It’s a slim volume, Unfinished Business, but the depth and breadth of the nine essays within belie appearances: this small book is certainly not insubstantial in its close (re-)examination of literary works. In the hands of Vivian Gornick, an American writer probably best known for her memoir and criticism, the task of exploring re-reading is taken very seriously, with prose that’s considered and dense, if sometimes overly stylised.
These “notes of a chronic re-reader” traverse various books that shaped the author in her young adulthood. Now, “in the light of insight only years of living could have supplied”, she returns to them in “advanced maturity”. For Gornick, novels are not mere transportive vessels but psychological tools; there’s a distinct bibliotherapeutic element to her reading.
She’s not so much interested in misremembered details about characters or plot lines as she is in parsing a different perspective that comes from age and a changed cultural landscape. She discovers her romantic impulse has been chastened with time: for instance, she once believed D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was all about “sexual passion as the central experience of a life”, but now regards it to be more about the illusion of sexual love as liberation.
The act of re-reading inspires Gornick to have a conversation with her earlier self and to interrogate why she felt a certain way about a book at a particular crossroad. She candidly inserts her own relationship histories into Unfinished Business as explicatory threads that precipitated changes in thought and mood in her reading. Occasionally she has a “bad taste of revised feelings” and becomes quite cross, wanting to challenge her favourite authors. To that end she frets about Colette’s “narrow and confined” world, and wonders: “Why … have you not made larger sense of things?”
Elsewhere, she considers memory in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, revisits World War I novels by J. L. Carr and Pat Barker, ponders Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua and even picks up Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats when the erratic behaviour of her own felines flummoxes her. There’s a sweet realisation here that sometimes you have to “grow into the reader for whom the book was written”.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business". Subscribe here.