Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, I hoped, when I picked it up, would be a “fierce” rallying cry for the feral spinster. But Gornick disappointed me: there she is, growing up in a Jewish-American working-class Bronx, one generation ahead of me, writing about the “making of” a feral spinster and certainly no celebration of it. Primarily, Gornick’s memoir recounts the antagonistically loving relationship she had with her mother and another woman in their shared building, Nettie, who served as her mother’s alternative “voice”, to Gornick reaching her true calling, the life of the solitary. It is neither celebration, nor fulfillment, nor acceptance, but there are glimmers of what will come to mean most to her. I read Fierce Attachments‘s first two-thirds desultorily, wanting so much to like, but hating every moment of it. At a mere 200 or so pages, I persisted and ended up, in the final third, devouring it in one sitting and loving every page. My notes and mark-ups and solitary-reading-couch chuckles resonated through my solitary apartment.
Gornick is a year away from being my mother’s age and, as such, you’d think there was merely a weak connection for me and her childhood in a working-class Bronx, and yet. I grew up in Montreal’s Mile End, which, in the 1960s and ’70s, with the burbling of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the background, was vacated Richler territory, or as Gornick herself describes her childhood neighbourhood, “invaded ethnic territories.” Except for pockets of Hasidim in adjoining Outremont, Greek, and then Portuguese, immigrants moved into Montreal’s unique tenement manifestation, formerly cold-water triplex flats, with wintery-lethal, long, winding external stairs. Where Duddy walked, I walked and, like Gornick, grew up in a loud, chaotic world unto itself, (vibrant with Gornick’s observation of a “shared street life”) in the wake of the left and right-wing ideologies of the Greek Civil War, to echo Gornick again, “an immigrant life, a working-class life.” Like Gornick’s, my family worked in the garment industry and, like Gornick, we too still are “urban peasants,” walking the streets of the city, like Aeneas, carrying the weight of our peasant origins, all too close, all too accessible. One of my favourite lines from the first half of Gornick’s memoir is her exclamation to her mother pushing her to marry, to seek a life of love and marriage; when her mother’s peasant mores and conventions creep into their conversations and colour their differences, Gornick exclaims, “But Ma, we’re communists!” That one humourous note kept me reading through the first half.
The first half of Gornick’s memoir describes her childhood, with her “gentle, handsome” father, whose early death sent her mother into life-long, celibate mourning, and the neighbour “shiksa” Nettie, whose widowhood resulted in single-minded promiscuity. As Gornick has said herself, she had to navigate what it means to be a woman somewhere between her two guides. They were no Virgil to her Dante, more like grotesque, twisted, hysterical female monsters to her obdurate, confused self. The memoir never made it into easeful reading until Gornick figured out their triad’s fundamental impasse with this observation, “Nettie wanted to seduce, Mama wanted to suffer, I wanted to read. None of us knew how to discipline herself to the successful pursuit of an ideal, normal woman’s life. And indeed, none of us ever achieved it” (112). This, I could get behind, the desire to read above all else, and the indifference to the “ideal, normal woman’s life”. But the body’s demands, writes Gornick, make the life of the mind foggy, to twist McNamara to the “fog of sex”: the desire for it is mistaken for one for connection and love. Gornick recounts her constant quandary in every relationship: mistaking desire for desirability, or as Gornick wittily states, “sex buys time” … to the “Odd woman,” where Gornick’s self-definition finally rests, the end of a relationship is built into its inception. “Odd woman,” or “feral spinster,” the inevitability of endings is mere delay to “I wanted to read.”
My impression of Gornick’s conflict is that she hadn’t answered her mother’s and Nettie’s ideals with ones of her own. Which is why she spends so much of her first memoir deeply dissatisfied and adrift. Until she found that answer, her singular role was adversarial; her raison d’être, a foil to her mother’s relentless depressive bathos: “I was seventeen, she was fifty. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying belligerent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game” (107). Gornick’s purpose is neither in her mother’s love for love, or Nettie’s sex for love, but in the life of the mind as ” … patient, sustained labour … ” (150). I loved her for finding her purpose with this revelation, which she quotes verbatim from her journal: “Love is a function of the passive feeling life, dependent on an ideal other for satisfactory resolution: the primitive position into which we are born. Work is a function of the active expressive life, and if it comes to nothing, one is still left with the strengthening knowledge of the acting self. Only when access to the imaginative life is denied does one go in for love in a big way” (172). As a romance reader, I hope I don’t fail to recognize the irony. On the other hand, I will say, in my defence, that I’ve managed to turn the reading of it into work and agree, with Gornick that ” … the desk — not the satisfactory resolution of love — was the potential lifesaver” (186). In the end, we contend with Gornick as she contended with potent figures, the “fierce attachments” of mother, husband, lover, friend. She can teach us that much and, I hope, more … because The Odd Woman and the City beckons from the TBR pile.
Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments is published by Daunt Books. All the quotations used in this blog post are taken from this edition. Fierce Attachments was originally published in 1987; the Daunt Books edition, in 2015. I purchased it with my very own hard-earned spinster’s living.