Vivian Gornick’s Elegy for the Novel?

Karen Swallow Prior

Since their emergence in the eighteenth century, novels have shaped the modern age by cultivating the interior life of the self. The reading and re-reading of novels and the effects of this on her interiority form the subject of Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. “I began rereading,” Gornick writes, “not only for the transporting pleasure of the story itself but also to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.” (5)

Part literary criticism, part cultural criticism, part memoir, and part psychoanalysis (this latter perhaps the most modern sort of self-making), Unfinished Business represents the niche literary genre Elaine Showalter has termed “shelfies.”1 Considering novelists ranging from the lesser known (such as Delmore Schwarz) to the better known (D. H. Lawrence, for example), and the forgotten (remember Colette?), Gornick examines how the novels that shaped the world she grew up in also formed and re-formed her sense of self, a particularly modern one.

The modern condition is defined most simply as the turn to the subject. In modernity, subjectivity rather than (or at least more than) objectivity determines our sense of reality, truth, and our very being. To be a modern subject is to interpret (or read) for oneself one’s identity and place in the world. Simply, one reads oneself into and onto the world. Language is thus central, literally and metaphorically, to the modern sense of self. Charles Taylor points to this foundational role of language (by which he means the traditional meaning of the term, as well as the “languages” of “other modes of expression,” such as art, gestures, and emotions) in developing the authenticity essential to the modern self. (Note the etymological connection between authentic and author.) Using language, Taylor explains, we in the modern age,

are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us . . . the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.2

No modern artifact grew out of, expressed, and cultivated modern subjectivity—and its accompanying problem of the integrated self—more than the novel. The novel as a literary, social, and psychological phenomenon would not have been possible apart from the technology that created the print culture which arose in the eighteenth century and advanced widespread literacy. But literacy means more than merely being able to read or simply to decode letters and words. James Bridle’s explanation of literacy in a technological age is applicable to the literacy the novel engendered about existential and ontological questions in the modern age:

True literacy . . . consists of much more than simple understanding, and might be understood and practised in multiple ways. It goes beyond a system’s functional use to comprehend its context and consequences. It refuses to see the application of any one system as a cure-all, insisting upon the interrelationships of systems and the inherent limitations of any single solution. It is fluent not only in the language of system, but in its metalanguage—the language it uses to talk about itself and to interact with other systems—and is sensitive to the limitations and the potential uses and abuses of that metalanguage. It is, crucially, capable of both performing and responding to critique.3

This definition of literacy—an understanding of the context and consequences of modernity for the making of the self, along with an insistence upon the interrelationships and inherent limitations of one’s agency within the modern context—suggests what it means to be a modern self. Indeed, the problem of the “integrated self” is a modern one. This modern problem has many roots, but the deepest of these are tightly intertwined: language, literacy, print culture. The dialogical nature of the novel reflects and expresses the way self-identity is formed within the modern condition.

Born to a deeply political family and converted early in her adulthood to political activism herself, Gornick came to see through reading novels that the personal is political and the political is literary. Novels showed her that “ideology alone was not about to deliver us from our own damaged selves.” (13) Early in her reading (and re-reading) life, Gornick comes to see the dialogical process of developing an authentic, integrated self:

I had always thought of myself as one of those ordinarily decent people who placed a high value on what is generally called “good character.” Now I saw that I did nothing of the sort. In conversation I was cutting and confrontational, at family affairs bored and dismissive, in the office self-regarding to a fault. Although I pined endlessly for intimate connection (I thought) I nonetheless sabotaged one relationship after another by concentrating almost exclusively on what I took to be my needs, not at all on those of my friend or lover. In the goodness of analytic time it became clear—but this took years to absorb—that insight alone was never going to prove sufficient. The effort required to attain some semblance of an integrated self was going to be the task of a lifetime. (13-14)

It is both a strength and a weakness of the work that Gornick considers largely writers contemporary with her own life and commensurate with her own personal, political, and emotional concerns. Her analysis is narrow but deep. Her intense focus on the transgressive, erotic themes so important to the feminist movement of which she was a part is poignant in the way a once-costly fur in a dusty second-hand shop can seem stale and sad. Yet, not only does Gornick recognize that every revolution expires, but such honest circumspection is the unfinished business at the center of her analysis.

For example, in her re-readings of D. H. Lawrence’s sexually-charged novel Sons and Lovers, a work that enthralled her in her youth, Gornick comes to realize that her “memory of the overriding theme—sexual passion as the central experience of a life—was wrong.” (18)

Lawrence was writing at the beginning of the Freudian century, the time when Western culture was on the verge of validating his own inner torment. His metaphor— the repression of the erotic—was, in fact, to become the wedge that modernism used to pry open the uncharted territory of human consciousness. If Lawrence were alive today, this metaphor would not be available to him because today all have had long experience of the sexual freedom once denied, and have discovered firsthand that the making of a self from the inside out is not to be achieved through the senses alone. (36)

As it turns out, the sexuality permeating the pages of the novels that informed a younger Gornick and her peers—who came of age during the sexual revolution—really is about more than sex, as the later Gornick learns through her re-reading and life experience. The sexual passion on the surface of the story is also, and more importantly, a metaphor. For in modernity, to know oneself is often understood, first, in the biblical sense of “knowing,” that is through one’s sexuality. Sex is a metaphor for the self in the modern novel no less than the pilgrimage was a metaphor for knowing oneself in the ancient age. Indeed, novels themselves arose as metaphors-writ-large for modern souls on pilgrimage to identities within a new world in which self-identity was no longer a given.

Yet, as with every metaphor, overuse drains it of meaning and life.

The book’s denouement occurs in the connection Gornick draws between the fear she experienced following an abortion and the fears that paralyze Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s revolutionary and decadent novel Jude the Obscure. Within the loose personal narrative of Unfinished Business, Gornick’s abortion closes a circle begun in the early chapter on Sons and Lovers. There Gornick relays the despair of the character of Mrs. Morel, pregnant with her son Paul, one of the novel’s titular sons. “‘What have I to do with it?’ she said to herself. ‘What have I to do with all this? Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.’” (23)

In the novel, the child Mrs. Morel carries is born—thus, too, is the story in the novel born. But Gornick’s child is not. She has learned through reading and re-reading, it seems, to take herself into account.

Within the devastating death and destruction of Jude the Obscure, Gornick first finds that “the failure of emotional imagination in the novel belongs entirely to” Sue Bridehead. “It is because she cannot see herself as others see her that she cannot fathom the unhappiness she inflicts on all who love her.” But re-reading Jude a decade later, just after her abortion, Gornick sees a related aspect of Sue, a “passivity” and “a willed blindness,” qualities she recognizes in herself. Gornick comes to attribute Sue’s “disintegration into religious mania” to “the ancient fear of taking in one’s own experience.” Gornick fears this fear. And upon completing this re-reading of Jude, she suggests that this novel has no more to teach her.

By some accounts, the novel itself is in decline.4 The modern self is (or was) a reading self. It remains to be seen what kind of self the postmodern self will be. As the literate age passes into a post-literate age, the role of language is shifting. Images, pastiches, and collages are emerging as ways of knowing the world and oneself. Gornick’s elegy for this one novel sounds, perhaps, like an elegy for the novel itself.

Yet, I suspect the novel isn’t finished with us.

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