Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader”

I am an avid rereader, as readers of this blog know.  It is the only sure way I know to find a great book.  Although I’ve enjoyed rereading since childhood, it was in my forties that I began to prefer rereading classics to reading new books.

Naturally, I admire Vivian Gornick’s new book, Unfinished Business:  Notes of a Chronic Re-reader.  Gornick, an essayist, critic, memoirist, and fiction writer, interweaves autobiography with incisive renderings of her experience of rereading favorite books. As a reporter at The Village Voice in  in the ’70s, when Second Wave feminists professed that  “the personal is political,” she became conscious of the stereotypes of women in literature and the extent to which she had been educated to believe that love was the main goal of women. This revelation changed the way she lived and read.  Later, she also began to realize how disconnected she had become from her Jewish working-class roots. Men thought and wrote about it, but women less so.  

Some of the essays are very personal, others are almost pure criticism.  I find it fascinating that she misremembered details of certain books.  (That sometimes happens to me, too.)  She also believes that she reads now from a broader perspective.  And she does clearly see books as a whole in a way that is difficult on a first reading.

Gornick  fell in love with D. H. Lawrence’s elegant autobiographical third novel, Sons and Lovers, at the age of 20, as so many of us do.  But each reading brought with it a different perspective.  Reading it three times in fifteen years, she identified first with the hero Paul Morel’s first lover, Miriam, a bookish, earnest young woman who is afraid of sex, then with his second lover, Clara, a free-thinking suffragette who has left her husband, and finally with Paul himself,  a charming  painter who struggles to break away from his mother, a middle-class woman unhappily married to a coal miner and too tied-up with Paul’s life. 

In her recent rereading,  Gornick believed her focus on the novel as a whole had been wrong.  “…it wasn’t so much that I found I’d gotten many of the details wrong (which I had), but rather that my memory of the overriding theme–sexual passion as the central experience of a life–was wrong.” 

I was fascinated by Gornick’s chapter on Colette.  She loved Colette in her twenties–didn’t we all!–but now is ambivalent.  Gornick concentrates on my favorite Colette novel,  The Vagabond, a novel based on Colette’s experiences as a writer-turned-music-hall artist; she also writes about t sequel, The Shackle.  The narrator of these two books is Renee Nere, age 33, who does not want to commit to love.  In the first, she escapes it; in the second, she is shackled.

Gornick’s insights are sharp and unflinching.

Most striking, for me—the single greatest change, in fact, in my feeling about these novels—was the sense I now had that everything was taking place in a vacuum. When I had read Colette before, the entire world seemed to collect around what I took to be the narrator’s wisdom. Now that wisdom seemed narrow and confined. Vanity alone gives her whatever insight into an affair she may gain. While she cannot see that she makes instrumental use of her lovers, she can easily see that she herself has no reality for them and, in her thoughts, she is quick to condemn them for an emotional shallowness she cannot spot in herself:

Although I don’t quite agree with this, I have been disappointed in some of Colette’s books on rereading them.   The style is always lyrical, but sometimes the situations are overwrought  These days I prefer the novels she wrote when she was older, like Break of Day.  But perhaps it’s best to keep Colette’s books as a beautiful memory!

Equally interesting are  Gornick’s subtle interpretations of Elizabeth Bowen, Delmore Schwartz’s The World Is a Wedding, Natalia Ginzburg,  J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country,  and Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats.  You can read this book in a day, and it will make you want to  reread like mad.