For Gornick, who has been teaching writing for 15 years, the important thing in organizing a personal narrative is figuring out ”who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two.” Once you’ve discovered who you are at the time of writing, then the rest of your memoir or essay will fall into place: ”Get the narrator, and you’ve got the piece.”
—from a New York Times review of The Situation and the Story
Fierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 204 pp.
[A street in Florence, Italy.]
Fierce Attachments stands with another classic literary memoir, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, and surpasses by dint of its warm humanity Vladimir Nabokov’s chilly Speak, Memory. I’m embarrassed it has taken me so long to read it, especially since I’ve read Vivian Gornick’s short book of memoir theory, The Situation and the Story, many times. I’ve always found the latter rather slippery—seemingly too simple, it suddenly drops into murky depths—but Fierce Attachments’ brilliant use of the memoirist’s dual persona (me then, me now) brings her theories into focus.
All the same, my current reading of Fierce Attachments, originally published in 1987, is shadowed by disaster. I have two classes of freshmen reading it and they hate it. That may be a slight overstatement, but they aren’t enjoying it—it’s not a book for kids. They want events, plot. In a word, story.
What was I thinking? There’s a story here, but one it takes an adult to see: a woman trying to understand her mother, herself, and how her past forged her. Gornick was affected especially by her mother—mercurial, unlettered, brilliant—and by Nettie, an overripe, artistic, emotionally damaged widow next door.
Freshmen can’t relate. How can they, when most don’t yet own their material? Their parents, for instance aren’t yet people, let alone people who can be forged into characters. For juniors and seniors, if they’re writing majors or at least avid readers, Fierce Attachments would be a good risk. And all MFA students, especially those in creative nonfiction, should read it. Not to mention all self-taught adult memoirists. For it’s a wonder of a book, as good as they say.
[Then: Vivian Gornick, who is now about 78.]
Gornick’s truths blaze off the page, her portraits of others transfix, her sentences and rhythms delight. What she remembers, she says, of growing up in a Jewish tenement in the Bronx, is a building full of women:
Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I—the girl growing up in their midst, being made in their image—I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face.
What a metaphor! It’s stunning, and resonates throughout the book. Her memoir is her struggle for consciousness.
The structure of Fierce Attachment bears special mention. There are two parallel or braided stories: Gornick in the past, growing up, and her in some recent present, walking with her “urban peasant” mother through New York. The pair walk and talk, mostly about the women they knew when Gornick was growing up.
In an interview with Sari Botton for the Rumpus, Gornick explains:
So I wrote about forty pages and I suddenly got horribly stuck and I knew I did not have a structure that would help me tell the story that I wanted to tell, and I did not even really know what the story was at this point. But I knew I had unfinished business with my mother and that telling this all in the past, as if I was telling a straight narrative since I was eight years old, would not work. For six months, I sat at my desk in misery, and then one day my mother called and told me one of these walking stories that I later repeated in the book. . . . And then, for fun, just to relieve myself of the writing block, I sat down and wrote this vignette out. And suddenly I realized that I had gold, that I could put my mother and myself in the present, walking the streets of New York, and alternate with the past, and that would help me create two sets of women who were slowly going to account for themselves, to each other. And in the walks, I was going to give my mother everything. In the walks, she’d be smart, funny, wise, warm, tart, all the things that she could be, and in the past, she would be neurotic and self-pitying.
Rumpus: So she had an arc.
She had an arc and that helped me make an arc. When I went back and re-wrote everything this way, slowly I began to see the story was not in how momma and Nettie made me a woman, but the story was that I had become my mother and therefore I could not leave my mother. That was the thing I really came to understand – what we all come to understand ultimately. It is all based on fear and misery and the inability to separate. And that I had mimicked so much of her. So much of her was inside me that I could not leave. Once I understood that, I knew that I was writing to dramatize that insight. After that it didn’t matter what the hell I wrote. There was nothing I was afraid of, because I knew I was not writing to trash her. I was not writing to aggrandize myself. I was writing to serve that insight.
It inspires—the way Gornick depicts her worlds and the way she fights to understand them and herself. And such a truthful writer. A couple times, I’ve closed memoirs in disgust, convinced the authors were self-serving liars. Gornick is a truth-teller, almost ruthless, yet something—her own depicted flaws, maybe—renders her compassionate.
She achieves the high aesthetic standard she mentions in The Situation and the Story:
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.