It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question. It seems that I’ve misremembered quite a lot about this or that character, or this or that plot turn—they met here in New York, I was so sure it was Rome; the time was 1870, I thought it was 1900; and the mother did what to the protagonist? Yet the world still drops away while I’m reading and I can’t help marveling, If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?
Like most readers, I sometimes think I was born reading. I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me. On vacation with family or friends, I am quite capable of settling myself, book in hand, on the living room couch in a beautiful country house and hardly stirring out into the glorious green for which we have all come. Once, on a train going through the Peruvian Andes, with everyone else ooh-ing and aah-ing out the window, I couldn’t lift my eyes from The Woman in White. On a Caribbean beach I sat in the blazing sun, Diane Johnson’s Lesser Lives (an imagined biography of George Meredith’s first wife) propped on my knees, and was surprised when I looked up to see that I wasn’t surrounded by the fog and cold of 1840s England. The companionate-ness of those books! Of all books. Nothing can match it. It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work—that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words—it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers. Sometimes I think it alone provides me with courage for life, and has from earliest childhood.
We lived in an immigrant, working-class neighborhood in the Bronx where all needs were met through the patronage of one of the many stores that ran the length of a single shopping street. The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the bank, the drugstore, the shoe repair: all storefront operations. One day, when I was quite small, seven or eight, my mother, holding my hand, walked us into a store I’d never before noticed: it was the local branch of the New York Public Library. The room was long, the floorboards bare, and the walls lined, floor to ceiling, with books. In the middle of the room was planted a desk at which sat Eleanor Roosevelt (in those days, all librarians looked like Eleanor Roosevelt): a tall, bosomy woman with a mass of gray hair piled belle epoque–style on the top of her head, rimless glasses perched high on her incredibly straight nose, and a look of calm interest in her eyes. My mother approached the desk, pointed at my head, and said to Eleanor Roosevelt, “She likes to read.” The librarian stood up, said “Come,” and walked me back to the front of the store where the children’s books were sectioned. “Start here,” she said, and I did. Between then and the time I graduated from high school, I read my way around the room. If I’m asked now to remember what I read in that storefront library, I can only recall that I went from Grimm’s fairy tales to Little Women to Of Time and the River. Then I entered college where I discovered that all these years I’d been reading literature. It was at that moment, I think, that I began rereading, because from then on it was to the books that had become my intimates that I would turn and turn again, not only for the transporting pleasure of the story itself but also to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.
I’d grown up in a noisy left-wing household where Karl Marx and the international working class were articles of faith: feeling strongly about social injustice was a given. So from the start, the political-ness of life colored almost all tangible experience, which of course included reading. I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L as it manifested itself (thrillingly) through the protagonist’s engagement with those external forces beyond his or her control. In this way I felt, acutely but equally, the work of Dickens, Dreiser, and Hardy, as well as Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, and Agnes Smedley. I had to laugh when, a few years ago, I came across an essay by Delmore Schwartz in which he (Schwartz) takes Edmund Wilson to task for Wilson’s shocking lack of interest in literary form. For Schwartz, form was integral to the meaning of a literary work; for Wilson, what mattered was not how books were written but what they were talking about, and how they affected the culture at large. His habit, always, was to place a book in its social and political context. This perspective allowed him to pursue a line of thought that let him speak of Proust and Dorothy Parker in the same sentence, or compare Max Eastman favorably with André Gide. For Schwartz, this was pure pain. For me, it was inexpressibly rewarding. And what could have been more natural than that the way I read was the way I would begin to write.
One night toward the end of the sixties, I attended a speak-out at the Vanguard, a famous jazz club in Greenwich Village. The evening was billed as “Art and Politics,” and on the stage was the playwright LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), the saxophonist Archie Shepp, and the painter Larry Rivers. In the audience, every white, middle-class liberal in the city. Very quickly, it became clear that Art didn’t stand a chance up against Politics. Jones dominated the event by announcing early that not only was the civil rights movement tired of what he called white intervention, very soon blood was going to run in the seats of the Theater of Revolution and guess who was sitting in those seats. The place went up in flames, everyone yelling and screaming some version of “Not fair!” all at once—with one voice in particular heard above the rest, crying out, “I’ve paid my dues, LeRoi. You know I’ve paid my dues!” But Jones, unperturbed and unimpressed by the uproar, continued to explain that we “ofays” had fucked it all up, but when black people got there, they would do it differently: smash up the world as we knew it and start all over again. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t want to destroy the world as it is, he wants to take his rightful place in it as it is, only right now his head is so full of blood he doesn’t know it.”
