Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader

Image of Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader
Release Date: 
February 3, 2020
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader is pure Vivian Gornick—not always easy reading, but sufficiently gripping to make us carry on, page after page, with her as our teacher and literary mentor.”

In this collection of ten essays about pioneering, classic writers, literary cognoscente will appreciate Vivian Gornick’s brilliance as a literary critic and her erudite, mature analysis. Others may find that analysis challenging if not inaccessible, especially if they are not familiar with the writers about whom Gornick writes. Nonetheless, for readers of good and important literature, this short book can be savored.

Reading is Gornick’s life blood and as she re-reads authors like D. H. Lawrence, Collette, Marguerite Duras, and Elizabeth Bowen among others, who write about emotional disconnection, existential loneliness and longing, and ferocious, often sexual engagement, her insights reflect her own maturation as a writer, and a human being. “I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L,’ she once wrote. That is abundantly clear in this collection.

Those readers familiar with Gornick’s small masterpiece The Situation and the Story: The Art of Writing Personal Essays, will be quick to realize that she is drawing upon that book’s premise, that it is important for the narrator to be present in an essay so that she is in relationship with her reader in order for the reader to understand and care about what she is saying and why.  In her introduction, she says, “When I write I still hope to put my readers behind my eyes, experience the subject as I have experienced it, feel it viscerally as I have felt it.”

This collection of essays cuts across literary criticism, memoir, and biography as Gornick intersperses personal experience with literary insight, connecting those two elements in extraordinary ways. One sees clearly how growing older and more sophisticated in her thinking has made her a more astute observer of literature and people. We learn not just from a gifted critic, but from the interpretation of a person who lives life with a capital L.

In an example of the juxtaposition of the personal and the literary Gornick writes of D. H. Lawrence’s “making the character suffer two and even three reversals of judgement in the space of a single paragraph [in] Sons and Lovers. It not only signifies the routine instability of one’s actual moods, it nails the torment at the heart of any decision rooted in mixed emotions,” adding, “the third time I read the book it hit me hard. I was now old enough to have experienced many times over the alarming bewilderment of my own erratic behavior.”

Of re-reading Colette’s Cheri, she writes, “Her books persuaded her readers that she was naming something fundamental and immutable in the human makeup that had not been named before. . . . Readers like me came to feel that she had not properly identified the malaise central to her work. [But] upon re-reading the Cheri books I realized that the anomie in Cheri himself is at the heart of Colette’s concerns. Anomie is behind the intensity of Love with a capital L.”

Writing on the impact Elizabeth Bowen has had on her as a mature reader, Gornick shares an insight one comes to expect in these essays. “It came to me,” she writes, “that the word ‘dread’ seems to apply most often when the story in question turns on a tale of self-estrangement; when it turns on a tale of cultural estrangement the word that leaps to mind is ‘angst.’ Angst, of course, eats away at the soul every bit as much as does dread, but it lends itself to different literary concerns. With angst, the tropes of modernism take a back seat, as those in its grip, so far from being preoccupied with existential nothingness are intent on making eloquent the despair of exclusion.”

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader is pure Vivian Gornick—not always easy reading, but sufficiently gripping to make us carry on, page after page, with her as our teacher and literary mentor.