Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

GOOD FELLOWS

Vivian Gornick reflects on her literary influences

Daphne Merkin


Vivian Gornick has always been an impassioned reader, writer, and inhabitant of her own life, holding firmly to the vastly unmodish notion that novels, memoirs, and essays are not just ironic, parsable constructs but have the power to help us locate, define, and even redeem ourselves. Gornick believes, that is, in the transcendent effect of literature, whether it be a novel by Virginia Woolf, a memoir by Edmund Gosse, or an essay by Seymour Krim—an effect made possible by dint of a book’s “clarity of thought” (an oft-repeated phrase of hers) rather than its sheer emotional power. Indeed, to her way of thinking, a writer cannot access his or her psychological insights without a sustaining lucidity, and there is no escape from the inevitability of personal suffering without the capacity to reflect on it.

With this agenda in mind, Gornick has written an excellent memoir, Fierce Attachments (1987), about the relationship between a strong-willed daughter and her equally strong-willed mother; a short biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton titled, with her characteristic homing in on the existential condition that interests her most, The Solitude of Self (2005); and several collections of essays, including The Situation and the Story (2001) and Approaching Eye Level (1996), which focuses on her personal fortunes and might just as well be called The Solitude of Self. Although she has taught in MFA programs for several decades, Gornick is, thankfully, not one to natter about tropes and privileging the text. She is, in essence, a throwback to a certain kind of plainspoken literary guide with strong opinions and a handful of theories—somewhere between F. R. Leavis and Diana Trilling. A second-wave feminist who proudly refers to herself as a “liberationist”—which seems to signify a vaguely reconstructed Marxism that embraces all approved isms on behalf of the politically and psychologically disempowered—Gornick is so full of instructions on how best to read a given book that she verges on sounding like a life coach. (“Follow that sentence!”) “Free is not through the working mind or the gratified senses,” she observes didactically in her 1997 collection, The End of the Novel of Love, “free is through the steady application of self-understanding.”

The Men in My Life, Gornick’s fourth book of essays, is being published as part of a series commissioned by the Boston Review. The series aims to produce “accessible, short books that take ideas seriously” (other books include Glenn C. Loury on race and incarceration and Hans Blix on nuclear disarmament) and that are “animated by hope, committed to equality, and . . . elude political categories.” (One wonders whether this copy was written by Obama’s campaign manager.) The men in Gornick’s life are not ones she has met on dating sites, but ones—like George Gissing, H. G. Wells, and Randall Jarrell—whose writing has propelled her forward on the road to enriching her own cultural outlook, helping to bring her out of solitariness into an active engagement with other sensibilities.

Of course, the specter of loneliness, self-imposed or otherwise—the “drama of internal anguish,” which might include “raging self-hatred” (V. S. Naipaul), “a defensive brashness” ( Jarrell), or “isolating depression” (Loren Eiseley)—has always been Gornick’s subtext, and this latest book is no different. Her perspective borrows from Edmund Wilson’s “The Wound and the Bow” theory of artistic creativity, based on the Greek figure of Philoctetes, in which great art is produced by way of compensation for or in response to emotional damage or psychological impediments. According to this view, without demons to contend with—without conflicts that are “endlessly dragged about,” or “sentimentalized” wounds to be licked—the writer cannot fully realize an imaginative vision. Gornick explains her approach in a short but pointed preface, in which she reveals, among other things, that what saved her from “doctrinaire simplicity” during her politicized youth in the late ’60s was the emotionally nuanced reality of novels like Anna Karenina. Similarly, what kept her from reductively blaming the patriarchal “system” for her own demons—“the pathological self-doubt that seemed every woman’s bitter birthright”—was her realization that “the emotional imprisonment of mind and spirit” (Gornick is not one to shy away from ringing, slightly operatic descriptions of psychological states, whether her own or others’) is something both sexes are heir to. What brings together the writers she takes up here—which, in addition to those already mentioned, include Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and a trio of “Tenderhearted Men,” Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Richard Ford—is something entirely other than the certainties provided by ideology; it is, rather, the conversion of “neurotic necessity into literary virtue.”

