11.12.07

“Every gesture is gloved”: Wayne Koestenbaum on Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick died just over a week ago, at the age of 91. A great critic and essayist, co-founder of The New York Review of Books, Hardwick was also a long-time PEN member, serving on the board throughout the 1970s, including one year as Vice President.

Wayne Koestenbaum—like Hardwick, a critic and essayist, and also a poet—now serves on the PEN board himself. And those who have read his poem “Observations” (from Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films), in which he dreams of Hardwick correcting his choice of verbs, may already suspect his admiration for Hardwick’s writerly craftiness. I asked him to describe for our readers what he loves about her work, and he replied with this wonderful tribute.


I love Elizabeth Hardwick’s sentences. They’re strange and wayward. They veer. They avoid the point. Sometimes they are specific, but often they grow soft-focused and evasive at the crucial moment. They fuzz out by adopting a tone at once magisterial and muffled. When I was writing my biography of Andy Warhol, I told myself, “Imitate Elizabeth Hardwick.” By that advice, I meant: be authoritative, but also odd.

How to explain or summarize the Hardwickian tone? It offers tenderness where another critic might offer trenchancy. Its every gesture is gloved. From her introduction to The Susan Sontag Reader:
Essays lie all over the land, stored up like the unused wheat of a decade ago in the silos of old magazines and modest collections. In the midst of this clumsy abundance, there are rare lovers of the form, the great lovers being some few who practice it as the romance this dedication can be.
Strange syntax that second sentence has. I love, in this opening salvo, her articles, their proffering of a misleading specificity. “Essays lie all over the land...” Which land? Another piquant “the”: “like the unused wheat of a decade ago...” Her use of this (article? adjective?) astounds: “this clumsy abundance”; “the romance this dedication can be.”

From her essay “Wives and Mistresses,” in Bartleby in Manhattan:
The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. Footnotes worry a lot. They, loved or unloved, seem to feel the winds of the future always at their back. The graves of the greatly known ones are a challenge to private history...
Everything here is tone, sonorous yet gracefully stumbling, a tone cemented by judicious, generous articles (“the famous,” “a great weight,” “the footnotes of their lives”) and by weird, sudden personification, a metaphor coming alive without warning: “Footnotes worry a lot.” I love, too, the insertion of the appositive “loved or unloved” immediately after the “They” of the second sentence: “They, loved or unloved, seem to feel...” Divorcing “they” from “seem,” she inserts “loved or unloved” like a great raw piece of beef soliciting our appetite.

In her later work, her effects grew bolder. The following, from a 1999 review of Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story:
The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens. President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharissee.
Her art there lies in the immortal, cruel epithet, the wine-dark sea of precise excoriation.

Final example, from her novel-which-is-not-a-novel, Sleepless Nights: “Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds.” No verb. She means: “Every morning I wake up to confront the black clock and the crocheted bedspread.” But she omits the seeing, knowing “I,” and she omits the verb. Every morning the blue clock gives forth the bleak yet solacing fragrance that is the Elizabeth Hardwick sentence, worth our careful study.

-- Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet and critic, is the author of several books, including the recent Hotel Theory. His biography of Warhol was published in 2001. His tribute to Gertrude Stein appeared in PEN America 5: Silences. He teaches at the CUNY Graduate School.

1 comment:

wanda1234 said...

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