SundayBookReview

Strange, Slippery and Beautiful: A Master Essayist at Work

If one is the sort of person who takes pleasure in intelligent meanness, Hardwick is certainly one of its master practitioners. She is sharp in her satirizing, icy in her judgments, shrewd in her takedowns. She is what Janet Malcolm once called “fearlessly uncharitable” and what the editor of Partisan Review called “one of our more cutting minds.” Take, for instance, her description of Monica Lewinsky: “Monica, who is still in the matter of discretion running a big deficit, as nurses name it when describing the victims of a stroke.”

One bracing and refreshing aspect of Hardwick’s work is that she does not spare herself from her own critical rigor and fierceness. She pins herself down just as she skewers other people. At one point she confesses, “As a writer I feel a nearly unaccountable attraction and hostility to the work of other women writers. Envy, competitiveness, scorn infect my judgment at times, and indifference is strangely hard to come by in this matter. ” Her highly fraught attitude towards other women writers will not have eluded close readers of her work, but there is something about her grappling openly with this tendency on the page that is disarming. As a critic, she does not shy away from the complications, ambiguities and self-incriminations many other people would leave simmering but unmentioned.

In these pages, she does not directly address the pain of the messy end of her marriage to the poet Robert Lowell or the excruciating public humiliation of his use of her letters in his poetry collectionThe Dolphin. ” But she writes eloquently about the collapse of one’s life in middle age: “Nothing is more pitiful than an older woman thrown into ‘freedom,’ lying like some wounded dragon in a paralysis of rage and embittered nostalgia.” The disorientation and recalculation that accompany the breakdown of a marriage seem to filter into her essays on the culture at large. There is a personal urgency, a sense of the world cracked open, that makes its way into many of her interrogations of the climate of the 1970s and her more philosophical inquiries into life’s difficulties.

In a peculiar and remarkable essay, “When to Cast Out, Give Up, Let Go,” she speaks in general or ruminative terms of personal calamities like her own. “In love, the despair that comes from loss, from deprivation, throws us into the desert. Sometimes it is only by stark and splendid renunciations that hurt persons can find the water in the sand. ” She wrestles on the page with the possibility of coming to accept the loss of love. She writes that “then affection is not the weird, ambivalent manipulation of the death of love, but a sort of salute to its happier beginning.”

Her unpredictable, wildly conflicted, bemused views on feminism are perhaps the biggest revelation of this edition. In a series of essays clustered around contemporary womanhood, she writes about the burdens of the new freedoms women experience, the new pressures they generate and the new problems created by the loss of domestic scripts. Is the modern, liberated world better for women? Hardwick is not sure. Elsewhere, she has commented on Simone de Beauvoir’s “brilliantly confused” thinking, and we see a bit of her own here. In some of her essays on the women’s movement, she seems rather lost; the authority and confidence we associate with her falters into tangled thoughts and wistful musings. She writes in 1971, “I look at little girls with wonder and anxiety. I do not know whether they will be free – the only certainty is that many will be adrift. ”

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