A deeply psychological critic who wrote definitive portraits of Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald and other creative women warped by the men in their lives, Hardwick was especially concerned by limitations of the usual measures with which we tell stories of others: the subjectivity of personal impressions; the rigidity, or prurience, of biographical facts — insufficient measures for our complex fluidity of being. One wonders what, then, she would have thought about the future of collected letters in the 21st century. Whose will be our last — Philip Roth’s? Toni Morrison’s? It’s hard not to feel this is a loss — but at the same time, the carefully curated portrait of a writer that emerges in a letter collection feels not all that different from the way in which we all interact today, which is to say deliberately, methodically and probably not altogether honestly. Though here’s the thing about the self: The more we try to deconstruct it, the more we notice the architecture and draperies.
Privacy, in the memoir age, has become almost quaint, and our contemporary literary forms blur all kinds of boundaries of truth and subjectivity. Personal narrative is often reframed and marketed these days as fiction (for both legal and other reasons) — Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is but one example. And yet the debate endures over whether or not the personal outweighs the productive, as does our basic human need to record and confess. The self-exploration that once was poured into correspondence finds other outlets — namely, the “infinite mischief” of the auto-fictional novel. As such, we’re unlikely to need to read the correspondence of an author like Knausgaard, or any other author who has toyed with shedding artifice from the literary self-portrait, edging the mirror closer and closer to some kind of authentic self. What would be the point? At last, we simply do not need to know more.
Which is something that Hardwick, in the wake of her betrayal, understood better than most of us do now: that obliqueness is an under-sung tool of truth. Her letters with Lowell feel resonant today not only as a portrait of a marriage between two brilliant 20th-century writers but as an inquiry into the terms in which we compose the self in art — and of the ongoing effort of women to narrate themselves, to take up space in the cultural story rather than appear as supporting characters within it. Two years after Lowell’s death, Hardwick published her landmark autobiographical novel, 1979’s “Sleepless Nights,” an essential precursor to today’s auto-fictional movement: a self-portrait and an argument for privacy in one, filled with bladed understatement (Lowell appears in it mostly as an absence). “Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles,” says the narrator, waking in the night to write letters to the friends she can’t wait to call in the morning. “Otherwise, I love to be known by those I care for.”
At top: Margaret Howell cardigan, $385, margarethowell.co.uk; Lafayette 148 New York shirt, $448, lafayette148ny.com. Stylist: Angela Koh. Model: Charlotte O’Donnell at Midland. Casting: Nicola Kast at Webber Represents. Photo assistant: Tim Soter.