A review of Elizabeth Hardwick is almost obliged to begin with the following facts: (1) she was born in Kentucky in 1916 and moved to Manhattan in the early 1940s with the self-declared aim of becoming a “New York Jewish intellectual;” (2) in 1963, along with Barbara and Jason Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, she helped found The New York Review of Books; (3) for more than two decades she was married to the famous—and famously “confessional”—poet Robert Lowell. Notable though these facts may be, however, they are hardly the reasons why Hardwick’s writing continues to be read. As the 55 essays gathered in the new Collected Essays make clear, Hardwick was one of the most penetrating literary critics of her time. Whether she was writing about Henry James or Renata Adler, Edith Wharton or Joan Didion, “every assignment got Hardwick at full sail,” as Darryl Pinckney says in his introduction. She was a “writer’s writer” without question—a prose stylist par excellence.
Hardwick’s style is not for everyone. Her wit is subtle, her syntax sinuous, her learning deep, which is no doubt why her work is so seldom taught in the classroom. It is, in the best sense, un-teachable. “The essayist,” Hardwick once wrote, distinguishing him from the journalist, “does not stop to identify the common ground; he will not write, ‘Picasso, the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.’” Such refusal to stop and explain might easily be mistaken for snobbery today; Hardwick, however, saw it as a gesture of respect. She was not only a “writer’s writer,” she was also—silly though the phrase may be—a “reader’s writer.” She addressed her readers as equals, never wanting to bore them with what they already knew, or what, in the course of their reading, they would soon enough find out for themselves.
Although Hardwick often made her living at universities, she kept aloof from the specialized babel of scholarship. In the Collected Essays, one finds a wonderful absence of “arguments” and a plenitude of splendid sentences, alive to nuance and allergic to jargon. Hardwick has a bit of a reputation as a doyenne of the take-down review, and it’s true that she is very good at disparagement, especially of conventional biographers and biographies. (“Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors,” she writes in a blistering evaluation of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life, “for only they have the inclination to look at life as a sort of dig.”) But Hardwick is equally good at formulating praise, as in her passionate plea for the reprinting of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—a “genuine novel in the traditional meaning of the term…a story of life, faithfully plotted, clearly told, largely peopled with real souls.”
“Real souls” were important to Hardwick. In her essays, as in her fiction, she combined a poet’s sensitivity to language with a novelist’s attention to character. Her great gift was to convey a sense of her subjects’ sensibilities, sketching them in a few swift strokes. Consider the beginning of her essay “Frost in His Letters”:
Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one.
The progression of images here is elegant. The phrase “sorting them out” leads straight to the image of “two picture puzzles,” implying the pictures have already been cut to pieces even before they’re further jumbled in a single, person-shaped box. And this imagery isn’t just so much verbal window dressing; it’s a prelude to the rest of the essay, which will proceed to pick up some of these pieces and examine them, without ever pretending to “solve” the puzzle that is Frost. For Hardwick, a real soul is a complex one.
This is partly why she so disliked “exhaustive” doorstop biographies, with all their endless endnotes filled with archival loot filched from “pharaonic tombs.” Her own approach to biographical matters was more circumspect and more artful. She could pen indelible portraits drawn from life, as in her recollection of her longtime acquaintance Edmund Wilson—“a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis.” But she could also conjure up writers she had never laid eyes on, drawing from their work and letters. Gertrude Stein, for example, is:
as sturdy as a turnip—the last resort of the starving, and native to the old world, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerized and isolated, castlebound too, under the enchantments of her own devising.
No critic writes this way today. Few would have the chutzpah to rely so entirely on the power of metaphor and image. But to acknowledge this is not, for once, a matter of lamenting a lost midcentury literary milieu. Hardwick was a product of her time and place, yes, but she was herself possessed of a sensibility that set her apart even from her contemporaries. Her attunement to the art of the English sentence, together with her feeling for human character—her “thing about people,” as Pinckney calls it—made her a singular talent, and an enduring one.
