‘Divine Madness’ is rare, labyrinthine literary capsule

Cover of Lynne Kaufmann's book "Divine Madness"
Tailwinds Press Enterprises LLC/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Great literary figures sit behind glass panels — titanic, sublime, immovable. Lynne Kaufman refutes this frigid perception with her new historical fiction novel “Divine Madness.” This novel offers an imagined but profoundly realistic exploration into the mind of Elizabeth Hardwick, one of America’s most celebrated literary critics of the 20th century.

Hardwick’s life spanned decades, countries and a billion ideas. It seems impossible to condense the soul of a literary giant into a paperback novel, but Kaufman proves this isn’t so. 

“Divine Madness” takes the form of diary entries, with Hardwick’s simulated voice narrating the minute and the significant. When held to the light, these kaleidoscopic entries reveal Hardwick’s life in bursts of colors painted by her most treasured relationships and accomplishments. 

The deep red doors on the cover of “Divine Madness” beckon, and it is Hardwick who greets you. Shrewd, sage and sad, Kaufman immediately presents the intricacies of Hardwick’s interiority. Unlike a typical diary written in concurrency, Kaufman’s Hardwick explains that she is writing these entries in memoriam of her days passed. 

Despite this seemingly contradictory premise — a diary is meant to be living and breathing, growing with its author, after all — Kaufman succeeds in creating a sense of urgency and relevance. Written in the present tense, each entry is a deft and intimate exploration of Kaufman’s Hardwick. 

Much of the novel traverses her relationship with Robert “Cal” Lowell, the sixth poet laureate of the United States with whom Hardwick had a tumultuous marriage. “I am in love with his mind,” Hardwick writes, and that much is clear. Kaufman conveys the brilliant but complexly flawed character of Cal through the albeit rose-glassed eyes of Hardwick.

What follows is a layered narration of Cal’s highest and lowest moments, witnessed by an equally complicated woman. Kaufman recounts his initial devotion as a husband and father when their daughter Harriet was born, and she later portrays his abandonment of Hardwick after 20 years of marriage to wed British writer Lady Caroline Blackwood.

Hardwick assuages Cal’s fits of mania and adultery all while experiencing motherhood and professional success, such as founding The New York Review of Books. For one of the first times, Hardwick’s own grit, once brushed under the rug, is put on a pedestal. With this, Kaufman makes a strong commentary on what it means to be a creative, scholarly woman still bound by the expectations of traditional womanhood. 

When Cal writes and publishes “The Dolphin,” an anthology of poems that lift from Hardwick’s private letters, the betrayal that overwhelms Hardwick transcends the page. While most may remember “The Dolphin” as a Pulitzer-winning poem collection, for Hardwick, it was her barest self exposed without consent. Kaufman taps into Hardwick’s pain to deliver one of the most intricate, raw parts of “Divine Madness.” Through these entries, Kaufman lifts the veil on one of the most celebrated texts in American literature, showing a steep price paid in the name of art. 

And that seems to be the running theme of “Divine Madness” — the double-edged sword that is true talent cuts as often as it heals. 

“If madness doesn’t come naturally, seek it,” Hardwick writes. Indeed, Kaufman movingly describes the tortured souls of all writers, the desperation that comes with creativity and the havoc it wreaked on Hardwick’s marriage. In this way, Kaufman astonishingly blurs the lines between truth and fiction. 

Though Kaufman stunningly captures these momentous shifts in Hardwick’s life, the sporadicity of the narrative structure undermines its true glory. At times, these diary entries feel disconnected and confusingly staccato, with little to no explanation of the abstract text describing ambiguous events. While Kaufman allows for intimacy with this narrative structure, it leaves more immersion to be desired. 

Despite this, Hardwick remains a faithful guide to the labyrinth that is Manhattan’s elite 20th-century literati. Through Kaufman’s Hardwick, the sacred creative space of renowned literary figures — such as Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt and more — becomes accessible. By articulating Hardwick’s relationships with her literary friends, Kaufman subtly breathes life into these iconic names.

At its core, “Divine Madness” celebrates passion in its purest form. The novel revels in a love for literature so strong it supersedes all reason, baring creativity in all its grit and glory.

Contact Vicky Chong at [email protected].