'Magisterial but muffled'

In her mid-twenties, [Elizabeth Hardwick] had befriended the singer [Billie Holiday] in New York. In darkling fashion, her [1976 NYRB] essay recalls textures and spectacles of the 1940s: the “underbrush” of cheap hotel interiors, fingertips split while rummaging through secondhand-record racks, the birdlike figures of great jazz musicians as they stooped out of taxis and into the clubs. And at the center of it all, the “puzzling phantom” of Holiday herself, who is heard to speak only once in the whole piece. Her character leaches out instead in performance, in relations with her tired and flummoxed entourage, in vignettes of addiction, illness, imprisonment. Most of all in the odd, skewed language Hardwick has fashioned to evoke her, with its vexing repetitions and sly inversions: “She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat.”

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor. (In the Times Literary Supplement in 1983, the British novelist David Lodge called Hardwick the first properly lyric critic since Virginia Woolf, but this cannot be true: the lyric mode is indispensable even to a criticism that imagines it’s doing something quite else.) Joan Didion has approved Hardwick’s “exquisite diffidence,” and in an interview for the Paris Review, she herself remarked: “The poet’s prose is one of my passions. I like the offhand flashes, the absence of the lumber in the usual prose.” There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is a self-involved and sufficient whole. She advances (if that’s the word) paratactically: impression piled upon impression, analogy stacked against analogy, till she runs out of conceits and gives it to us relatively strict and straight.

The metaphors in Hardwick’s essays are always unusual, which is what one wants from a metaphor. They are often simply bizarre, or strained as far as they will go. She can be straightforwardly graceful and apposite, as in the opening sentence of “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”: “Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season.” But what are we to make of the moment when, having told us that Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography had been buried, she goes further and says that Zelda lies beneath the “desperate violets” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memories? Hardwick, who had abandoned a dissertation on metaphysical poetry to become a writer, was ever committed to the vivid, cumbrous oddity that could be canvassed in metaphor.