Essayist and journalist Gornick (Fierce Attachments, 1987; The Approaching Eye, 1996) gathers under one cover 11 essays that explore the meaning of love and marriage as literary themes in the 20th century. Gornick writes in a pithy, intensely concentrated literary style that is individual, uncannily precise, and a pleasure to read. Consider her comments on Grace Paley's prose: ``These sentences are born of a concentration in the writer that runs so deep, is turned so far inward, it achieves the lucidity of the poet. . . . The material is at one with the voice speaking.'' This is true of Gornick's own prose. She has the extraordinary ability to cut to the bone of our common experience with just a few, well-chosen words. What makes her work unusual for a book of this sort is that she persuades by the power of her language--gracefully poised between objective knowledge and subjective experience--more than by discursive argument. Her governing idea is this: Love, sexual fulfillment, and marriage are now exhausted as the metaphorical expressions of success and happiness. Modern experience cannot bear out these traditional meanings. It's not that people can no longer fall in love and be happily married. But the traditional scenario of love and marriage in the age of divorce and contraception ``cannot provide insight, it can only repeat a view of things that today feels sadly tired and without the power to make one see anew.'' Gornick's subtle ear and mind illuminate works by Paley, Willa Cather, George Meredith, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Jane Smiley, Richard Ford, Christina Stead, and Radclyffe Hall. Not all familiar names, but Gornick makes you want to read the ones you don't know and reread the ones you do. An exceptionally well-written, original, and thought-provoking set of essays.
In two recent essays, Vivian Gornick’s eminent critical voice has assumed a new inflection: that of feminist oracle, alternately pleased and appalled by the landscape she surveys. As part of each essay’s reckoning with the legacy of second-wave feminism, Gornick considers a selection of new books, including Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me” and Kate Bolick’s “Spinster,” the latter a blend of argument, literary history, and memoir in support of the unmarried woman who wishes to make, per the subtitle, “A Life of One’s Own.”
That subtitle would seem to align the book with Gornick’s work, organized as it is by a literary persona for whom singularity is a natural state of being and being single a battle in which victory and defeat are inexorably bound. First-person conflict is Gornick’s perennial subject, connected across books foremost by their narrator’s longing for a unifying, comprehensive scheme. Once, feminism’s second wave seemed to answer this lack, marshalling with righteous purpose the chaos of being Vivian Gornick, child of the Bronx circa 1935, born of one unquiet era and pitched headlong into the next.
In prefacing her discussion of “Spinster,” though, Gornick laments as reckless some of the movement’s more extreme rhetoric:
Marriage was rape, we cried, motherhood slavery. No equality in love? We’ll do without!... How easy it was for us to declare ourselves “liberated,” how chastening to experience the force of contradictory feeling that undermined these defiant simplicities.… Nearly every one of us became a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which we were to find ourselves time and again.
That same passage is repeated, with slight modification, toward the end of “The Odd Woman and the City,” Gornick’s angular, roving new book. Placed in the context of this new work, the same words somehow shed the burden of high reckoning, and pass into a subtler, querying, rhythmic flow. The fit is better; the voice feels just that crucial bit more true. At stake for the Odd Woman of the title, after all, is something beyond the legacy of radical feminism—something whose absence in Bolick’s book caused Gornick the greatest offense: “Of the joy and terror of actually trying to begin and end with oneself,” she complains of “Spinster,” “there is nothing.”
For a woman, the struggle to begin and end with oneself can hardly proceed outside the context of the feminist project. In “Fierce Attachments,” her 1987 memoir, and now with “The Odd Woman and the City,” framed as a kind of sequel to that book, Gornick gives voice to the conundrum awaiting newcomers to the wilds of self-discovery: there is no feminist who is a stranger to herself.
In both “Fierce Attachments” and “The Odd Woman and the City,” those wilds assume a specific geography—that of New York City. In the latter book, Gornick wanders the streets of Manhattan, a walker in search of moments within which she might meet herself, seeking exchange, to speak and be spoken to. In one passage, Gornick describes being overcome, during an aimless visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by a carving of a young Egyptian goddess:
Although I am alone with the goddess, have no one to whom I could utter a sound, I nonetheless feel speechless: cannot find the words inside me to describe the engulfing emotion this little bit of wood and gold has aroused. An awful gloom falls on me. Once again, as it has with irregular regularity throughout my waking life, that sickening sense of language buried deep within comes coursing through arms, legs, chest, throat. If only I could make it reach the brain, the conversation with myself might perhaps begin.
