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The Incurable World of Vivian Gornick

‘The Odd Woman and the City’ proves the memoirist is a peer of Kazin, Howe, and other great chroniclers of Jewish America

Adam Kirsch
May 20, 2015
Photos from Roy Colmer's 1976 series, 'Doors, NYC.' (NYPL)
Photos from Roy Colmer’s 1976 series, ‘Doors, NYC.’ (NYPL)

At the remove of a century, it’s easy for American Jews to look at the experience of our immigrant ancestors through the hazy lens of nostalgia. The Jews who came to America in the decades before and after 1900 may have lived in poor ghettos—on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in Brownsville, or the Bronx—but didn’t that overcrowding at least give them a sense of warmth, intimacy, community? And don’t we lack exactly those virtues, now that so many Jews are exiled to prosperous suburbs and disconnected from Jewish institutions? No wonder we read All of a Kind Family to our children with at least a twinge of envy.

All you have to do to dispel that nostalgia, however, is to turn to the memoirs of the Jewish writers who grew up in the immigrant ghetto and managed to escape it. The classic example is A Walker in the City, in which Alfred Kazin compares the fabled warmth of immigrant Jewish life to a fire that always seemed about to incinerate his Brownsville tenement. Kazin’s long walks through Brooklyn and Manhattan, his romantic rhapsodies about the Brooklyn Bridge, his growing love of American literature and the King James Bible, were all forms of rebellion against a Jewish milieu that constricted the spirit instead of feeding it. Irving Howe, in his memoir A Margin of Hope, sounds a similar note, with an equal emphasis on walking. As teenagers, Howe and his friends would walk and talk endlessly, as if to enact the escape from home they couldn’t yet manage in real life.

Perhaps the last great memoir in that restless, angry Jewish tradition is Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. First published in 1987, 36 years after A Walker in the City, Gornick’s book chronicles a Bronx childhood in the 1930s and ’40s that is remarkably similar to Kazin’s. Gornick too was a gifted, ambitious child in straitened circumstances, with an operatically dysfunctional family, a world bounded by the building and the block, and an urge to walk. Yet to live this childhood as a girl, Gornick shows, meant something very different from living it as a boy. In addition to the burdens of poverty and narrowness, Gornick had to learn what it meant to be a Jewish woman and wife—a lesson imparted clandestinely, by bitter example, especially when it came to sex. Indeed, nobody has written better about the sexual realities of life in a cramped Jewish ghetto since Henry Roth in Call It Sleep.

No one ever really recovers from his or her childhood, perhaps, but Gornick’s later work makes clear that for her the stigmata of those early “attachments” were especially deep. The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick’s brief new collection of meditations and anecdotes, shows her still wrestling in old age with the same basic problems that have always animated her work. The need for, and the impossibility of, romantic connection; the erotic embrace of the city, as a substitute for personal intimacy; the consolations and frustrations of friendship; above all, the moral struggle to make an independent self—these have been, and still are, Gornick’s great subjects.

What gives Gornick’s writing its disturbing charge is the way she never comes to the end of these subjects—never achieves the kind of self-understanding or resignation that might lead to wisdom. Instead of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Gornick writes from right in the thick of the struggle. You can hear the embattled tone from the first page of The Odd Woman and the City, where Gornick is talking with her friend Leonard (a regular presence in her work):

“So,” I begin. “How does your life feel to you these days?”

“Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw,” he says. “I can’t swallow it and I can’t cough it up. Right now I’m trying to just not choke on it.”

This pain is one Gornick knows well: “We share the politics of damage, Leonard and I,” she observes. “Our subject is the unlived life.” From one point of view, the life Gornick describes in these pages was full indeed, including two marriages and several love affairs, as well as the writing of many admired books. But it is the difficulty, the dissatisfaction, the unhappy ending, that always draws Gornick’s attention. The marriages ended in divorce, the love affairs in break-ups; learning to write and think was a desperate struggle. Even friendships, to her unrelenting eye, are full of hidden boundaries and repulsions. After seeing Leonard, she writes, she needs a week to recover from all the “irony and negative judgment … a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest.”

