At the age of eighty-five, Vivian Gornick feels she still has unfinished business. “The effort required to attain some semblance of an integrated self”, she writes, is “the task of a lifetime.” In Unfinished Business: Notes of a chronic re-reader, she combines her roles of memoirist and literary critic to investigate how books that have influenced her have shape-shifted over time. Or how she has, perhaps. Re-reading is like “lying on the analyst’s couch”, she finds. To re-read is to revise the narrative of one’s life.
What Gornick looks for in literature, she once said, is a deepening of her “way of seeing the world”. Novels by D. H. Lawrence and Colette have given her new ways to understand love, for example. Gornick read Sons and Lovers (1913) three times in fifteen years, identifying first with the protagonist’s lovers and then the protagonist himself as her own sexual agency increased. Revisiting Lawrence now, she is surprised to find the characters embittered rather than liberated by lives built on passion. Fifty years after first reading Colette, the erotic obsessions in The Vagabond and its sequel The Shackle strike Gornick as shallow. “What young woman today could read Colette as I read her when I was young?”, she wonders. The societal shift implied by the question is the unifying theme of Gornick’s collection of essays The End of the Novel of Love (1997): re-reading romance reinforces her view that love no longer works as a metaphor for finding fulfilment and happiness in life.
What reading always offers Gornick, however, is “sheer relief from the chaos in the head”. “Sometimes I think that it alone provides me with courage for life.” In The Lover she finds Marguerite Duras illuminating Freudian family dynamics and the vagaries of memory. Elizabeth Bowen’s rendering of the emotionally detached Eddie in The Death of the Heart sheds light on a relationship Gornick herself had with a pathological liar. She reflects on the First World War through the novels of J. L. Carr and Pat Barker, and Jewish-American identity through Delmore Schwartz and A. B. Yehoshua. As a devotee of Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook was “scripture”), Gornick returns to her slim volume Particularly Cats, but cools on Lessing’s “serious sensibility” as applied to “man and beast alike”. Natalia Ginzburg, meanwhile, never disappoints, consistently offering “solace as well as revelation”.“The companionateness of those books!”, Gornick exults…
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