Squeezing the Slave Out Drop by Drop: Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business”

Emily LaBarge on the pleasures of reading Vivian Gornick rereading.

Squeezing the Slave Out Drop by Drop: Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business”

Unfinished Business

“TO LIVE CONSCIOUSLY is the real business of our lives.” “Love […] like food or air, is necessary but insufficient: it cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves.” “Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at the time that we are reading.” Themes and phrases repeat in variations, to different ends and evolutions, throughout Vivian Gornick’s expansive oeuvre. Chronic rereaders of the author’s essays, criticism, biographies, and memoirs will recognize in her spare and elegant new book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, a familiar commitment to class consciousness, cultural politics, gender, and close reading — not only of literature, but of daily human relationships, of the fleeting moment, of memory, of personal history, and of the vivid, conflicted inner self.

One of Gornick’s critical contributions since she began writing in the mid-1960s has been to reveal how these things are all bound and braided together, inextricable on the page as in life, and how we might come to know ourselves better through the act of reading. Her introduction to the new book opens with a vital comparison: the likening of rereading a book to lying on an analyst’s couch. Books, like people (and the people who write them), are not static. They live, have lives, help us to live; they contain time and all its intimate possibilities. To understand them is, and also constitutes, a life’s work. And we do not always get things right the first time.

If Gornick’s recent The Odd Woman and the City (2015) — with its dialogue-punctuated urban rambles, essayistic asides, hilarious and heart-rending anecdotes, street scenes, and interleaving of literary references — could be read as a follow-up to her acclaimed memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments (1987), then Unfinished Business is a natural companion to The End of the Novel of Love (1997). In that collection of essays, the author turned her acute attention to a handful of writers and their concepts (conceits!) of love — most specifically, the ways in which “romantic love” (an idea that, like “men” and “women,” had become outdated and unstable in our post-feminist era) could no longer convincingly hold as a central literary structure for experience and self-knowledge. Classic writers like D. H. Lawrence, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Virginia Woolf, and Edna O’Brien are reread with startling revisionist clarity. It is not that the works of these authors no longer compel or touch the reader, but that “their situation no longer signifies” as it once did — and, in the worst cases (Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Andre Dubus get a rough going over), they maintain a painful status quo: “Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness.”

This emphasis on consciousness, illumination, and the hard but necessary work of knowing the self is core to Gornick’s literary enterprise, along with the sense that we have always within us the tools necessary to see our lives afresh. At each turn, we can reread, and so reinterpret, the versions and visions of life (literary, flesh and blood) that are offered to us. Indeed, we must — it is a duty to pay attention, to look harder, to question what is given, to desire more, to demand something different and better — to evolve.

Unfinished Business operates within a similar framework. The introduction features vignettes, memorable from previous books, of Gornick growing up in a Marxist household, reading voraciously “to feel the power of Life with a capital L as it manifested itself (thrillingly) through the protagonist’s engagement with those external forces beyond his or her control.” We see the young author working the feminist beat for the ’70s Village Voice, meeting iconic women’s libbers, finding her voice as a writer of “personal journalism,” and reaching a critical turning point: “The inability to see oneself primarily as a working person: this, I now saw, was the central dilemma of a woman’s existence.” And there is the glorious return of Rhoda Munk, whom readers might remember from Gornick’s long essay “Tribute,” published in Approaching Eye Level (1996), and who also shadows sections of The Odd Woman and the City. Here she is recollected again, at a dinner at Gornick’s house, where this well-known feminist writer is silenced by a colleague for “interrupting” a male speaker holding forth at the table (we’ve all been there). In response, her face hardens and she spits out, “Why you ugly little man, don’t tell me to stop speaking!” (Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym, though I have often wondered if she is named after George Gissing’s Rhoda in his 1893 novel The Odd Women, which is about, as Gornick describes them, “[W]omen who can’t make our peace with the world as it is.”)

In “Tribute,” Gornick recounts this exchange with fear and relish, viewing Rhoda as an embodiment of the refusal to sit and swallow in silence the meager offerings afforded women. As with Gornick’s reassessments in The End of the Novel of Love, in which she expresses shock at the paltry depiction of female characters in literature old and new, Rhoda rejects the expectation that her own story should be in service to a male protagonist. This is why we read, and reread, and reread again — for to reread is to revise, and revision is a kind of revolution. Unfinished Business takes us somewhere else with the same anecdote — further down the line of self-knowledge, through the aftermath of second-wave feminism, to the “unfinished business” that fuels Gornick’s present interest in rereading. Regarding the failure of ’70s feminism to deliver truly revolutionary change and the wholeness of being women had hoped for, Gornick describes herself and her compatriots: “We became then, many of us, a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the discrepancy between what we declared we felt and the miserable complexity of what we actually felt more apparent with each passing day.” Decades later, Gornick looks back on the resultant inner turmoil:

The contradictions in my own character rose up daily to plague me, and patterns of behavior I had paid no attention to suddenly loomed large. I had always thought of myself as one of those ordinarily decent people who placed a high value on what is generally called “good character.” Now I saw that I did nothing of the sort. In conversation I was cutting and confrontational, at family affairs bored and dismissive, in the office self-regarding to a fault. Although I pined endlessly for intimate connection (I thought) I nonetheless sabotaged one relationship after another by concentrating almost exclusively on what I took to be my needs, not at all on those of my friend or lover. The narrowness of experience to which my own self-divisions had consigned me — how appalling that now felt!