This is the price of being what Gornick calls an “odd woman”—a phrase that combines the personal and the political. She borrows it from the title of a late-19th-century novel by George Gissing, where it refers to the feminists of that era. “Every fifty years from the time of the French Revolution,” Gornick writes, “feminists had been described as ‘new’ women, ‘free’ women, ‘liberated’ women—but Gissing had gotten it just right. We were ‘odd’ women.”

Nobody has written better about the sexual realities of life in a cramped Jewish ghetto

Gissing is one of several writers whom Gornick brings up in her collage of anecdote, criticism, and self-analysis, and what they all have in common is the theme of failure. Gissing himself led a notoriously miserable life in London’s Grub Street; and Rhoda Nunn, the heroine of The Odd Women, is a study in emotional failure, whose feminist principles end up in conflict with her need for love. “As Rhoda moves inexorably toward the moment when she fails herself, she becomes a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again. Sometimes,” Gornick confesses, “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.”

Her embrace of the ambiguous adjective “odd,” rather than more positive terms like “new” or “free,” speaks to Gornick’s deep ambivalence about the role feminism has played in her own life. In an earlier book, Approaching Eye Level, she wrote movingly about “What Feminism Means to Me,” answering that what it meant above all was the search for a meaningful intellectual life. To become the writer and thinker she knew she could be meant emancipating herself from gender expectations. Instead of marrying an artist, as she did in her twenties, she would be the artist herself. “I saw what visionary feminists had seen for two hundred years: that power over one’s own life comes only through the steady command of one’s own thought,” Gornick writes. Yet that “steady command” must be won through a terrible inner struggle, whose price might be emotional contentment: “I love my hardened heart … but the loss of romantic love can still tear at it,” she acknowledges.

In The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick shows how this dynamic worked in practice. She describes a long affair with a man who was sexually infatuated with her, and who once convinced her to experiment with anal sex. When they had tried the act three times, Gornick recalls, she announced that she didn’t like it and wouldn’t do it any more. “What an unnatural woman you are!” the man replied. “You know you want to do it. I know you want to do it. Yet you fight it.” This moment revealed to Gornick her lover’s deep incomprehension and near-contempt for her autonomy; and “for the first—but not the last—time, I consciously felt men to be members of a species separate from myself.” To demand full respect, Gornick fears, may mean losing out on love—a terrible dilemma facing women of her generation, and not just hers.

There is a deep poignancy, then, in The Odd Woman and the City’s many portraits of writers, particularly women writers, who sacrificed everything for their calling only to end up forgotten, miserable, or mad. Gornick writes about Constance Fenimore Woolson, known to posterity mainly as the friend of Henry James, who committed suicide by leaping into Venice’s Grand Canal; about Evelyn Scott, a celebrity in Greenwich Village in the 1920s who was quickly forgotten and became a paranoiac; about Isabel Bolton, who after a lifetime of mediocre writing produced three good novels in the 1940s, which no one now reads.

If work and love are forever intractable, the great consolation in Gornick’s life is the panorama of New York, the street life she observes with witty pleasure. Many of the brief sections in the book are street scenes, in which people act out their roles in the ongoing urban drama. Gornick sees a man on the street yelling “I’ve got four uncurable diseases”; when she informs him that the word is “incurable,” “without missing a beat he replies, ‘Who the fuck asked you?’ ” A “very large cross-dresser” seen on Seventh Avenue is “calling into the air, ‘I have so many enemies!’ ” Gornick mouths “Why?” and he says, “joyously, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Few New Yorkers are so willing to engage with strangers, including the apparently mad. But Gornick relishes these random assertions of self, since self-assertion is such a central part of her own writing. Many people have seen Gypsy and shuddered at the dreadfulness of Mama Rose, but Gornick is brave enough to admit that she understands Mama Rose perfectly: “Rose was a monster? So what. She was my monster. She was up there doing it for me.” In her books, like all the best memoirists, Gornick is doing it for us.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.