The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick
Darryl Pinckney, ED.
New York Review Books
Hardwick, who died in late 2007, is most famous as a critic, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her essays was her cutting psychological insight. The first eight stories here, written between 1946 and 1959, are penetrating, richly detailed character sketches. Many focus on the trials and tribulations of young, intellectually ambitious women confronting problems of love, friendship and work. One young woman visits her home in Kentucky after pursuing a cosmopolitan life in New York to find her family is not as awful as she has been remembering—they're frighteningly banal. "It is awful," she writes, "to be faced each day with love that is neither too great nor too small." Almost every lucid, frank sentence in these early stories is alive, displaying an enviably knowing comfort with the English language.
The last six stories, written between 1980 and 1993, are more stylized, fragmented; they attempt to embody the rushed, cramped experience of a mind in the modern, urban world. The shift from 1959 to 1980, from page 151 to 152, is jarring. Gone is the cleanness of Hardwick's psychologizing, and gone too are some of its satisfactions; in its place stands a more knotted understanding of character as intertwined with society. The short stories in her later style don't always stand up to her experimental, confessional 1979 novel Sleepless Nights, or to the earlier stories. But "The Bookseller" is as fine a piece of work as anything Hardwick ever wrote. It's a portrait of a used book salesmen, overflowing with observations from a life lived with books and bibliophiles. The story ends with a list of his favorite writers, concluding, "all of these shine on and on and on."