On June 14th Vivian Gornick turned eighty-five. Though she’s 23 years over the average retirement age, she appears to be as busy as anyone 23 years under, having had two works reissued this year alone. Gornick is a talented critic, essayist, and journalist, but she is most renowned for her memoir Fierce Attachments, which was named the best memoir of the past fifty years by The New York Times.
Her work explores duty; that of wife, of citizen, of writer, and of herself. She has revealed the great complexity of duty: we are obliged by it yet utterly devoted to it. Her writing, however, is not clouded by this duality. It’s made alluring instead. She writes of the deepest sentiments– love, longing, liberation– in the least sentimental way. That’s not to say she’s stoic; her passion is evident. However, she writes with such elegance, with such calculated syntax and syncopation, that even in revealing the deepest and most harrowing of truths she maintains sophisticated introspection.
My first introduction to Gornick’s work was Fierce Attachments, which I borrowed from my college library (and still have not returned– apologies to the Circulation Desk) after reading her profile in The New Yorker this February. Alexandra Schwartz paints a vivid picture of Gornick: a contently divorced, childless renter whose love for literature is unyielding. When Schwartz asked Gornick how she knew she wanted to study literature Gornick looked at her as if she inquired “how she knew that clean water was good to drink.” Though a self-entitled “Odd Woman” for her affinity for independence, her livelihood is an aspiration for many a modern writer, who share Gornick’s persistence to write, write, and rewrite. However, her livelihood is not the one she was bred for.
In Fierce Attachments, Gornick speaks reminiscently of her childhood, set in a windowed apartment coveted by her rather involved neighbors. Her father died when she was ten, so her memoir reflects a heavily maternal upbringing, though not in the connotational sense. Gornick appears to both admire her mother’s sternness and feel stifled by it. She recounts the lessons her mother instilled into her, mainly those of sacrifice, a recurring theme in the memoir. Gornick writes of her mother: “And love, she said, was everything. A woman’s life was determined by love. All evidence to the contrary– and such evidence was abundant indeed– was consistently discounted and ignored, blotted out of her discourse, refused admission by her intellect.”
Meanwhile, Gornick’s own admission of this discourse, and of others denied entry in her home, has made her a career. So perhaps she’s an Odd Woman after all. Happy birthday to the Odd Women then.