What a long road this novel and I have traveled together – and with so many stops along the way.
I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I picked up one of her books at my bookshop Passa Porta. The title “Unfinished Business. Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” appealed to me. Curious enough to put it on the stack on my way to the exit and to give it a try. Gornick, now 85, is an acclaimed reporter who worked for The Village Voice. I like how she defined personal journalism in the introduction to the book. That’s where I got hooked :
I sat up half the night describing the entire event from the perspective of my one great insight; and discovering, as I wrote what was to become my natural style. Using myself as a participating narrator, it was my instinct to set the story up as if writing a fiction (“The other night at the Vanguard …”) in order to put y readers behind my eyes, have them experience the evening as I had experienced it, feel it viscerally as I had felt it (“I’ve paid my dues, LeRoi. You know I’ve paid my dues!”), then come away moved and instructed by the poignancy not of Art and Politics but Life and Politics. Although I did not then know it, it was personal journalism that I had begun to practice.
Personal journalism, that it was drew me to that other critic, journalist, essayist and memoirist Joan Didion whom I discovered only two years ago.
In her latest book, Gornick is rereading some of the books she devoured as a young woman, later as an adult or when she came to the age of wisdom. It is as much revisiting herself and her worldview, as it is to re-read a book. Books remain static, people and the world change.
I sometimes think I was born reading. I can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a book in my hands, my head lost in the world around me.
I haven’t read any of the books she was re-reading : D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Elizabeth Bowen, Pat Barkers, … Some of the names I hadn’t even heard of. I’m from another generation and my classics are from the ’80s or ’90’s but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book. I have just ordered some other books by Gornick because I like looking to the world through her eyes.
My husband and I are a cat person. Our closest friends are, my mom and Danny are, Jan and Vif are, the neighbours are, … and I was touched in one of the last chapters of the book when she described re-reading Doris Lessing’s “Particularly Cats”. As a bonus, a long quote from the Gornick’s experience with cats. It was summer, she felt lonely, wanted a presence in the house and she took two cats :
Suddenly, they were there : in the apartment. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I stared at the cats, and they stared back. What did I do now ? I hadn’t a clue either. If I made a move toward the kitten, both shrank; a second move and they scurried. Then one of them hid for three days behind the couch, during which time the other one meowed piteously, all the while keeping steady watch at the exact place where Cat One had disappeared. After that there were days when they both hid themselves so thoroughly I ran around the house like a lunatic, flinging open closets and drawers, pulling furniture away from the walls, calling out desperately. I was sure they would both die of asphyxiation and I’d be brought up on charges of animal abuse.
“Unfinished Business. Notes of a chronic re-reader”, Vivian Gornick, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2020.