Katha Pollitt, one of my favorite people, recommended Vivian Gornick's new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City. I enjoyed Pollitt's memoir, Learning to Drive, very much. Pollitt, who I got to exchange a few words with at a book signing, radiates warmth. She is immensely likable.
I did not enjoy Gornick's book. It has a sour tone. This is not a woman I would want to get to know. But it is also compulsive reading. Her gift of language can't be denied. After reading it, I thought, "There is something wrong with her."
I certainly did not feel that way about Pollitt , nor was that my reaction to Florence Howe, whose memoir, A Life in Motion, was very impressive. Howe intimidated me the time I met her, when she and Prof. Nancy Porter stayed at our house in Hawaii. Howe is definitely the Queen Bee type, but I certainly respect her and her great accomplishments, especially as founder of the Feminist Press, and appreciate her forthright writing style. It is interesting that all three of these women are Jewish, all three New Yorkers but all very different from each other.
Gornick is, as she says, odd, and she makes the claim that her oddities come about because she is of her generation of feminists. She is a couple of years older than me, but she is not representative of her generation of feminists any more than I am. Her obsessions don't resemble mine! She believes (or believed) that men had to make her happy. The corollary to that would be that if she is not happy it's the fault of men. That is lunacy and a ridiculous demand on our fellow male humans, who are no likelier to be perfect than we women are.
What I find so striking about Gornick is that she is a disappointed romantic, constantly looking for the man who would complete her life and never finding him. Now that sounds more like my mother's generation, who hoped for salvation and rescue from their drab lives through romance. The original critics of the novel complained that novels put romantic ideas into impressionable young women's heads. Maybe they had a point. She is interesting on her attempts to use heroines of the 19th Century novels she read in college as role models.
Of course Gornick is self-aware; her work would not be worth reading otherwise.
Gornick's first book was titled Fierce Attachments and was the story of her inability to detach herself from her mother, who was deeply depressed, depressed as a way of life, it's tempting to say. This poor woman was histrionic and moaned and mourned her way through life after her husband died, and bitched about everything right down to her own dying day.
Gornick, who grew up on the streets of the Bronx in a vital atmosphere, must have been full of ambition, although she doesn't discuss that aspect of herself much. In fact, she hides a lot about herself. She feels empty at the core, she says, and seems to believe that this is a common affliction. If I were like that I would be hard pressed to know why I should live. Is living an affliction to be borne or a reason for joy? I know which side I'm on!
Feminism has developed, grown and become mainstream, no longer the exclusive province of "special" women, and I don't think Gornick has moved with the times. Sleeping around, for instance, is not the novelty it once was. Nor is having gay male friends. What seems quaint is her insistence that all her relationships were, and are, real, and deep. And yet her best anecdotes are about casual interchanges with people on the street or in shops, such as this one:
This story parallels Woody Allen's dictum, "Man does not live by bread alone. There must also be a beverage," and does Allen one better with all that rich local New York flavoring. It's mean spirited, too. I can't imagine Pollitt writing this sort of thing. Gornick's class and race awareness may strike her as original, but really they are not. They verge on stereotyping, as a matter of fact. At bottom is a deep deep fear of poverty and obscurity, which is where I, as an amateur psychoanalyst, would locate her feelings of emptiness. And note that the doorman is Jose, and she is Miss Gornick. Now that is interesting indeed. She never got around to telling him, "Call me Vivian," evidently.
The little bit of text on the last screen shot shows that she is aware of Thomas Wolfe. I wonder if she actually read his work. She says there that he came to the city to own it. She came to Manhattan from the Bronx to live and survive there. Wolfe did not survive, dying of TB at age 39, and she is still around at age 78.
Well, she is not, to my mind, the most interesting of the second wave feminists but certainly worth some thought. Terry points out that a lot of the difference here is that she is an easterner. True. The east is where most of the colorful people, the "characters" are, and westerners are a blander lot. We are also more democratic, at least on the surface.
(Revised. I made some mistakes that needed to be corrected, because I wrote this late last night and was tired.)