FEATURE

A City of One’s Own

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir BY Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 192 pages. $23.

The Men in My Life, Vivian Gornick’s 2008 collection of critical writing, begins with an essay on the nineteenth-century British novelist George Gissing. Gornick particularly admires his novel The Odd Women (1893). In the book’s feminist reformer, Rhoda Nunn, Gornick writes, “I see myself, and others of my generation, plain.” Caught between her ideological opposition to marriage and the uncertainties of taking a lover, Nunn falters, and “she becomes,” as Gornick puts it, “a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice.” This gap is familiar territory for Gornick: In her work as a critic and memoirist over the past several decades, she has studied moments in history when ideas remade our daily reality—and the times when the world, or we, would not yield. “I knew intimately what was tearing these people apart,” Gornick writes of Gissing’s characters. “What’s more, I recognized myself as one of the ‘odd’ women. Every fifty years from the time of the French Revolution, feminists had been described as ‘new’ women, ‘free’ women, ‘liberated’ women—but Gissing had gotten it just right. We were the ‘odd’ women.”

Gissing’s novel echoes through Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City. The book is ostensibly about Gornick’s thirty-year friendship with Leonard, “a witty, intelligent, gay man” (and fellow native of the Bronx). Scenes from their relationship are broken up by vignettes of Gornick’s daily life in the city, her encounters as a solitary walker on the streets of Manhattan. Like Gornick, Leonard loves to explore the city on foot, but that is not their only shared interest: “Our subject is the unlived life. The question for each of us: Would we have manufactured the inequity had one not been there, ready-made—he is gay, I am the Odd Woman—for our grievances to make use of?”

The Odd Woman captures Gornick’s experience as she makes a life for herself outside of marriage and family, and gives shape to her days without the traditional frameworks. A life lived differently may well demand to be told differently, too, as Gornick first suggested in her 1997 collection of criticism, The End of the Novel of Love. Romantic love “can no longer act as an organizing principle” or function as the agent of insight in literature, because it is not the way we come up against ourselves in the world. Love “as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia,” Gornick writes, “not of discovery.” For a writer to capture the sensation of self-discovery, or elicit it in readers, a newer trope is needed.

In The Odd Woman, Gornick attempts to find one, and her emphasis on her relationship with Leonard is part of this project. The book contains bits of their conversation, anecdotes about shared acquaintances, and memories of their time together—all the familiar rhythms of a decades-long friendship. Yet we learn relatively little about Leonard. The memoir evokes their intimacy without feeling particularly intimate: The reader trusts their closeness but is never invited in, never made privy to their most personal confidences.

This reticence on Gornick’s part feels like a purposeful upsetting of our expectations of what friendship (and memoir) ought to look like. When she first became friends with Leonard, she writes, she began “by invoking the laws of love”: “‘We are one,’ I decided shortly after we met. ‘You are me, I am you, it is our obligation to save one another.’” But the friend is not a husband by another name, and friendship is not the structural equivalent of marriage—the crucible in which the whole self is forged; the incendiary event of one’s life. Instead, Gornick writes, she and Leonard are “solitary travelers” who meet up occasionally “to give each other border reports,” and they value one another not in spite of this but because of it. After they leave an intolerable dinner party, Leonard evaluates the evening; his thoughts are a reflection of her own, and, for Gornick, “life feels easier to bear for the clarity his words have imposed.”

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Such recognition is important to Gornick: Early in the book, she devotes several paragraphs to the relationship of the Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Each man, “feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the person of the other.” That feeling, Gornick notes, was once a cornerstone of “any essential definition of friendship,” and yet we no longer “look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another.” Today, what we want is “to feel known, warts and all. . . . It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are.” In withholding a confession, Gornick gives us something far more personal: An attempt to disentangle the first-person “I” from its traditional surroundings and, instead, make a tool designed exactly for the story it means to express. That story is not necessarily the one people want to hear. In a recent interview in the Paris Review, Gornick discussed The Odd Woman’s creation: “My editor and my agent kept urging me to write more about myself and love. But I’ve always known that, for me, love is not really to the point. . . . The real question for [the book] was, How did I become what I’ve become?” In other words, the story Gornick—who has been married twice, divorced both times, and currently lives alone—set out to tell was one that had neither love nor its absence at the center. It is a solitary romance, the story of how you live when you pursue your own life. Or as Gornick puts it in the interview: “I’ve ended up living alone for years on end not because I wanted to live alone but because for very nearly the first time in history someone like me could say yes to this and no to that, instead of just following a route of life development that was set out for you.”

This solitude—its gifts, its pains, its strangeness, and its newness—is, ultimately, what Leonard and Gornick have in common. In one scene, Gornick marvels at how grown-up people used to seem. Now, she says, “nobody does anymore. Look at us. Forty, fifty years ago we would have been our parents. Who are we now?” Taking out a cigarette, Leonard replies:

They passed. . . that’s all. 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. They disappeared inside the clothes. Today, we don’t pass. We’re standing here naked.

Life lived naked, without the uniform of tradition or the shape it gave to one’s existence: This is the story The Odd Woman begins to tell. Gornick is still in the process of finding out where it will lead. Returning to the metaphor of the gap between theory and practice, she writes, “Sometimes I think that for me the gap has become a deep divide at the bottom of which I wander, as though on a pilgrim’s progress, still hoping to climb its side to level ground before I die.”

What is it like to take such a journey, and what does one need to survive it? For Gornick, learning how to be alone has been the major—and ongoing—pursuit of her adult life: “Leonard tells me that if I don’t convert the loneliness into useful solitude,” she writes, “I’ll be my mother’s daughter forever. He is right, of course. One is lonely for the absent idealized other, but in useful solitude I am there, keeping myself imaginative company, breathing life into silence.”

When she becomes lonely for, or tyrannized by, the absent idealized self—the self of the future, that infallible companion, the diligent, accomplished person we are always on the verge of becoming, at least in our imaginations—she steps outside. “Turning sixty,” Gornick writes, “was like being told I had six months to live,” so she vows to take the present seriously, to cease daydreaming about some “fantasized tomorrow.” But how, she wonders, “did one manage to occupy the present when for so many years one hadn’t?” The city gives her the answer, and the answer is the city: an encounter with a stranger, an exchange with a pizza deliveryman—these moments satisfy the need for “ordinary recognition.” For an instant, Gornick and her strangers “had, each of us, simply come into full view, one of the other.” They will disappear from each other’s sight, and even from their own—but when that happens, the street is still there, waiting for their return. What it offers may not endure, but for Gornick—for all the odd women—therein lies its value: “With unexpected sharpness I became alert not to the meaning but to the astonishment of human existence. It was there on the street, I realized, that I was filling my skin, occupying the present.”

Elizabeth Gumport is a writer living in New York.