The opening essay, on Gissing, titled “A Neurotic for Our Times,” is Gornick at her discerning best. It is a sustained and empathic meditation on one of the more intriguing and prolific (he wrote twenty-two novels) if largely overlooked of nineteenth-century novelists. Gornick evokes Gissing as a classic instance of the wounded pen: “a writer whose damaged ego forced him into an isolation of his own making from which, paradoxically, came books of immense social intelligence, motivated by the keenest of psychological insights.” As in several other essays, Gornick provides the briefest and most impressionistic of biographies (“born in 1857 in Yorkshire, the son of a druggist . . . genteel poverty . . . a born academic . . . met and fell in love with a young prostitute”) together with a sense of the cultural background (“London’s vast scribbling life in the 1880s”) against which the novelist set himself. Although Gissing rather quickly achieved literary standing—Wells, she points out, “insisted on becoming a friend”—and began making a living from his books, he remained almost wholly isolated, and the portrait he paints of himself through his autobiographical characters is that of a man whose taste lies beyond the reach of his income. He was plagued by sexual obsession (he married the prostitute he had fallen for, only for the union to sour and end a few years later) and an abiding “sense of stigma,” and his essentially masochistic character—what Gornick describes as “the crippling self-divide experienced by those who know themselves to be categorically unwanted”—fueled his identification with the conflictual reality of women (best expressed in The Odd Women) and the vicissitudes of love and marriage. In Gissing’s world, “the men are undone by the need to master, and the women by the power of self-doubt”—and the truest gratification is that of “hard-won loneliness.”

The next two essays, on Wells and Eiseley, are equally compelling (although much of her reflections on Eiseley appeared in The Situation and the Story), in part because Gornick’s identification with and compassion for these lonely, manly men is both generous and delightfully unpolemical. In each case, she focuses on their memoirs—Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography and Eiseley’s unfinished All the Strange Hours—and on the underlying melancholy she perceives in lives so ostensibly full of activity. Gornick suggests that “Wells unknowingly suffered from low-grade depression most of his life” and, in a tender phrase, describes Eiseley as “a sixty seven year old man whose thin skin is still stretched across an open wound.”

The one essay in the book that poses an actual literary argument—“Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and the End of the Jew as Metaphor”—is also the longest (forty-four pages) and should feel like the centerpiece of the book, but it somehow doesn’t quite cohere, notwithstanding the insights it yields into misogyny, the primacy of “voice,” and the ultimate dead end that is male Jewish rage. Gornick sees to the dark heart of Roth’s solipsism (“Less and less did the misogyny in Roth’s work seem a function of character, more and more an indication of the author’s own swamped being”) and even tries to salvage him for inclusion among her group of lost boy-men (“The pity of it all is the loneliness trapped inside Roth’s radiant poison”), although I’m sure Roth himself would have none of it. The Ginsberg essay is one of the thinnest in the collection, some of the writing on Naipaul and Baldwin has appeared in earlier books, and “Tenderhearted Men” has been lifted in its entirety from The End of the Novel of Love, which, for me, raises the issue of Gornick’s own hubris. How many times can you republish an essay without beginning to feel like you’re cannibalizing yourself?

Gornick is a sound critic rather than a high-jumping one, her prose mostly straightforward rather than sparkling; there is little of John Updike’s reach for the unexpected but apposite image or Cynthia Ozick’s dense cerebration. Indeed, one might wish on occasion for greater care with language: She relies too much on banal, leading-the-jury adjectives like remarkable, great, and extraordinary to convey her admiration (“That extraordinary effort is what we call self-creation” is the breathless, TV-announcer conclusion to her otherwise astute essay on Eiseley), and a writer this invested in reading’s life-enhancing potential shouldn’t have to stoop to the generic, null endorsement of “a joy to read” or “more moving than can be said” or “simply an astonishment,” when what we look to a critic for is precisely an explication of the pleasure and poignancy of a text. Then, too, her tangled metaphors can grate, leaving the reader wondering why she hasn’t put in the work to make sure the act of untangling will yield the clarity of perception that is so dear to her: “the pull of a melancholy too compelling for the memoirist to ignore, too congealed for him to unpack.” How can you “unpack” something “congealed”?

These qualifications aside, Gornick remains one of the more intelligent, independent-minded readers writing criticism today, one who insists on making a connection between how we read and how we live. If I am less than bowled over by The Men in My Life, it’s because it seems a bit thrown together—packaged would be the word—and I think of this writer as one who resists the forces of the marketplace wherever she can, who insists on taking her own good time to consider the words on both other peoples’ pages and her own. All the same, the essays in this collection, in their conviction about the relevance of literature in this hypertext age and their attentiveness to the irritant of all-too-human despair that yields the pearl of lasting art, will provide enjoyment and illumination for fans old and new.

Daphne Merkin is the author of a book of essays titled Dreaming of Hitler (Crown, 1997).

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