Vivian Gornick: one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of

No one writes better about friendship, about the way that connection can blaze up and fall away, within the course of an evening or over decades.

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Vivian Gornick is one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of. A biographer, journalist and memoirist, she is among the supreme essayists of the past 50 years, a writer who bridges the worlds of Joan Didion and Meghan Daum, Susan Sontag and Leslie Jamison, without ever having achieved the cultural glamour or worldly success of any of these figures.

In a recent interview in the Paris Review, Gornick, now aged 80, was candid about her marginal status for a large part of her writing life and how often she longed to be part of “the uptown parties, the New York Review parties . . . And then I’d have to recover from that nonsense and forget about it – really forget about it. And I did – over and over again.” These last emphatic admissions are typical of Gornick, redolent of the frank self-examination and literary and professional toughness that run through all her work, her ongoing dedication to the only thing that matters: the writing life, the process of turning “neurotic necessity into literary virtue”.

For all these reasons, perhaps, we Gornick enthusiasts are a distinct, fierce tribe, each with our own favourite well-thumbed books and essays, proselytising to anyone who will listen about her brilliance. Recently, making contact with some other devotees through Twitter, I even discovered a couple of new books, recognising from the first page Gornick’s distinctive approach to her craft, her determination “to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say”.

Raised in the Bronx by Jewish, communist, immigrant parents, Gornick began her writing life as a reporter on the Village Voice, where she worked from 1969 to 1977. Her early books, such as The Romance of American Communism (1977), chart the emotional dynamics of left-wing politics and she has more recently produced a biography of the great anarchist Emma Goldman.

But it was Fierce Attachments, a more personal work of non-fiction, first published in 1987 and now reissued by Daunt Books, that made her name. The personal essay was not then the ubiquitous form it is today but Gornick – even though she emerged from such a political background – was one of its early pathfinders, developing, in unique fashion, the less formal narrative voice pioneered by the “new journalism” of the Sixties and Seventies.

The book tells of her growing up in the Bronx, a childhood dominated by “Ma”, her frustrated and hypercritical mother, plunged by sudden widowhood into years of histrionic mourning. Scenes from her youth are interspersed with accounts of a now middle-aged Vivian, too often feeling “fat and lonely”, walking the streets of Manhattan with her mother. Gornick perfectly captures the brittle exchanges, mutual misunderstandings, disdain and occasional bouts of tenderness – “I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her” – that flow between the two.

Gornick has often written about how the insights of feminism shot through her like a bolt of lightning, transforming her life in a single afternoon. In Fierce Attachments, she wanted to bring alive the visceral difficulties of cleaving herself from the values of femininity with which she was raised. From Ma and the women in the Bronx
tenement, she learns that sex is something to endure rather than to enjoy. The arrival of a beautiful young neighbour, Nettie, who is forced into a kind of defiant prosti­tution, introduces her to the power and danger of female sexual desire, including her own. Gornick takes these battles into her adult fierce attachments, including a troubled first marriage and a long, erotic, extramarital affair.

New York, with its eccentric characters and charming or explosive random exchanges, figures large in Gornick’s work and the city again forms the explicit backdrop to her latest book, The Odd Woman and the City, an artfully arranged series of portraits of urban life, friendship and our heroine.

If it feels like a more settled, surer-footed work than Fierce Attachments this is probably because Gornick, three decades on, is more reconciled to her “odd woman” status – a category that she borrows from George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, a book much loved by her. She quotes her old friend Leonard, a gay writer: “Fifty years ago you entered a closet marked ‘marriage’. In the closet was a double set of clothes, so stiff they could stand up by themselves. A woman stepped into a dress called ‘wife’ and the man stepped into a suit called ‘husband’. And that was it . . . Today we don’t pass. We’re standing here naked. That’s all.’’

Love, work, friendship, community: she continually returns to our yearnings for these but our difficulty in achieving them on our own terms. In a brilliantly perceptive essay about the life and suicide of Clover Adams, an influential saloniste and Boston Brahmin in the late 19th century, Gornick delicately delineates the many ways in which work is a salvation, even for inwardly drifting depressives, and what it meant historically for women that they were for so long denied the right or ability to “do battle with the world . . . as a way of doing battle with themselves”.

But, for Gornick, the ability to work, even a dedication to it, is only ever a starting point. Like romance, like politics, it is not a form of abstract salvation but a grinding process of daily self-realisation, including the conquering of anxiety, the mastery of self-discipline, the search for internal freedom and meaning. Gornick is fearsomely honest about her wasted hours, days and years, the bad books as well as the good-enough books and the long, tortured process by which she learned to write well.

The Situation and the Story (2001), now considered a classic manual for the aspiring essayist or writer of memoir, explains how her experiments in writing taught her to achieve literary detachment in the service of the narrative.

All of this makes her an acute, highly readable critic. The Situation and the Story celebrates great examples of the genre, from Joan Didion on migraines to Edward Hoagland on turtles. Equally pleasurable is The Men in My Life (2008), her collection of often acerbic but always appreciative essays on some of the great male writers of the century, including Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Andre Dubus, James Baldwin and Richard Ford.

Her work pulses with memorable observations, brilliantly rendered conversations and original analysis. “Love as a metaphor [is] over,” she claimed in her seminal essay “The End of the Novel of Love”. The upheavals of the mid-20th century, from women’s liberation to the liberalisation of divorce and attitudes to sexuality, changed the internal dynamic and necessities of literature. The illicit passions that light up such great 19th-century works as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are reduced in the modern world to the drear realities of extramarital affairs followed by second and third marriages. “Today there are no penalties to pay, no world of respectability to be excommunicated from.”

No one writes better about friendship, about the way that connection can blaze up and fall away, within the course of an evening or over decades. In a searing essay entitled “Tribute”, Gornick traces the course of her infatuated friendship with an older, celebrated feminist author, in whom she recognises some of her own failures: “I began to worship in her the incapacity I identified so strongly with.”

The beginning of the end of the friendship is signalled by a devastating argument over a meal at Gornick’s home, in which her friend abuses the men present for assuming conversational and worldly superiority. The scene is so vividly rendered that it is painful to read. “I can still taste in my mouth,” Gornick writes, “the sickening dry excitement I felt that evening . . .”

At the same time, she can grasp the larger point emerging from the unfolding human theatre: “That night I saw coming, as though for the first time, the death of sentimental affection between women and men. The familiar arrangement between us was at an end.”

Gornick has suggested recently that different generations cannot understand or appreciate each other – the contexts and culture shift so significantly. Essayists inevitably reflect and bear witness to the temper of their times; think Roxane Gay on the “bad feminist” or Lena Dunham on just about anything. Inevitably, then, Gornick appears as something of a semi-historical figure, a writer who bears witness to the battles and battle scars of a generation (or two) who helped dismantle western certainties about politics, love and family.

Yet she is so much more than that. Ma once complained, on one of their strained walks up Fifth Avenue, “The unhappiness is so alive today.” Gornick’s retort was: “That’s the first step, Ma . . . The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

Here, she nails the secret of her many-layered achievement: her ability to make vivid the difficulties of living fully and honestly but without a touch of coyness or evasion, uncompromising to the last, even about unhappiness. It is why her work will survive the time in which it was written. That she makes the reader feel so much more human in the process is just one mark of her genius. l

Melissa Benn is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (Vintage)

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick is published by Daunt Books (204pp, £9.99). The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (192pp, $23)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war