As someone who has also often burned with righteous indignation — failed to restrain a sharp tongue, held bluntness as truth, struggled to feel intact — while suffering an abstract, almost moral sense of duty, this passage was succor. Which is not to say that rage is not useful and that discontent does not have its rightful place. To read Gornick’s unabashed insights, with their hallmark clarity and searching self-scrutiny, is balm for the soul in uncertain times: this new book arrives at a good moment.

In Unfinished Business, Gornick extends the thorny place between theory and practice to the wider struggle of the conflicted self — “the perniciousness of the human self-divide: the fear and ignorance it generates, the shame it gives rise to” — that we all experience to some degree, and to our great detriment. She shows how we are kept from ourselves by the social systems and structures of power that order our lives, how our tendencies conspire to undo us, how we must fight against them tooth and nail. She cites Chekhov — a specific quotation that can be found nestled somewhere in almost all of her publications and interviews — “Others made me a slave but I must squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop.”

It is to this end that Gornick pursues her present rereadings of D. H. Lawrence, Colette, Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Delmore Schwartz, A. B. Yehoshua, Natalia Ginzburg, Pat Barker, J. L. Carr, Doris Lessing, and Thomas Hardy. In each essay, through extended analysis that unfolds prismatically, a former reading that enshrined the passions of a different self in a different time is turned on its head: where sensual experience in Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) once represented freedom, it now confines us to emotional blindness; where desire in Duras’s The Lover (1984) once intoxicated, it now endlessly defers our ability to achieve self-knowledge; where Jewishness in Schwartz’s “The World is a Wedding” (1948) and Yehoshua’s short stories once gave rise to powerfully idiosyncratic voices that railed against the dominant Western culture, it now destines us to blindered insularity; where plucky nihilism in Barker’s Regeneration (1991) was once admirable defiance, working the system from the inside, it now leaves our sense of freedom damaged and compromised.

I say “our” and “us” because, reading Gornick rereading, there is the persistent feeling that we — readers, writers, authors, characters — are all in it together, trying to grasp the bigger, ever-shifting picture of why we do what we do and to find the tools to illuminate, reveal, question, mourn, and grow. If this sounds serious with a capital S, it is. “Great literature,” Gornick writes, “I thought then and think now, is a record not of the achievement of wholeness of being but of the ingrained effort made on its behalf.” But for Gornick, rereading, like reading, is also about pleasure, good company, playful internal dialogue, and intimacy. She recalls moments when she has been entirely absorbed, transported by the act of reading:

The companionateness of those books! Of all books. Nothing can match it. It’s the longing for coherence inscribed in the work — that extraordinary attempt at shaping the inchoate through words — it brings peace and excitement, comfort and consolation. But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers.

In her 2008 collection of essays The Men in My Life, Gornick writes about the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, who believed that “[r]eading […] gave us back ourselves in a way that no other kind of non-material nourishment could match.” When you read, an inner voice begins speaking to you in full thoughts, in conversation, until “there are two of you in the room: you and your responding self. Now, you’ve got company, you’re connected. No longer do you feel alienated, not from yourself, not from others.” Reading nourishes the inner life and helps us to hear the other voice within — the intimate, responsive voice. Jarrell also felt that the value of criticism, as well as the challenge of writing it, was equal to that of poetry and fiction. The critic, like the poet or the novelist, is just as alone, Jarrell wrote: “Criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on.” We are often drawn to write about figures with whom we feel a kinship, and in Jarrell’s ideas about criticism I see parallels with Gornick’s commitment to the practice. As she said in a 2008 interview published in the Boston Review:

I feel about writing criticism as I would about writing out of imagination. It has exactly the same responsibilities as any other kind of writing. Criticism is a window through which the writer looks and sees the world. What’s most important is those particular eyes and that particular vision and that particular way of seeing. Which, if you’re lucky, grows more and more coherent as you grow older. It’s a way of looking at things that I’ve found myself applying, not mechanically, not by virtue of agenda. So that there are all kinds of things I don’t feel obliged to read because I don’t feel they will deepen my way of seeing the world.