Like that of W. G. Sebald, Gornick’s persona habitually discovers in specific works of art the drama at the center of her life; thus the interplay of life and art both form and inform the narrative at hand. Gornick’s admiration of Sebald, documented in “The Situation and the Story,” her meditation on the art of personal narrative, suggests a project and a sensibility in particular sympathy with her own. Discussing “The Rings of Saturn” (to call it a novel, she argues, is “a measure of the bankruptcy of fiction”), Gornick describes a narrator “for whom the solitary wander has long been the only reality.” In Sebald, the depressed narrator’s associative wandering—from one museum or historic spot to the next—opens an unlikely portal to consciousness, through which the reader comes “to feel the immensity of human existence: not its smallness or meanness or pointlessness. In the act of responding so prodigiously to what he sees, recalls, and broods upon, this calm, solitary, pilgrim-like narrator performs a peculiar act of compassion toward world-and-self, one that extends a lifeline of hope.”
In “The Odd Woman and the City,” Gornick’s existential dilemma is indistinguishable from her artistic one: the desire to communicate, free of obstruction; to become real to others, and see others as real; to exist in the most basic way, a creature “filling my skin, occupying the present.” This Gornick marches for a cause with no barricades, under no banners. “I was never less alone than alone in the crowded street,” she writes. “Here, I found, I could imagine myself.”
Much of “The Odd Woman and the City” details Gornick’s imaginings of herself and others, describing with awed lyricism an ideal of both deep friendship and the fleeting encounter. If, in big cities especially, even bonded friendships can disintegrate overnight, Gornick suggests the plunging impact one passing stranger, in the right mood, might have on another. A simple, glad exchange with a pizza deliveryman, for example, prompts the following ecstasy: “Energy—coarse and rich—began to swell inside the cavity of my chest. Time quickened, the air glowed, the colors of the day grew sharp; my mouth felt fresh. A surprising tenderness pressed against my heart with such strength, it seemed very nearly like joy; and with unexpected sharpness I became alert not to the meaning, but the astonishment of human existence.”
“It was his voice that had done it,” Gornick writes of another encounter’s revelation. “That voice!” Though she writes with feeling about her long, fruitful but difficult friendship with a gay man she calls Leonard, Gornick swoons only for the city. “Most people are in New York because they need evidence—in large quantities—of human expressiveness; and they need it not now and then, but every day,” Gornick writes. “It’s the voices I can’t do without.”
I assigned an excerpt of “The Odd Woman and the City” for an essay seminar this spring, and as we discussed it several students remarked on the strange, really the inexplicable youth of Gornick’s voice. What it came down to, I think, is that she sounds just as alive—which is to say just as thoroughly messed up, scared, angry, and secretly tender—as they are. At sixty years old, Gornick writes, she walked the streets in what sounds like a younger person’s daze, playing movies of herself as she went, suppressing “some unnameable anxiety” with daydreams of the future: “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.”
Gornick’s voice, as she has observed of her previous writing, does not just tell the story, it is the story. The struggle to attain it forms an apt subtext; its coherence, a fine weave of observation, feeling, and insight, triumphs over the narrative disarray from which Gornick, possessed of “the gene for anarchy,” claims to suffer. Here, as in her best work, voice is life, story, struggle—and none can do without the other.
“The Odd Woman and the City” cuts around in time, alternating between past and present tense with no apparent sense of chronology, its mix of literal and literary wandering extending even to Gornick’s previous books—snippets from “Fierce Attachments,” “The Situation and the Story,” and at least one essay collected in “Approaching Eye Level” appear here, sometimes verbatim, sometimes modulated to new ends. Despite or perhaps owing to its idiosyncrasies, its attenuations, light touch, and fragmented form, the book has a summary effect. It left me, in fact, with an image from “Fierce Attachments,” in which Gornick describes with rapture another voice, another story, another fight—that of the writer Josephine Herbst, American novelist, Old Left radical, and anarchist in her own genetic right, “a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute.”