The best thing about Elizabeth Hardwick is this: She's smart. Who better to talk about books? "Sight-Readings" is a collection of Hardwick's literary essays. They are all versions of previously published works, written during the 1980s and 1990s, about authors such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, Truman Capote and Nadine Gordimer.
Hardwick doesn't merely write literary criticism. Hardwick also writes of history, geography and culture. She understands each author's place in America. And she gossips a bit. In short, she is amusing as well as erudite.Her most interesting reflections are on the duties of a biographer. Several of her essays are book reviews of biographies of newly deceased authors.
Hardwick does not believe a compilation of the facts is enough to make a good biography. On the other hand, she'd prefer that to a criticism of an author's works by someone who doesn't appreciate good prose.
This is from her essay on Katherine Anne Porter, an essay in which Hardwick not only lays out the dates and facts of the author's life and the significance of her Texas roots but criticizes Joan Givner's biography of Porter.
Hardwick writes: "Joan Givner, throughout, sees what are often creative problems as problems of life, usually linked to an unsteady childhood that weeps its lacks and resentments right up to the age of 90. In the case of a complicated egoist like Katherine Anne Porter, the biographer is altogether too insistent upon the writer's `longing for love.' The biographer's rather smug provincialism distorts the worldly and amusing mishaps of a woman who was not made for marriage and thus married four times."
Hardwick's essays are only 10 or 20 pages long, and yet each serves as biography as well as an analysis of the author's work. Each is in-sight-ful.
Hardwick makes original connections - such as the irony of John Updike's being so patriotic in his defense of the Vietnam War, so patriotic that he sees war as being religiously correct. Meanwhile, his adulterous main characters are also churchgoing patriots. Hardwick comments, wryly, that Updike believes in God, Country and "down-dirty sex."
And she sees the discomfort this causes him. She writes, "Updike himself worries the scab of the union of these three, one original with him perhaps."
What matters most to her, in the end, is that Updike is a beautiful writer. It's all that matters, really. Her appreciation for the craft and her own writing abilities make "Sight-Readings" well worth reading.