Her enduringness may be all the more remarkable if one considers how many of her essays began as book reviews (an ephemeral form if ever there was one). Indeed, the Collected Essays lays special emphasis on Hardwick’s work as a reviewer. Its centerpiece would seem to be “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959), a spirited critique of the “malaise” and tepid praise to be found in the Sunday New York Times and Herald Tribune, and which served as a fillip to the founding of the NYRB. There are several “non-review” essays in this new volume: memoirs of Italy and Brazil, profiles of Maine and Boston, reflections on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are many dozens of pieces that Hardwick wrote—for venues as various as Granta and Home & Garden—that have never been collected and that are not collected here, largely for reasons of length. In Pinckney’s introduction, he modestly compares this Collected Essays to the “first Collected Works of most poets,” because “its existence invites a revised collected.”
For a Hardwick fanatic such as myself (who has stockpiled copies of nearly every scrap she ever published, down to a 1936 review in her college paper, The Kentucky Kernel), the absence of so many pieces seems to invite not so much another Collected Essays—one could hardly ask for a better one than Pinckney’s—but an Uncollected Essays, chosen to indicate the full range of Hardwick’s curiosity. Although she, for her part, may have regarded some of her magazine contributions as little more than pecuniary means to an end, she was just as impeccable when musing on Faye Dunaway, second-wave feminism, and grits soufflé as she was on Robert Frost or Gertrude Stein. If she took book reviews as occasions for essays more insightful than most scholarly monographs, she took even “puff pieces” as occasions for meditations far deeper, and more scrupulously composed, than the glossies perhaps knew what to do with.
But The Collected Essays is in no sense a provisional volume; it’s an assemblage of essentials. Chronologically arranged as they are, these essays represent Hardwick’s intellectual autobiography, the stylish record of a reader steadily engaged by what T. S. Eliot called “the relations of literature—not to ‘life’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” In Hardwick’s criticism, we discover nothing of the professor with her ax to grind or the peacock with her feathers to flaunt. We encounter an uncondescending intelligence, a humane sensibility, and a forthright independence of mind for which we, in our scatterbrained era, cannot be grateful enough.
I had set out to review Jonathan Franzen’s newest release (Farther Away: Essays) with only one goal in mind — “Do Not Mention David Foster Wallace.” The constant invocation of one for the sake of the other, although reasonable enough, always struck me as the comparison every commentator can and will often needlessly draw. Imagine reading an article about Eric Clapton in which the name “Jimi Hendrix” appears — casually, frequently — only for the sake of providing a sense of scale and equivalence. “Needless,” I would say, because to appreciate one is at least to be familiar with the other. Or so I thought.
In Farther Away, the linkage between Wallace and Franzen is not merely suggested but rather invited, and Franzen’s collection opens a door to the gearbox of his own mind’s attempt to reorder itself around the death of his friend — not just Infinite Jest’s David Foster Wallace, but Dave, the man whose ashes Franzen scatters from a small book of matches in the essay “Selkirk” and the central figure of a touching reflection (“David Foster Wallace”) on the late writer’s ultimate decline. We find out that the tragically funny prose Wallace spun in Infinite Jest was not just for us — “Those sentences and those pages, when he was able to be producing them, were as true and safe and happy a home as any he had during most of the twenty years I knew him” — and that when he could no longer find solace there, “the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.”
Farther Away opens with Franzen’s 2011 commencement speech at Kenyon College (“Pain Won’t Kill You”), where Wallace delivered his own address (later released as This is Water) in 2005. Similar themes echo in the two speeches — the assault of techno-consumerism on the pliable mind, for example, and the necessity of “putting yourself in real relation to real people…that you might end up loving.” Franzen focuses the lens ever-more inward, however, and highlights the dangers posed by a culture of individuals hyper-focused on themselves and conditioned by a level of social networking that was unimaginable in 2005: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors,” he says.
