These two short novels, both published in 1979 and both written by noted literary figures, blend fiction and memoir in very different ways to equally vivid effect.
by Elizabeth Hardwick
Having grown up in Kentucky, eighth in a Protestant family of eleven children, Elizabeth Hardwick knew she wanted to be a New York Jewish intellectual. And so she was, except for the Jewish part. Critic, essayist, novelist, co-founder of The New York Review of Books, she lived in New York for most of her life with interludes in Europe and Boston during her long, tumultuous marriage to poet Robert Lowell.
Sleepless Nights, published in 1979 when she was 63, is both a novel and a meditation on memory. Plotless, it is a gorgeous, lyrical collection of fragments, observations, and anecdotes that skips about in time sketching people, places, and dreams. In the ‘40s, “Elizabeth” frequents jazz clubs on West 52nd Street with a gay companion and comes to know Billie Holiday. In the ’50s, she is in starchy Boston, where the most vivid portrait is of Josette, a maid whose French-Canadian forebears came to New England to work in the mills. In Amsterdam, Dr. Z, the “eternal husband,” is devoted to his wife and dotes on both of his mistresses, unwilling to divest himself of any of them.
Husband and marriage do not figure in this slim book. It is not the story of a life but an elusive and haunting mosaic that invites us to explore the art of blending fact and fiction to create a life on the page. Brilliant.
So Long, See You Tomorrow
by William Maxwell
What a marvel! I came to this novella, published in 1979, because it has been pronounced a favorite by several respected writers. It tells two stories of devastating losses suffered by two young boys who are briefly companions in rural Illinois in the 1920s. One, the narrator, recounting events fifty or so years later, lost his mother to flu in 1918. The other, Cletus Smith, was the son of a man who murdered his best friend and neighbor and then killed himself.
The narrator’s story is Maxwell’s. In pure, perfect prose and from several perspectives, he merges memory and imagination to recount events as they may have happened: “If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it.” Decades later, the narrator is still haunted by guilt and shame over his failure to have acknowledged Cletus when he passed him in a high school hallway several years after the murder. What might he have said? Could he have offered solace to the childhood friend whose life had been destroyed?
The simplicity of this story belies the meticulous construction and luminous language with which it is told. The world of tenant farmers and Midwestern mores is vividly evoked but it is the despair and bewilderment of two small boys that gives the book its power.
Lifelong book nut Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. A native New Yorker, she moved to Boston to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.