Hers is a particular kind of big-minded, big-hearted criticism that is about generosity, empathy, and facing oneself in one’s writing and opinions — rather than writing for the sake simply of having an opinion. That doesn’t mean Gornick doesn’t dish out some zingers now and then (here she is, in another interview, on Norman Mailer: “Brio is good, brio is inspiring. But Mailer’s leaves me with the taste of ashes in my mouth, because it’s in service to a sense of life I find pathetic when not odious”), but that her practice of the form reaches further, twines the personal with the critical, makes them part and parcel of the same enterprise.

The essays in Unfinished Business are hybrid forms in which literary analysis, close reading, personal narrative, anecdotal aside, and sudden revelation alternate and combine. Which is to say they are essays par excellence, in the best, most old-fashioned sense of the form, à la Montaigne, De Quincey, Woolf, Orwell, Ginzburg, James Baldwin. One chapter, on Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime novels, moves with sinuous agility from the author’s slowed-down narrative and spell-inducing “involuted syntax” to a consideration (via Adrienne Rich) of Emily Dickinson’s splintered renderings of psychological extremity, then back to Bowen’s characters with their “acclimatization to deadened feeling,” which “allows us to adapt ourselves to the atrophied heart” — and then on to Bowen’s own damaged heart, her cold childhood in Ireland, and her lifelong affair with a charming but callous and self-serving womanizer. Gornick reads the beautiful and brilliant Eddie of Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (1938), destined — by social class and his own unsatisfied striving — for resolute emotional detachment, as a fictional precursor to the seductive, destructive role Bowen’s lover ultimately played in her life.

Gornick’s own life features just such an “Eddie,” a man named Daniel, who is passionate and engaged but who somehow seems not quite able to feel — a rich and vivacious soul who is nonetheless driven to pathological lying and unfaithfulness. When Gornick confronts him about these contradictions, he tells her with studied rue:

That’s just me passing for normal. I’ve studied people for years to see how they act in various situations […] and I’ve taught myself to imitate them. […] 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. Weary to death. You know that word, inanition? It’s got my name on it.

Well, at least he had a good vocabulary. Gornick stays with Daniel years longer, at once compelled and repelled by her fearful recognition that a person might harbor a wound or an emptiness so existentially deep that he can feel nothing — the same awareness she perceives in Bowen’s characters. At the close of the essay, we are left with a brief recollection: “One night a few years ago Daniel suddenly turned up on my doorstep, wanting to know why I had let him hang around for so long. ‘Ever figure out what was in it for you?’ he asked.” Gornick lets the question dangle.

Reading this essay, I thought of Elizabeth Hardwick, who wrote in Sleepless Nights (1979) of “the tendency of lives to obey the laws of gravity and to sink downward, falling as gently and slowly as a kite, or violently breaking, smashing.” And of Gore Vidal, who wrote that “the true confessors have been aware that not only is life mostly failure, but that in one’s failure or pettiness or wrong-ness exists the living drama of the self.” These are both writers who, like Gornick, excel at seeing the big picture — in the classic literary sense: how each life turns along the axis of human drama, searching for that mute and yearning something more. This clarity of vision is what gives Gornick’s work its rare and particular force — the awareness that to write is a moral act: one builds a version of the world and offers it up for consumption, creating possibilities and making choices, down to the level of the sentence, about how this world is made. Writing makes real, and possible, the human desire to live on a symbolic level. And how we put things together matters, a great deal.

Unfinished Business opens with a note stating that the book contains portions of the author’s previous publications, repurposed here to new effect: “I have felt free to ‘plagiarize’ myself, as it were, precisely because my subject here is re-reading, and I have found it useful to ‘re-read’ myself by changing the context within which the thoughts inscribed in these passages first appeared.” In her essay on Duras, a scene of childhood trauma detailed in Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman and the City repeats, much as traumatic memories do, shifting and hinging to the context at hand. Her essay on Ginzburg features passages from The Situation and the Story (2001), Gornick’s influential guide to writing nonfiction, seeing their resonant lessons anew in Ginzburg’s unflinchingly personal prose: “To make vital use of one’s own part in the situation — that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part — is to provide the essay with narrative tension.”

Encountering these familiar passages, among others, embedded in new writing felt uncanny, magical, comforting — a kind of meta-experience of Gornick’s own chronic rereading, with the added layer of me rereading her rereading herself as she rereads the work of writers who have stuck with her. The effect is to telescope reading and writing­, in past, present, and future tenses: we are all patchwork and collage, haunted for better or worse by our experiences and ideas, and how we have tried to reckon with them — in life and in writing. “After all,” Gornick writes in The End of the Novel of Love, “is a writer’s life not all revision, nothing but revision? How else does thought clarify, and work deepen? How else move from insight to wisdom? See all around a thing, then down to the center? Create a world in a book, not just a glimpse through a open window?” Readiness and receptiveness are all: not only to live, but to read and reread, to write and rewrite consciously — that is the real business of our lives.


Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer living in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art.

LARB Contributor

Emily LaBarge is a Canadian writer living in London, where she teaches at the Royal College of Art.


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