The omnipresent banalities of the smartphone era stoke Franzen’s preoccupation with the ego-centrism of contemporary life. In the scathing “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” he cringes at the forever-nearby din of that which he would prefer not to hear even from a distance — “The cellular component of my irritation is straightforward. I simply do not, while buying socks at the Gap, or standing in a ticket line and pursuing my private thoughts, or trying to read a novel on a plane that’s being boarded, want to be imaginatively drawn into the sticky world of some nearby human being’s home life.” The cell phone, he argues, “has done lasting harm of real social significance,” having replaced the cigarettes of earlier decades as the delivery mechanism of the “suffering of a self-restrained majority at the hands of a compulsive minority.” Franzen, with a measure of irony, bemoans the ubiquity of “I love you!” via cell phone in public spaces (particularly after 9/11) because “the person seems to be saying to me and to everyone else present: ‘My emotions and my family [his emphasis] are more important to me than your social comfort.’”
But if there is any respite from his day-to-day troubles, it certainly comes in the form of watching, cataloguing, and advocating for the preservation of rare birds. “When I go looking for a new bird species,” Franzen says, “I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight” (“Farther Away”).
In perhaps the best essay of the lot, “The Ugly Mediterranean,” Franzen chronicles his travels through Cyprus, Malta, and Italy and renders with surprising even-handedness the duality of the societal forces that contribute to regular trapping, hunting, and consumption of migratory songbirds. While in Cyprus, during an excursion to liberate birds stuck in home-rigged snares, he and his compatriots receive blows at the hands of local trappers, themselves impassioned to preserve a cultural (and economic) imperative. The essay is peppered with species of birds Franzen can casually name at sight — not with the cool, detached interest of a scientist but rather with the ardor of someone who would (and has) risked blows from a baseball bat for the sake of rescuing just one more object of his affection.
Another joy for Franzen is in contemplation of Serious Fiction. “Can a better kind of fiction save the world?” he asks (“What Makes You So …”). “There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul.” Although his musings on selected pieces are likely more accessible for those who have read the works in question, each essay serves equally well as a window into where Franzen draws the line between Serious Fiction and…everything else. In “The Corn King,” a review of The Hundred Brothers, Franzen extols Donald Antrim as an author whose singular work “speaks like none of us for all of us…because we all inescapably feel ourselves to be the special center of our private worlds.” He reaches back to Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler for a discourse on materialism, nihilism, and “the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever” (pausing along the way to mention Wallace once again). Franzen even turns pragmatic, advising other writers to avoid the use of “Comma-Then” should they wish to avoid churning out “fiction-workshop English.”
Ultimately, Farther Away is a meditation on the obscure other half of a world right in front of our faces — the private horror of a public figure struggling with depression, the unspoken loneliness of an individual living in a world of people perpetually turned off because their devices are turned on, the perils of a bird in flight, and cherished pages of well-written fiction that enable us “to embrace, even celebrate, the dark fact that an individual’s life consists, finally, of an accelerating march toward decay and death.” Franzen brings the reader close (uncomfortably, at times) to facets of life not usually examined, and it becomes clear that he is not just talking about songbirds when he writes, “It felt wrong to be seeing at such close range a species that ordinarily requires careful work with binoculars to get a decent view.” Not every piece soars, but none fails to get off the ground, and as Franzen notes in his essay on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, “…it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you.”
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology. He lives in Brooklyn with his fiancee and their dog, and is currently at work on a second book.This has been the year of short books for me. I’ve found my concentration running aground on long ones – even great long ones (Independent People, War and Peace, The Man Who Loved Children) – and so I’ve gravitated toward books of two-hundred or even fewer pages. The best have been the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. In the past few months I’ve read The Gate of Angels, The Bookshop, Innocence and The Beginning of Spring, and each one is a ruthlessly efficient little miracle. Her books are full of characters who reliably say the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment, who think only of themselves, who fail and fail again – and yet they’re warm, funny, and somehow even cheering. I’ve got the rest of her novels stacked up on my bedside table.More from A Year in Reading 2007