I wanted badly to call that out, as everyone else was calling out whatever hurt most, but he terrified me (one can hardly imagine the strength of Baraka’s public presence in those painfully inspired days), so I kept silent, went home, and, burning with a sense of urgency I couldn’t really account for, sat up half the night describing the entire event from the perspective of my one great insight; and discovering, as I wrote, what was to become my natural style. Using myself as a participating narrator, it was my instinct to set the story up as if writing a fiction (“The other night at the Vanguard … ”) in order to put my readers behind my eyes, have them experience the evening as I had experienced it, feel it viscerally as I had felt it (“I’ve paid my dues, LeRoi. You know I’ve paid my dues!”), then come away moved and instructed by the poignancy not of Art and Politics, but Life and Politics. Although I did not then know it, it was personal journalism that I had begun to practice.
In the morning I put what I had written in an envelope, walked to the corner mailbox, and sent the piece to The Village Voice. A few days later my phone rang. I said “Hello,” and a man’s voice replied, “I’m Dan Wolf, editor of the Voice, who the hell are you?” Before I could think I said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” Wolf laughed and invited me to send him anything else I was working on. A year later I sent him another piece. And I think most of another year passed before I sent in a third.
I had meant it about not knowing who I was. Although at any given moment I could talk a blue streak that often made a listener say “You should write that up,” when it came to it, I’d almost invariably suffer a paralyzing case of self-doubt. It was only occasionally that that burning sense of necessity allowed me to bring a piece of work to a satisfactory conclusion. Now, here I was, after the evening at the Vanguard, with an open invitation to face down this painful disability and begin to realize the lifelong ambition of writing professionally. So what did I do? I got married. I got married and left New York to live in a place deep in rural America where every connection I had to writing was dramatically severed. Soon enough, I did get unmarried and I did return to the city, but it was only to wander about, working odd jobs in and around publishing: still an overaged girl refusing to become an adult.
Then one day I walked into the Voice office—how I had the nerve to do this I’ll never know—and asked Dan Wolf for a job. He said, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you produce only one piece a year, how can I give you a job?” I said no, not any more, I’d do whatever he wanted—and, as it turned out, I meant it. Two assignments later the job was mine.
But what, exactly, was the job?
The Voice was a paper of opinion founded in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, when simply to speak out as a liberal was to be heard as a radical. The key words were “speak out.” The paper had a muckraking bent that made its writers, one and all, sound as if they were routinely holding a gun to society’s head. In one sense, the enterprise bore a strong resemblance to the social realism of my childhood, so I fit right in. In another, my predilection for personal journalism soon began to complicate the appealing simplicity of “them” versus “us” that ruled Voice reporting. Using myself as the instrument of illumination when exploring the subject at hand was forcing on me a growing need to look inward as well as outward: to put the “personal” and the “journalism” together proportionally, figure out how the parts really fit together, how the situation actually felt on the ground. For the longest time, it seemed, I worked with only partial success to solve this problem. Then the liberationist movements of the seventies kicked in, politics began to feel existential, and for me the dilemma of how to practice personal journalism was home free.
In late 1970 an editor at the Voice said to me, “There are these women’s libbers gathering out on Bleecker Street. Why don’t you go out and investigate them.” “What’s a women’s libber?” I asked. A week later I was a convert.
Within days I had met Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone, and Ti-Grace Atkinson. It seemed as though they were all talking at once, and yet I heard every word each of them spoke. Or, rather, it was that I must have heard them all saying the same thing, because I came away from that week branded by a single thought. It was this: the idea that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not is a belief, not an inborn reality: it serves the culture and is central to how all our lives take shape. The inability to see oneself primarily as a working person: this, I now saw, was the central dilemma of a woman’s existence.
The insight felt new and profound and, above all, compelling. Of a sudden, I saw the unlived lives of women not only as a crime of historic proportion but a drama of the psyche that came brilliantly to life no sooner than the word “sexism” was applied—and that was the word that now governed my days. Everywhere I looked I saw sexism: raw and brutal, ordinary and intimate, ancient and ever-present. I saw it on the street and in the movies, at the bank and in the grocery store. I saw it while reading the headlines, riding the subway, having the door held for me. And, most shockingly, I saw it in literature. Taking up many of the books I’d grown up with, I saw for the first time that most of the female characters in them were stick figures devoid of flesh and blood, there only to thwart or advance the fortunes of the protagonist whom I only just then realized was almost always male. It occurred to me that all my reading life I’d been identifying with characters whose progress through life was at a vital remove from any I would ever make.
