It is my favorite time of the summer: if only it could always be August! I love the light, the rushing of the creek, and the yellow leaves crackling. And for some reason I always read many short books in August. I have recently read:
1. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. Although I read the NYRB edition, this graceful autobiographical American novel is also published by Virago. It counts as participation in the All Virago/All August event, yes?
Hardwick, a critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, was best known for her stunning essays, which often interweave criticism with intimate observations.
Her 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, seems experimental by today’s standards. It is divided into short, beautiful vignettes: she sketches her growing up in Lexington, Kentucky (this is the best part of the book, I think), her mother who had nine children, her studies at Columbia and early years in New York; sharing an apartment with a gay man, an experience not unlike a marriage, and living alone in other apartments and houses in New York, Boston, Connecticut, and Maine. She also writes about her friend Billie Holiday, bag ladies, an amorous Dutch doctor, and the anxiety of working women in boarding houses. Hardwick’s language is both minimalist and poetic, in a ’70s style that I used to adore. But this time through? Gorgeous writing, and I loved parts of the book, but occasionally found Hardwick’s point of view affected. It just goes to show: books seem entirely different at different times of life.
A passage from the first page:
If only one knew what to remember or try 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 the shelf. Perhaps. One can would be marked Rand Avenue in Kentucky and some would recall the address at least as true. Inside the can are the blackening porches of winter, the gas grates, the swarm.
2. Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger. I am very fond of Berridge’s novels, some of which I’ve acquired in Faber Finds paperbacks. I loved Rose under Glass (and wrote about it here).
Berridge’s collection of short stories, Tell It to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s (Persephone), is brilliant and engrossing. The first story, “Snowstorm,” is set in winter in a maternity clinic outside of bombed London, where women are bused to have their babies. The woman doctor is emotionally cold and wintry, but her detachment and conventional ideas about motherhood are threatened by a scornful, unmaternal young woman.
Yes, people seem to hate you for having anything on your mind,’ came the voice from the bed. ‘Calm motherhood, that’s the idea, isn’t it? The most beautiful time of a woman’s life, preparing for a stranger–‘–her whole face twisted suddenly, but whether with pain or disgust the doctor could not make out.
Berridge does not define women by domesticity, and the twist in this story is completely unexpected.
In “Firstborn,” the heroine, Ruby, a new mother, walks across the common to her mother’s house and is rebuked for not taking a taxi. All attention is focused on the baby rather than Ruby, who is already tired of being an appendage to the newborn baby. Her mother and aunt imply that she is making mistakes and does not know how to care for him. Then she walks to her mother-in-law’s and is again confronted with being only a mother. She is furious when her mother-in-law calls him “a real Cradock” and says she should be proud. Ruby has no intention of giving birth to a lot of Cradocks. Only when she goes home to her husband is she suddenly happy, reminded of who she is.
My favorite is the title story, set during World War II. The heroine, Mrs. Hatfield, who has left London to live in a hotel in Belvedere, makes one of her periodic trips to her house in London, only to discover that it has been ransacked. On the train trip back to Belvedere, she plans what she will say to the other residents of the hotel. She has never been happier than she is in Belvedere. But a strange twist prevents her telling the story.
These eleven stories are rich and varied–a great read!