“What obstinacy in the air. A whole city built on obstinacy. Don’t yield.” — On reading The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick

♦ I’ve spent several days now with The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, and it had to be slow-going, because she demanded I savor her. All the other books I’d planned on reading with her, gently replaced on the shelves. Hardwick wanted all of me, or nothing at all. I was all too happy to give her, well, all.

♦ As I read more and more of her, I knew I’d be saying, “Elizabeth Hardwick, where have you been all my life?” Seriously. Hardwick’s one of the best discoveries in my travails through the NYRB Classics catalog, this whole reading year, short fiction. Initial impressions: She reminded me a lot of Richard Yates. Less harsh — that is, not with that stoic restraint; she allows herself to love the language more freely — but no less melancholic. Also, Mad Men. This is all Peggy Olson and a handful of Betty Draper-Francis right here, kids.

♦ The stories themselves — people torn between their great potentials and their realities, and all these standards bleeding over to their relationships with the people in their lives. It’s about New York. It’s not so much about falling in love in New York as it is dealing with the fact that New York isn’t a place to fall in love in. Most of these stories are odes to New York, and everything that the place represents, it’s always so tangible and almost often decisive.

♦ In “A Season’s Romance,” Adele of The Great Potential allows New York — her ambitions, the life she knows she deserves — dictate her loving of this pretty much awesome guy who’s asked her to marry her, and snuggle into the suburbs over at Texas:

In New York, Matt was possible. His soul had some gritty grandeur of the city itself; like a nomad, restlessly seeking, he roamed the midtown plains with all the knowingness of an animal that has found its natural grazing spot. The beauty of Matt’s life was defined by taxis, expense accounts, even his dingy little flat on East Fifty-second Street.

Matt just isn’t the Matt she wants if he doesn’t come with New York.

♦ Another favorite, “The Oak and the Axe” — It’s classic: Pretty successful girl falls for the romantic idea of this fixer-upper of a man. He simply does not measure up, to any of the standards she set for herself, to anything. And Henry Dean is okay with that. He’s happy the way he is. Clara Church, however, just can’t seem to let it go. This is how Clara feels when she visits Henry at his hotel room [apartment!] for the first time:

For a moment, Clara could not speak. Her hands trembled. It was not the room itself that frightened her so much as coming upon it suddenly and without preparation; it was like falling out of the clear sunlight into utter forlornness. It bit into her, chilled her; the bleakness and the dismal quiet seemed to challenge reality — life itself. Clara considered the “real” Henry the man with the anecdotes, the light irony, the possible talents, and everything in her fought against the horrible chill of the room, the drawn blinds, the old newspapers, the unpolished silver cup, the silent violin.

Well, honey. Well. But Clara rolls up her sleeves, and gets to work, intent on loving Henry, and making the best of things. Because that Henry, what a catch he is, the very idea of him! Oh, Clara:

Clara made a great effort to give up her study of Henry, but she could not achieve this desired incuriosity. The confounding facts of his temperament, with his absolute self fixed and bound to its weaknesses in a way that was somehow majestic, were not to be fully grasped.

And Clara finds herself changing, conveniently or no. And, well, because this is a Hardwick story, there’s just the right touch of Sadness Is Inevitable coursing through the narrative, no matter how much the characters convince themselves otherwise:

Gradually, she was moving along with Henry into a world of strange distinctions, sudden ironies, and unexpected preferences; she found humor where she had found none before, and sighed with ennui where she had precisely been fascinated. All her senses seemed alarted, and she felt in herself that exhilarating but dangerous clarity climbers experience at the top of a mountain.

If I were being cheeky: Chile, been there, done that. And you know what, I ended up really liking Henry; I think it’s because he was so immune to Clara’s machinations.

♦ Many of the stories deal with this divide between what is wanted, and the holding off for better things. In “Yes or No,” for example, our narrator looks through her old notebooks, reading vignettes and notes she made about this Edgar who — guess what — just wasn’t good enough. For anything. And yet, and yet: the obsession. The people in Hardwick’s stories are fixated on finding something not right with what they have right now — because nothing can hold a candle to their grand dream, to New York. And the dissatisfaction, so rampant. Not resigned, exactly, but serene with the consequences of one’s ambition:

It is awful to be faced each day with love that is neither too great nor too small, genrosity that does not demand payment in blood; there are no rules for responding, to schemes that explain what this is about, and so each smile is a challenge, each friendly gesture an intellectual crisis. [from “Evenings at Home“]

It’s ambition and happiness waging a battle when no one’s looking — and it’s never schmaltzy. Hardwick’s narrative is always dignified. It’s her prose, I know. It’s the point of view she employs as well: first person or otherwise, there’s always this trace of clinicalness, this determined distance. But it was never cold. Being witness to these character’s struggles — acknowledged or otherwise — made sure of that. Ah, it was awe-inspiring? Gahk, it was all just so gosh-darned awesome, okay?

♦ Elizabeth Hardwick was the co-founder of The New York Review of Books. That makes her more awesome, surely? In Darryl Pinckney’s introduction, there were teasers of how Hardwick approached literature, whether in the reading or the writing of it. I want to read more of her. I want to read more of what she wrote, I want to read what she wrote about the things she read. I so have a crush now. That’s the knee-jerk reaction to an author who likes to say “that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.” /faint

7 thoughts on ““What obstinacy in the air. A whole city built on obstinacy. Don’t yield.” — On reading The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick

    1. Ah, it’s so very mid-century New York. It’s just so present, ya know? Affecting everyone’s decisions. Almost always, New York and what it stands for stands above everything else. It’s fascinating.


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