Ways of Seeing

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader BY Vivian Gornick. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 176 pages. $25.

The cover of Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader

As an occupation perceived to be perpetually on the brink of obsolescence, reading has to have one of the most esteemed reputations of any human activity. We are encouraged to think of it as a virtue in itself: Entire cities are urged to simultaneously read the same book; the demise of a single bookstore inspires heartfelt tributes from those inclined to conflate poorly conceived small-business models with intellectual nobility; it is said to bind communities at the same time as it is said to free the mind. Reading has been pondered by writers from Francis Bacon to Maurice Blanchot; the act characterized as both exalting and numbing, the relationship between reading and reader as both general and singular.

Somewhere amid all of this lurk individual books and the readers who discriminate between them. Thrust upon us from our earliest years in elementary school, reading is compulsory for all, but compulsive only for the strange few who discover in it not an agent that binds them to the world outside, but one that severs them from it, or alters it, or illuminates it, or inspires them to imagine the new world to which they might belong. Self-conscious self-improvement only enters the equation later, maybe. Early in her new book about her reading life, Unfinished Business, Vivian Gornick describes this sneaking process: As a young girl living in the Bronx, she is brought by her mother to the local branch of the public library, where, as Gornick describes it, “My mother approached the desk, pointed at my head, and said to [the librarian], ‘She likes to read.’” That finger, pointing at little Vivian’s head, as if at a problem that needs to be solved, a mess that needs cleaning! This is a much better characterization of the popular attitude toward reading: vaguely reluctant encouragement of something rumored to be healthful. Gornick tells of reading her way through the library by the time she finished high school, “from Grimm’s fairy tales to Little Women to Of Time and the River. Then,” she adds wryly, “I entered college where I discovered that all these years I’d been reading literature.”

She has turned out to be one of the compulsive ones, and perhaps inevitably rewards her working-class mother’s somewhat equivocal solicitousness with disappointment: In her memoir Fierce Attachments, Gornick recalls how what she discovered at college “provoked and nourished an unshared life inside the head that became a piece of treason.” She means treason against the Bronx and what it offered, and above all against her mother, who, upon discovering that her daughter had graduated with a degree in English literature, “acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.”

Is treason too strong a word to describe the act of reading? Certainly the systematized reading Gornick pursued within a college literature program during the mid-’50s must have instilled in her a sense of all the subversive uses to which literature may be put, but for the purposes of Unfinished Business, we need only remember that what may be called treason often is just a different way of looking at things, and Unfinished Business is all about different ways of looking, a chronicle of the protean perceptions and interpretations drawn from among the books that have, for one reason or another, stayed with Gornick through the passage of decades.

Unfinished Business does not present as a work of literary criticism per se. While it is concerned with interpretation and meaning, its fundamental focus is on that most peculiar of phenomena, the way that texts appear to change as we reread them throughout our lives. The texts, of course, do no such thing; we’re the ones doing the changing, and this relatively banal truth is Gornick’s entry point, using select works to illustrate the effects of lived life as measured against the yardstick of that relatively stable artifact, the book. In this context, the books and authors Gornick treats are largely irrelevant: Gornick has selected them for the glimpse each provides of the reexaminations of herself and her mind that her rereadings have prompted, or that have prompted the rereadings. I note this because I need to confess my own unfamiliarity with many of the books she writes about; my own experience of Unfinished Business didn’t suffer on account of my ignorance. Rather—and I suspect this is at least partly Gornick’s intention—it drove me toward some of these books, which include works by D. H. Lawrence, Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Delmore Schwartz, Natalia Ginzburg, Thomas Hardy, and others.

Gornick writes, “I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L,” and this naturalistic or realistic orientation toward fiction pretty reliably informs her response to the works under scrutiny. Gornick frequently praises books for presenting a “full range of characters to flesh out the consequences of life,” books in which there is “so much flesh-and-blood reality” that the characters are “brought to vibrant life.” Again, whether or not one agrees that this is fiction’s sine qua non is irrelevant; the book’s aim is critical mainly in its attempt to demonstrate the ways that meaning is generated by response, and Gornick certainly is convincing when she takes the perceived textual qualities of realness and life and brings them to bear on her own life, particularly in those cases where what had appeared to be real and living to the twenty-year-old Gornick is not at all what seems to the thirty- or sixty- or eighty-year-old Gornick to possess those qualities. “I once found the stasis in The World Is a Wedding compelling; today I do not,” she says of Delmore Schwartz’s novella. “A situation that years ago had felt not only true but important, now seems to approach caricature.” Such is the literary assertion slyly contained within Unfinished Business: Even amid an argument on behalf of mimetic realism, Gornick’s varied reading (and rereading) experiences are proof that the “Life” that may distinguish itself through the use of a capital letter is not life, but literature, an elaborate artifice whose varied meanings—now you see them, now you don’t—arise from the purely subjective position of the reader.

My own response to Gornick’s insights varied. Gornick’s resolute desire to frame her view of literature in terms of its emotional component seems to me to falter a little when it encounters more formidable roadblocks thrown up by style, such as when she is writing on Duras’s The Lover, a book that forces the reader to cope with its elliptical approach to narrative and narrative time, its adamantine sentences designed to thwart the elaboration of emotional content in the prose. In the careful elisions Gornick makes in her quotations from The Lover, in her description of it—well, one can clearly see the impression the book made and has continued to make on her. One also can see what Gornick did not take from the book. “The narrating voice in The Lover,” she writes, “actually replicates the narcotic lull of desire itself . . . at the same time that somewhere inside that voice can also be heard the sorrowing sound of one who is using desire to avoid rather than to illuminate. But now, thirty years after the book’s publication, it was to this sound—the sound of avoidance—that I found myself resonating.”

