Vivian Gornick has published more than ten nonfiction books since she started writing in the seventies. Her works include biographies, criticism, theory, essay collections, and memoir. She’s particularly famous for her memoirs, is perhaps one of the earliest and best practitioners of the genre, publishing her books way before the memoir became the genre du jour. Even her best known work of criticism, The End of the Novel of Love, is praised for its personal inflection.
I’ve been reading her memoirs in the last week or so. I started with Fierce Attachments, continued with Approaching Eye Level, and went on with The Odd Woman and the City. They’re all extraordinary, with an honesty that’s mesmerizing and an intensity that’s breathtaking. Her prose is lucid, beautiful, relentlessly elegant.
Fierce Attachments, published in 1987, is about her childhood, her fierce yet ambivalent attachment to her mother, her relationships with other mother-figures, her first love affairs. It’s written in fragments, some a few pages long, some only a paragraph. Approaching Eye Level, published in 1996, consists of six chapters, each one an independent personal essay. And the latest, The Odd Woman and the City, published in 2015, goes back to the fragmented quality of Fierce Attachments.
While Gornick writes about the importance of love in her life and about the passionate love affairs she has enjoyed or suffered through in her life, what seems to preoccupy her most is friendship, the search for friendship, the life-sustaining and mind-expanding nature of a good friendship.
Gornick is tireless in her search for friends and this is because of the primacy she puts in conversation. For her, conversation is the ultimate activity in life, what rescues us from ourselves, what nourishes us, what lifts us from the mundane realities of our days. Again and again, she invokes it. At the start of one of her most important friendships she says: “It wasn’t that I came away thinking my words brilliant, it was only that I came away feeling I had been fully heard, and because I was being fully heard I was saying everything I had to say. It seemed to me, then, that ever since I could remember I’d been fighting for someone’s undivided attention in conversation. Now I had it. I could breathe easy.” Writing about friends in another essay she says: “I am hungry for the sentence structure in their heads. It’s the conversation between us that makes me love them. Responding to the shape of their sentences, my own grow full and free: thought becomes expressive, emotions clarify, and I am happy, happier than at any other time. Nothing makes me more alive, and in the world, than the sound of my own mind working in the presence of one that’s responsive.”
Gornick writes a lot about aloneness, loneliness, solitude, its rewards and its punishing sorrows. She is constantly examining the choices she has made, her decision to leave two marriages, her solitary life. She writes: “To live without love or domestic intimacy, I generously allowed, was indeed to be half alive but, I concluded, what we want now is to be real to ourselves. The myth of two-shall-become-as-one is no longer useful. Living consciously is the business of our lives. If one cannot win over loneliness, at least one can learn that it’s not fatal. Such knowledge becomes a strength, an ally, a weapon.”
Along with the solitude and perhaps because of it, New York is a recurring theme. The city, to her, is almost a love interest, a partner, a home in every sense of the word, physical, spiritual, emotional. She describes herself as a walker and one who walks the city and comes home filled within, having satisfied her need for human contact even if she didn’t talk to anyone. She writes about New York: “A limit is placed on the idea of isolation. I may not be making love myself but the air I breathe is charged: I am not doing politics, it is true, but there is politics in the daily exchange; my own appetite is without edge yet appetite is clearly the coin of the realm.” She compares the city with university towns where she has lived and worked: “It’s the silence, especially, that gets to me. As the days and the weeks accumulate it deepens: sinks down into flesh, presses on bone, induces a pressure in the ears that comes back up bussing. It’s a silence created in streets where sex and politics die early because conversation is not a daily requirement; expressive language has passed out of common usage; people speak to transmit information, not to connect.”
Her explorations are poetic and rich in insights but, after a while (and especially if you read her books one after the other, which is probably not recommended), they get tiresome. If you read these books back to back as well, you see, not just recurrent themes, but stories that get repeated. You’re familiar with this phenomenon. We all have stories we repeat; we have family and friends whose stories we’ve heard, to much eye-rolling, again and again. Gornick repeats a story about a friend who has two stock stories: one about a woman who is left behind by a ship and one about a man who jumps off a bridge. She repeats the idea of an elegant dinner where the conversation was junk food. And, for some reason, different women named Rhoda keep appearing, perhaps as a friend, a composite figure, a character in a book.
But these are minor complaints and Gornick, at seventy-nine, continues to be relevant, with her latest book one of the finalists for the National Book Award in 2015 and cited by the New York Times as one of its hundred notable books in the same year. She continues to publish reviews and essays, her book is reviewed by The New Yorker, she is interviewed by The Paris Review. Her books in my local library have waiting lists, even the old ones.
She continues to write and this is because she continues to be dissatisfied. In that interview with The Paris Review, Gornick says: “I’ve not had the life I wanted, which was to be much more in the world than I’ve been.” And in her latest book, The Odd Woman and the City, she writes about daydreaming about “the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become.” She says: “I would wander for the rest of my life in the purgatory of self-exile, always looking for the right person to talk to.”
These are amazing revelations. I’m not sure whether to feel inspired because there’s a certain vitality in her daydreaming and longing – she’s certainly not going gently into any good night. Or depressed because, after all, our struggles and anxieties don’t seem to end and don’t seem to be pacified by achievement, reputation, and friendships.
Perhaps I am moved by Gornick’s longings these days because I too am preoccupied by the notion of the ideal conversation. It’s only now, long after they’ve ended, that I’m realizing I’ve had these ideal conversations as a young adult. These conversations were lengthy, time-consuming, ending only because of fatigue but revving up again on another day, another night. They were wide-ranging, irreverent, hilarious, about books we were reading and ideas we were learning to grasp for the first time, fueled by amorphous longings, confusions, and heartbreaks imagined and real. We were young. And perhaps those conversations can only happen in one’s youth? Perhaps it’s better for friends to move away and for conversations to end because, after a while, won’t you be repeating yourselves to each other anyway? And then, all of a sudden, you’re old, your choices have been made, you’re living your life, and what is there to talk about again?
If that’s a terrible admission, it’s also probably false. Whatever our age, we want to make a connection, but maybe it doesn’t always happen through conversation. For some people, I suspect, it only happens through other ways – the sharing of food, holding hands while watching TV, playing games. I’ve always thought I was more like Gornick, that I’m always looking for the right person to talk to. But if I really think about it now, I’m not so sure. Words can be tiresome and they can trip us in so many ways.