The exhilaration I experienced once I had the analysis! I woke up with it, danced through the day with it, fell asleep smiling with it. It was as though revelation alone could deliver me into the promised land not only of political equality but of inner freedom as well. After all, what more did I need than the denial of women’s rights to explain me to myself? What a joyous little anarchist I then became! The pleasure I took in the excitement of casting conventional sentiment aside! How blithely I pronounced, “No equality in love? I’ll do without! Children and motherhood? Unnecessary! Social castigation? Nonsense!” Life felt good then. I had insight, and I had company. Everywhere I looked I saw women like myself seeing what I saw, thinking as I thought, speaking as I spoke.
Yet, by no means was it all bread and roses. For example, no one had counted on the level of rage the women’s movement had released in men and in women alike: strong enough, it sometimes seemed, to set a match to the world. Every day, marriages broke up, friendships ended, family members became estranged—and perfectly decent people were saying and doing the most abominable things to one another. One night at a dinner party, a pair of academics—one a tall, slim woman, the other a short, fat man—were listening intently to a distinguished historian whose field the woman knew well. She was adding her voice to that of the speaker with an occasional question or comment when her colleague impatiently demanded that she stop “interrupting.” At any other time within living memory, I was certain, this woman would have fallen silent after receiving such a rebuke. Now, her face hardened and she spat out, “Why, you ugly little man, don’t tell me to stop speaking!” The table went silent, and within minutes the evening was breaking up. I sat there, stunned. On the one hand, I was thrilled by the woman’s outburst; on the other, the loss of civility among us left me with the taste of ashes in my mouth. Who could have imagined that so much hate and fear had been festering for so long inside so many of us.
Within the decade, seventies feminists came to realize that while we stood united in political analysis, ideology alone was not about to deliver us from our own damaged selves. Between the ardor of our rhetoric and the dictates of flesh-and-blood reality, it seemed, lay a no man’s land of untested conviction. We became then, many of us, a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the discrepancy between what we declared we felt and the miserable complexity of what we actually felt more apparent with each passing day.
The contradictions in my own character rose up daily to plague me, and patterns of behavior I had paid no attention to suddenly loomed large. I had always thought of myself as one of those ordinarily decent people who placed a high value on what is generally called “good character.” Now I saw that I did nothing of the sort. In conversation I was cutting and confrontational, at family affairs bored and dismissive, in the office self-regarding to a fault. Although I pined endlessly for intimate connection (I thought) I nonetheless sabotaged one relationship after another by concentrating almost exclusively on what I took to be my needs, not at all on those of my friend or lover. The narrowness of experience to which my own self-divisions had consigned me—how appalling that now felt!
In no time at all an unimagined universe of interiority opened before me, one equipped with its own theory, laws, and language, constituting a worldview that seemed to hold more truth—that is, more inner reality—than any other; and a drama of internal anguish began to unfold. Every day now I struggled with myself, one part of me pitted against another, reason telling me which behaviors to break free of, compulsion demanding that I ignore reason. Again and again I suffered the humiliation of sustained self-defeat. In the goodness of analytic time it became clear—but this took years to absorb—that insight alone was never going to prove sufficient. The effort required to attain some semblance of an integrated self was going to be the task of a lifetime. As the great Anton Chekhov had so memorably put it, while “others [might have] made me a slave” it was I who must “squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop.”
Once again, I found myself reading differently. I took out the books—novels in particular—I had read and reread, and read them again. This time around I saw that whatever the story, whatever the style, whatever the period, the central drama in literary work was nearly always dependent on the perniciousness of the human self-divide: the fear and ignorance it generates, the shame it gives rise to, the debilitating mystery in which it enshrouds us. I also saw that invariably what made the work of a good book affecting—and this was something implicit in the writing, trapped somewhere in the nerves of the prose—was some haunted imagining (as though coming from the primeval unconscious) of human existence with the rift healed, the parts brought together, the hunger for connection put in brilliant working order. Great literature, I thought then and think now, is a record not of the achievement of wholeness of being but of the ingrained effort made on its behalf.
I still read to feel the power of Life with a capital L. I still see the protagonist in thrall to forces beyond his or her control. And when I write I still hope to put my readers behind my eyes, experience the subject as I have experienced it, feel it viscerally as I have felt it.
Vivian Gornick is the author of several books, including the acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments, reissued as an FSG Classic in 2005; the essay collections The End of the Novel of Love and The Men in My Life, both of which were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; and The Odd Woman and the City, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. She began her career as a staff writer for The Village Voice in 1969, and her work has since appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and many other publications. Read her Art of Memoir interview here.
Excerpted from Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader, by Vivian Gornick. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 4, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Vivian Gornick. All rights reserved.
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