Review: Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick

Now 84, Vivian Gornick has written an essay collection she could not have completed when she was younger. Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader, recently published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, is the product of a perspective that comes only with time. In this book, she describes her lifelong habit of reading and re-reading books. She notes the ways both the impact of those books and her interpretations of them have evolved as she has aged.

Part memoir, part feminist literary analysis and wholly engaging, Gornick’s newest collection of essays includes discussions of a number of works, including D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Collette’s The Vagabond, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Delmore Schwartz’s novella The World Is a Wedding, the stories of A.B. Yehoshua, and post-World War I novels by Pat Barker and J.L. Carr. Although some of the material was published previously, the context provided by the other essays in the book is new and adds significantly to our understanding of them.

Gornick begins with her responses to the novels she read in her twenties, books that, like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, reflect what she has been told by her mother and the women she knew growing up: that fulfillment for women is to be found in a life devoted to love and that self-knowledge comes through sensory experiences. Their tales of sexual passion and of women divided between erotic love and independence attract her to Collette’s novels during this period. In her first two readings of Sons and Lovers, she identifies with Clara and Miriam, women who seek to be desired for themselves. After two marriages and divorces and an increased sense of liberation, as she notes in her memoir The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick re-reads Sons and Lovers and identifies instead with William, takes a more active role than the women in the novel by focusing on his own desires. In her latest re-reading, however, she decides the lesson of the book is that love cannot be one’s source of identity. Her own experience of failed romantic love has colored her reading.

That lesson is drawn from late re-readings of other books as well. She concludes that what many of them describe is the impossibility of truly loving and being loved. The characters in Collette’s and Elizabeth Bowen’s novels, as well as in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, prove incapable of following E.M. Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect!” Despite their desire to do so, they cannot form romantic connections and ultimately find themselves alone.

Suffragist and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s last address, “The Solitude of the Self,” which was delivered in 1892, provides a feminist view of this failure of romantic love. Gornick signals its importance for her by quoting long sections of the speech. In it, Stanton argues that not connection but aloneness is the norm, although women especially have been taught the opposite. According to Stanton, the fear of loneliness is actually the foundation for the sexism that accords women only half a life, one lived in service to men. Her conclusion is consonant with Gornick’s own. Having been unable to make romantic connections herself, Gornick has for decades chosen to live alone.

Unfinished Business has its drawbacks. The chapter on Doris Lessing and cats seems out of place here and the chapter on Jewish writers, if not a detour, is parallel to the main road: the futile search for love. Yet these two chapters demonstrate the true nature of the book. It is primarily the story of Gornick’s past told through literary analysis, including the impact of her Jewish heritage on her life and her experience living alone except for the company of cats. Yet it is not about Gornick alone. Unfinished Business traces the development of a whole generation of politically-aware women who, in embracing feminism, rejected the romantic fairy tales of their childhoods and sought in vain for another paradigm that would allow men and women to join as equals. It did not exist at the time. Its creation would be left to succeeding generations of feminists.

Gornick ends Unfinished Business with a chapter that encourages readers to keep re-reading the books that have influenced their lives and to continue learning from them. She writes that she recently found on her shelf an old paperback from the 1970s that was literally coming apart. She carefully pieced it together and re-read it, noting passages she had marked decades earlier and adding new notes in a different color of ink as she saw things she had not noticed before. She says she wants to live long enough to re-read the book again someday and learn something more from it, making marks in yet another color. We will all benefit if she does.

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