Vivian Gornick’s ‘Unfinished Business’ reads deeply into memory

Acclaimed critic Vivian Gornick rereads the books that shaped her life and muses on reencountering the person she was at the time. 

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” by Vivian Gornick, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 161 pp.

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote 40 years ago. “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

Since this is Nabokov, it’s of course a fatuous bit of overreaching – plenty of “active” and “major” readers seldom or never reread – but it underscores the weird and vital pull rereading can have. “We read to recapture the thrill of a book first encountered twenty years earlier, and the thrill has mysteriously vanished,” writes Patricia Meyer Spacks in her terrific 2011 book “On Rereading.” “We remember a wonderful story, and the story has turned into a cliché. The change may attest to our maturity, but it feels like loss.”

That you-can’t-go-home-again melancholy haunts the endeavor of rereading. Will your treasured memories survive? And if there are flaws that now seem glaring, will you think less of your younger self for missing them the first time? It’s the kind of strange high-stakes tension that only inveterate readers will understand.

“Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader,” from acclaimed writer Vivian Gornick, is a slim and surprisingly heartfelt foray into that high-stakes reading territory. In these chapters, she revisits a handful of authors and books that made strong impressions on her at different points in her life, from Colette’s “The Vagabond” to Marguerite Duras’ “The Lover” to the work of the great Elizabeth Bowen.

“Like Montaigne, she is fearless about using herself as the specimen par excellence,” Gornick writes about Natalia Ginzburg, “tracing her own development away from the very faulty sense of human solidarity that she has seen at work in herself, even as she first began thinking seriously about the behavior of others.” And readers will think the same thing about Gornick herself as she delves into these old books and the old selves who read them.

One book leads to another in the organic and unpredictable fashion. Reading about Billy Prior, a character in a World War I hospital in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy, sends her to J.L. Carr’s novel “A Month in the Country,” about another man scarred by war. The “very particular achievement of this jewel of a book was the indelible portrait of a man returned from the war that had most resembled hell with a spirit that is permanently stunted.” She perfectly highlights the ways her appreciation has changed over time. “Passion, passion, passion: hard, mean, wracking: neither sensual nor romantic, only boiling,” she notes about D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.”  “ could I have forgotten this – passion that is more like war than love.”

Her non-bookish asides are likewise uniformly entertaining, such as her assessment of the inimitable Broadway star Ethel Merman. “In her performance there was no nuance, no complexity, no second thoughts,” Gornick writes. “She was like a natural force, crude and overwhelming: fierce, ignorant, a killer.”

But the focus is on books, specifically the books that helped to shape and guide her. “The companionateness of those books! Of all books. Nothing can match it,” she writes. “But above all, it’s the sheer relief from the chaos in the head that reading delivers.” Every passionate reader will be nodding in sympathy with such thoughts, whether they’re fond of her chosen authors or not. I myself have disliked Duras’ little books, detested the inept fiction of Lawrence, and considered Ginzburg wildly overrated, and yet I was enthralled watching Gornick re-encounter these works.

“The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in a 2009 New York Times column. “The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does.” In “Unfinished Business,” Gornick is engrossingly frank about charting that inner process of metamorphosis. And as all readers know, that process is ongoing.

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