardwick until these stories showed up.

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick makes for strange reading. The sentences flow so easily, yet there's something terribly complicated being conveyed, at times difficult to come to terms with.

Clarence felt tricked and uncertain when he recognized the clear tremble of interest that flowed through him as he was presented to Dodo. He had not expected a relative of Henrietta's, an unmarried lady, clearly near his own age of thirty-eight. His mind, always painfully alerted by piercing longings, and his flirtatious heart leaped up to greet the complications and possibilities of the situation. He smiled, carefully measuring his gallantry.

— from "The Classless Society."

The stories are arranged chronologically. There's a gap of 20 years, starting in 1959. And what came after... well, they sound like a depressed old woman, a bit bitter, more resigned, c'est la vie. There's a matter-of-factness that runs through all her stories, but quite suddenly, after 20 years of some kind of life, they lack vitality. According to Hilton Als, "it's in those late pieces especially that Hardwick's unparalleled interest in the pace and brutality and dreams and dramas her beloved Manhattan always seems to provide are best reflected." But I don't see it that way; I feel more detachment from and even resentment for the city than love.

Where am I picking up this mood from? To me it feels like the city's kind of relentless, always there, and she (or the narrator, anyway) feels betrayed by it.

That's not to say these stories aren't worth reading. There's a great deal in them about relations between the sexes and in an inbetween time (when women's role was changing, but also the class structure of society was changing too). A lot can happen is just a couple snips of dialogue: he understands what she said as an ironic slight, whereas she only said it to impress, or to convey an understanding — that sort of thing. The stories really work in that space between how characters see themselves, how they wish to be seen, and how others actually see them.

My hands-down favourite story in this collection is "A Season's Romance," from 1956. Somewhat predictable plotwise, but delightfully bittersweet in the telling.

Elizabeth Hardwick profiled in The New Yorker (Hilton Als, 1998).
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