Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

From one child’s memoir of a parent to another. This one is from Daunt Books, which in five years has established itself as one of the most reliable and interesting publishers in the UK, particularly for its reissues. “The P&L” for the publishing business, says James Daunt frankly, “is shocking”, but perhaps that’s the secret of its success: supported by the Daunt bookshops, the books don’t need to be commercial hits, so the editors can follow their tastes. Here we have the first UK edition of a book published in the US in 1987.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

Fierce Attachments is a bright blaze of a book. Like Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves, it’s ultimately as much about the author as the parent, but Gornick’s style is blunter, jazzier. In its zippy to-and-fros between mother and daughter, it meets expectations for a certain kind of American writing. Take this exchange where Gornick’s mother is talking about her friend Bella, whose son never invites her to his home:

‘Ma, how that son managed to survive having Bella for a mother, much less made it through medical school, is something for Ripley, and you know it.’

‘She’s his mother.’

‘Oh, God.’

‘Don’t “oh, God” me. That’s right. She’s his mother. Plain and simple. She went without so that he could have.’

‘Have what? Her madness? Her anxiety?’

‘Have life. Plain and simple. She gave him his life.’

‘That was all a long time ago, Ma. He can’t remember that far back.’

‘It’s uncivilised he shouldn’t remember!’

‘Be that as it may. It cannot make him want to ask her to sit down with his friends on a lovely Saturday afternoon in early spring.’

At the time of writing the book, Gornick is 47 and her mother 80. Their relationship, she says, is “not good. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding.” Too bad for her: but it does present the reader with plenty of zing. Indeed, the book and the writing is so lively and entertaining that it’s easy to overlook its sadness. When looking back to her childhood, Gornick recalls her mother as director of her own space – the home, a tenement flat in the Bronx. “Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. […] This skill of hers warmed and excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley.” But her mother doesn’t value her own skills.

She felt contempt for her environment. ‘Women, yech!’ she’d say. ‘Clotheslines and gossip,’ she’d say. She knew there was another world – the world – and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

Her problem is that she considers herself “developed” – “a person of higher thought and feeling” – and no good ever came of that. But she certainly lives at a higher level of intensity than others in Gornick’s life, particularly when she is widowed. Then, Gornick writes, not unreasonably “it was Mama who occupied the dramatic centre of the event while the rest of us shuffled about in the background.” Otherwise memorable incidents at her father’s funeral “pall in memory beside the brilliant relentlessness of Mama’s derangement.” Here is writing that matches its subject for life and scale. Gornick’s mother even finds that “in refusing to recover from my father’s death she had discovered that her life was endowed with a seriousness her years in the kitchen had denied her.”

It’s not all about Gornick’s mother – the title is in the plural – and we also get plenty of detail on friends of the family (particularly Nettie: “she’s slept with my father, I thought, and an immense excitement swept my body”) and Gornick’s various lovers. But it all returns to Mama in the end. When Gornick, in her youth, attends City College, she feels herself to be entering that world her mother wanted to: “most of us at City College … had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents, the life of the house and that of the street.” Gornick, not comprehending the fierce attachment that parents have to their children, doesn’t understand why her mother can’t approve vicariously. “I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing.” It’s tragedy in a minor key.

The main problem with Fierce Attachments is that it’s so readable – devourable – that it probably needs a more considered second run to take it fully in. And the other difference between this book and Kid Gloves is that Gornick’s mother was still alive when it was published. This could mean that Gornick needed to take more care in how her mother was presented than Adam Mars-Jones did of his father – but on the other hand, the parent who can’t answer back may deserve greater protection. In an interview about Fierce Attachments in 2010, Gornick spoke of a writer friend who said, “I write as though everyone is dead.” As for Gornick’s mother, the subject of this blast of a memoir, in the same interview we hear about what happened after publication – and it reads, inevitably, like something from the book itself. But guess what: “at the end, after a year, she got into the celebrity of the book,” Gornick reports, “and she was walking around New York signing it.”

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