If I happen to feel that Gornick’s response to Duras is a little tortured—that Duras does not yield easily to the sort of inquiry to which Gornick seeks to subject her—there lies the heart of Unfinished Business: Gornick and I both find so much of interest in The Lover, and yet her interests and my own seem scarcely to intersect. Certainly the prose of The Lover is not nearly as extravagantly overheated as that of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers or the early novels of Colette, both of which Gornick discusses in other chapters. But I do not view this as avoidance, or maybe it’s that what Gornick sees as a psychological symptom I see as a narrative strategy: I am struck by Duras’s oblique approach to the encounter that occasions the book; by her building on ambiguous statements, qualifying them, changing them, undoing them; by The Lover’s abrupt, brief shifts from first-person narration to third-, its apparent oscillation between novel and memoir; by the sense that its narrative attempts a swirling and fluid past from a present too distant to be able to fully bridge the gap. Where I am interested in Duras’s construction of a suggestive whole from her shrewd silences and telling juxtapositions, Gornick is drawn to what she sees as Duras’s tendency to “veer away” from the reality of her wounded family life as a child, likening it to certain events from her own childhood living in the formidable presence of a widowed mother.

Gornick seems to anticipate this criticism. Writing about how her program of deliberate rereading stemmed from the confusion she experienced as a “convert” to feminism in 1970 and her effort to “attain some semblance of an integrated self,” she says, “whatever the style, whatever the period, the central drama in literary work was nearly always dependent on the perniciousness of the human self-divide.” This squeezes Unfinished Business—to say nothing of literature—into something of a tight corset, but it’s a corset of Gornick’s design, and her book needs to be read and respected in the spirit in which it’s tendered. These are Gornick’s reading experiences; she represents them as nothing more or less, and our interest in Unfinished Business lies less in her hypotheses and conclusions than it does in her process of evaluating and reevaluating books, and consequently in the sort of woman Gornick believes herself to be and to have been through the successive stages of her life.

And what women in general are and have been. When Gornick writes about reading Colette as a young woman, she introduces the subject with a remarkable paragraph that resorts throughout to the first-person plural: “We read her to learn better who we were . . . our condition . . . our particular battle with Life . . . it seemed to us . . . we could see ourselves . . . ” and so on. In a sense this passage provides Unfinished Business with its brief: Gornick’s youthful reading of Colette’s early novels is charged by her misapprehension of them, a misapprehension so common as to be epidemic, and summed up in this observation: “What carried the day was the significance, in Colette’s hands, of erotic obsession—which of course we were all calling love.” That “we” again: For a young woman growing up in America—in the Bronx!—in the 1950s, “love” would have been the standard sublimating tag under which erotic obsession was filed. It was in fact my mother’s tag, growing up just a few blocks from Gornick, probably reading a lot of the same books, and, confusing love with “erotic obsession” and the earnest desire to get out from under her own formidable mother, marrying her first husband at twenty. My mother definitely would have counted herself among the “we” invoked by Gornick, and I suspect she would have agreed with the conclusion Gornick arrives at following a more recent reading: that Colette’s “are the thoughts of a writer who knows no more than her characters know.”

Of Elizabeth Bowen, Gornick writes, “The acclimatization to deadened feeling—in war or in peace—is her great subject. For her this is the enemy of life, the criminal charge she brings against the human condition: that which allows us to adapt ourselves to the atrophied heart.” “Deadened to Feeling” b/w “Unstrung by Erotic Desire”: By the time we arrive at this passage, we have a pretty good idea of what it is that Gornick responds to. The unfinished business of the title is that of every perseverant reader: to figure out why or whether the response remains consistent as time transforms us.

Gornick’s chapter on Bowen is the emotional climax of Unfinished Business: She traces Bowen’s “acclimatization to deadened feeling” to Bowen’s cool marriage and her long affair with an emotionally listless lover. She introduces selections that alternate between quotations from Bowen’s passionate letters (“Actually,” she deadpans, “the same passionate letter”) to her lover and his own despairing diary entries. At the same time, Gornick has been telling the story of her own involvement with Daniel, a textbook sociopath with whom she had a decades-long intimate relationship. Here literature, analysis, and life coalesce: “No limits to the loneliness she could feel, even when she was feeling quite resigned” (Bowen). “Knowing him had brought into consciousness some primitive set of hungers that I could neither identify nor hope to satisfy on my own” (Gornick). “In the end they all leave me, as you will leave me, and y’know, when you do I won’t even feel lonely. I’ll just feel weary” (Daniel). “I suppose someday this Death of the Heart, this paralysis of the mind, this dreary vacuum will end” (Bowen’s lover).

An unsettling synthesis takes place as Gornick conflates Bowen’s novels with Bowen’s life, Bowen’s life with her own life, her own life with Bowen’s novels. At this point she is “reading” all three. Attempting to see self-portraiture in the books we find meaningful can be as disturbing as it is revealing, and the truth is that by reading so much into such books we may be using them in a manner inconsistent with their labeling. Yet this passage of Unfinished Business is exhilaratingly destabilizing. At the end of the chapter, Gornick recalls a final encounter with Daniel. He asks, “Ever figure out what was in it for you?” She doesn’t tell us her answer.

Throughout Unfinished Business we spend a lot of time watching Gornick read. We see her drawn to certain books on her shelves as if by a magnet. We see her sitting down with a book in broad daylight and looking up from it into a room darkened by dusk. We see her pick a book up to find that it, like her, has aged in the interim between readings, its spine cracking and its pages exfoliating upon the floor. In each case, the new reading leads to a different destination; in each case, Gornick is guided by a yearning that has remained as constant through the years as a star.

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of the novels Trance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fugitives (Simon & Schuster, 2016). He has recently finished a memoir.