cover image American Fictions

American Fictions

Elizabeth Hardwick. Modern Library, $19 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-375-75482-1

""The landscapes of fiction: houses and the things therein, nation-states and states of the union, oceans, backland; winter nights and the old horse pulling the sledge through a driving snow, summer heat and the arrival of smothering love affairs,"" Hardwick writes in her introduction, indicating not only her wide-ranging definition of the concept of landscape but also the proud lyricism with which she analyzes many of America's greatest writers. Divided into eight sections, this collection of essays opens with discussions of Melville and Edith Wharton and ends with thoughts on Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Between the bookends, Hardwick casts her deft eye on, among others, Nabokov, whose ""novels very often end, and no matter what the plot, in a rhapsodic call to literature itself,"" and Katherine Anne Porter, who, ""did not always conduct herself with generosity or moral refinement."" Part of what makes these essays so engaging is their mix of biography and criticism, and the freedom with which Hardwick moves between the two. She often intertwines elegant intellectual arguments with details of her subjects' lives, as with Sylvia Plath (""both heroine and author; when the curtain goes down, it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrificed to her plot""). The ultimate achievement of this energetic book is that Hardwick's smart, eloquent discussions of important works of American fiction bear little resemblance to the normally arid field of literary criticism. Indeed, these fine essays are often as satisfying as the works and authors inspiring them. (Dec.)