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Vivian Gornick Is Rereading Everyone, Including Herself


When Gornick was thirteen, her father died, of a heart attack, and her childhood came to an abrupt end. Bess took to the living-room sofa and refused to get up, moaning in agony at her abandonment. This situation lasted for years. Bess had idealized not only her husband but the idea of love, and without an object to receive it her adulation became hysterical. “Fierce Attachments” is an unflinching book; there is real repulsion in the way that Gornick writes of her mother’s abject wallowing, and horrified awe at the duration and the commitment of the performance. Bess, however, did one thing right by her child: she insisted that she pursue an education. Gornick enrolled at City College, and her world bloomed. Taking the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan every day was like going from Kansas to Oz. At graduation, Bess was distressed to discover that her daughter had spent four years as an English major. What were you supposed to do with a degree like that? She had thought Vivian was training to become a teacher.

I asked Gornick how she knew that literature was something worthy of study. She looked at me as if I had asked how she knew that clean water was good to drink. I felt ashamed. Like her mother, I was thinking in terms of the market, and she in terms of the soul.

“Because it was so thrilling. Because it made me feel alive,” she said. “And as if I was in the presence of exciting and absorbing realities. The way people feel when they get religious. I felt that there was a story beneath the surface of ordinary, everyday life. And the books contain that story. And, if I can get to it, life will be rich.”

The other reason that Gornick wanted to study literature was that she wanted to be a writer. She had known desk ecstasy, the feeling of the world disappearing as you till your mind for the page, and once you experience that it’s hard to do anything else with your life. But how to go about being a writer professionally took her a long time to figure out. During the two and a half years of her first marriage, to a painter she met while she was in graduate school at Berkeley, she mostly banged her head against the wall. The marriage didn’t fare any better. Before the couple wed, they were young bohemians on the make, eating together at the kitchen table straight from the pot. After, her husband expected her to have dinner ready for him every night, like some starched suburban housewife. (Something similar happened to Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and we know how that story ended.) Gornick went along with it—for a time. His expectations were hers, too. “Love (as we had been told since infancy) was the territory upon which our particular battle with Life was to be pitched,” she writes, of her indoctrination as a girl in the forties and fifties. “The promise of love alone gave us the courage to dream of leaving these caution-ridden precincts in order to turn our faces outward toward genuine experience.” So Gornick didn’t just want to give speeches after all. Passion would be her ticket into the world.

Literature magnified this idea to a burning point. As a young woman, Gornick loved D. H. Lawrence and Colette, those bards of the flesh. She was in college when she encountered “Sons and Lovers,” the first book she examines in “Unfinished Business,” and instantly took it as a “biblical text.” She identified with Miriam, the timid young lover of Paul Morel, Lawrence’s hero, a woman whose “primary need is to know that she is desired, and for herself alone.” On her second reading, she felt closer to Clara, Paul’s other lover, erotically knowledgeable and free, but still grasping. When Gornick read the book for the third time, in her thirties, the women’s movement was in full swing, she had left her second husband, and she identified with Paul—who, not incidentally, also struggles to break from a dissatisfied, suffocating mother: “preoccupied with desiring rather than being desired, I gloried in giving myself up to the shocking pleasure of sexual experience itself—rich, full, transporting—imagining myself now, like Paul at the end of the novel, the hero of my own life.”

This is definitive, triumphant. But now, in her fourth time through, Gornick sees that Paul’s quest to free himself through passion only seems like liberation. It’s a trap, just like the stultifying family life that preceded it. Reading Gornick on Lawrence—and Gornick on Gornick on Lawrence—is exciting. She builds real heat. She admires him for pushing, hard, against the bourgeois order that told him and everyone else to sit down and button up—“like an abolitionist among antislavery liberals who say yes, slavery is terrible, but in time it will die out, be patient, while the abolitionist says fuck that, now or never, and goes to war.” Sensual experience was Lawrence’s path to freedom and his metaphor for it. But, she goes on,

if Lawrence were alive today, this metaphor would not be available to him because today all have had long experience of the sexual freedom once denied, and have discovered firsthand that the making of a self from the inside out is not to be achieved through the senses alone. Not only does sexual ecstasy not deliver us to ourselves, one must have a self already in place to know what to do with it, should it come.

This observation is at the core of an earlier critical book of Gornick’s, “The End of the Novel of Love,” which was first published in 1997 and will be reissued next month. Sex has been drained of its figurative power, Gornick argues, because people now know it for what it is. It has been demystified, destigmatized, made mundane. The stocking has been rolled all the way down, and now that we can see everything there’s nothing to see. Returning, in “Unfinished Business,” to Colette’s early novels, which captivated her as a young woman, Gornick finds her dated and narrow-minded, and when, in our conversation, I offhandedly called Colette a feminist—after all, hadn’t she made her way in the world by her pen, writing about women’s experience?—Gornick shut me down. “It’s all in service of erotic passion as the central experience of a life. I can’t go with that,” she said. (Still, she liked the Keira Knightley bio-pic from 2018 as much as I did.) “Why, I found myself saying to her, have you not made larger sense of things?” she writes of Colette, in “Unfinished Business.” “Yes, I have from you the incomparable feel of an intelligent woman in the grip of romantic obsession, and that is strong stuff. But today sexual passion alone is only a situation, not a metaphor; as a story that begins and ends with itself, it no longer signifies.”

“Quick—tell us who you’re wearing!”
Cartoon by Emily Bernstein

At the same time, “Unfinished Business,” like all her memoirs, is a sexy book. Erotic experience may no longer work for her in metaphorical terms, but it is very much at the center of the story of her own life. In a chapter that touches on the novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s helpless, masochistic love for an indifferent man, Gornick tells us about Daniel, a man she met when she was eighteen and he was ten years older and “to whom I remained in thrall for decades” even though he swiftly proved himself to be a cheat and a pathological liar. Years later, he shows up at her door to ask what she got from the affair. She leaves the question hanging. At the time, she may not have known how to respond, but now she does: he gave her material, and it is she who will tell the tale.

Gornick’s second, connected critical revelation is that at the heart of great literature is the internal struggle that a character, pulled in different directions by competing urges, undergoes to unify himself or herself—the fight against “the perniciousness of the human self-divide,” she calls it. This is what she thinks makes great writers write, and it is what they write about. Gornick’s ideal of the quest for the unified self is inherently psychoanalytic; she sees writers attempting to reach on the page what many people spend years searching for in their therapist’s office. Fortunately for therapists, most patients are never fully cured. Fortunately for readers, neither are writers.

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