In the legendary critic's rendering, re-reading isn’t just a portal to consolidation but exposes the emotional distortions that accrue through repetitionby Alice Blackhurst / July 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
To say that I spent lockdown mostly re-reading would be an appealing lie. As much as I indulged the fantasy of using quarantine to re-acquaint myself with classic novels, most of them stood mutely by my bed, functioning as makeshift coffee coasters as I panic-scrolled through social media, or devoured other people’s “pandemic journals.” Though the latter came to blur into one, sourdough-flavoured unit, reading them seemed preferable to reaching back to Camus, Flaubert, or Defoe. The present moment offered more than enough stimulation. Escaping into other timeframes held not only the appearance of indulgence but demanded an internal ice-sculpture of discipline I did not possess.
In such a context, the American writer Vivian Gornick’s essay collection Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, published in more innocent times (February) could register as a relic of the old, undistanced world. In taut, agile essays which braid anecdotal yarns around steady, multi-angled excavations of writers like DH Lawrence, Marguerite Duras, and Colette, the book builds a case for re-visiting one’s own personal canon and seeing what was either skipped the first time round or negligently missed. Valorising effort, labour, and the “life-long project to see oneself primarily as a working person,” Gornick positions re-reading not as a regression into nostalgia or narcotic reassurance, but a form of active confrontation with our prior reading, thinking, multiple and estranged selves.
Gornick is best known for shaking up the staid conventions of the memoir genre. In her breakout works of autobiographical criticism Fierce Attachments (1987) and The Odd Woman and the City (2015), she scours her origin stories—particularly the ongoing and ambivalent terrain of her relationship with her mother—with a lack of sentimentalism that is both invigorating and occasionally bruising. Recently, she has enjoyed even more of a revival with the re-print of her 1977 book, The Romance of American Communism, which combines a probing sociological account of communism’s brief flare in America with a rigorously honest look at the author’s upbringing in a communist Jewish household in the Bronx. Though the work is burnished by such interludes, it is never self-aggrandizing. Instead, Gornick uses the example of her family history as a template to intimately interview ex-Party members from a range of backgrounds, humanizing what was typecast as an ‘alien,’ demonic movement in the United States.
An enduring love affair with the political…