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All the Sad Old Men

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The Men in My Life

By Vivian Gornick
MIT Press, 2008

Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of the gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky.

–Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

In the preface to this beautiful book of short essays, Vivian Gornick describes two formative moments: a elementary school teacher telling her she was going to be a writer, and her mother imploring her not to forget her origins: a home “where Marx, socialism and the international working class were articles of faith.” The juxtaposition will not surprise Gornick’s longtime readers: the pull between the realities of social injustice and the emotional and transformative possibilities of literature has been at the center of her work ever since she covered the women’s movement as a young journalist. As she recalls in the essay “What Feminism Means to Me” from the 1996 collection Approaching Eye Level,

I’d been sent out by The Village Voice to investigate “these women’s libbers.” It was November 1970. “What’s that” I said to my editor. A week later I was a convert.

Much of Gornick’s work has been shaped by the effort to hold onto these twin “ways[s] of knowing the world” – the political and the literary. Her 1977 oral history The Romance of American Communism explores the experience of political activism, defying both those critics who see such a focus as an attempt to conceal historical sins and the old politicos who view such it as self-indulgence. Gornick saw these activist’s lives in light of her own experience with second-wave feminism, a movement that not only allowed but demanded the fusion of the political and the personal. To confront the injustices of external barriers meant facing as well

the pathological self-doubt that seemed every woman’s bitter birthright. For that, another kind of struggle was required: one for which a man, not a woman, supplied the tag line. As Anton Chekhov so memorably put it, “Others made me a slave but I must squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop.”

Gornick is best known for Fierce Attachments, a memoir about her mother, a passionate communist who never recovers from her father’s death, and The Situation and the Story, an overview of essayists and memoirists ranging from James Baldwin to Seymour Krim. Yet Gornick’s concerns are rarely those we have come to associate with the memoir as it has carved out its ever-larger stake in the literary world. Driven by ideas rather than events, meditative rather than dramatic, and invariably sympathetic even when polemic, Gornick is a natural essayist, specializing in short pieces that weave biography, personal reflection, and criticism. Her pieces evade the demands for total coverage that weigh down most book-length biographies and the artificial division between work and life drawn in most book reviews and academic criticism. The title essay of The End of the Novel of Love, for example, memorably begins,

When I was a girl the whole world believed in love. My mother, a communist and a romantic, said to me, “You’re smart, make something of yourself, but always remember, love is the most important thing in a woman’s life.” Across the street Grace Levine’s mother, a woman who lit candles on Friday night and was afraid of everything that moved, whispered to her daughter, “Don’t do like I did. Marry a man you love.”

As she does throughout her work, Gornick uses a few selected details to convey a world: in this case, a working-class immigrant Bronx neighborhood where everyone believes in love precisely because no one has experienced it – at least, not as they had been trained to understand it, by reading “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence all our lives, as well as the ten thousand middlebrow versions of those books, and the dime-story novels too.” From there Gornick brings us to the present, as she sits and reads Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief, and wonders why it strikes her as “only a small good thing.” Like Anna and Emma, the wife in Smiley’s novel wrestles with the smallness of her life. Unlike her predecessors, however, she knows too much to believe romance will make a difference:

If this woman leaves her husband for her lover, in six months she’ll be right back where she started. There isn’t a reason in the world to believe she will know herself any better with the second man than she does with the first.

Love can’t do the work Smiley needs it to do, and it is this that Gornick argues has ended: not love, of course, or the belief in love, but love as a metaphor, as a means of dramatic and irrevocable transformation. Thus, she concludes, “love as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia, not of discovery.” Gornick’s essays persuade because she takes us through the years of relevant experiences – of life and of reading – that lead to this sort of bold but hard-won assertions.

The Men in My Life is a book of essays about male writers by a committed feminist. It is also a work imbued with remarkable empathy for the struggles of these writers and their characters –and that empathy is a direct result of the feminism. In many ways, this volume is a companion piece to The End of the Novel of Love, exploring many of the same preoccupations she had earlier explored in the work of women writers.

Like Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Gornick looks at the men whose education and authority she had once yearned for and now finds little to envy. Freed by feminism from intellectual distortions bought on by intimidation and flattery, each finds the men in their worlds ill-equipped to deal with the realities of the time. For Woolf, militarism and wealth are the distorting factors:

So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole…. They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, forever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs – the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives.

For Gornick’s men, the sources of difficulty are more varied, though loneliness is the most recurrent note. Loren Eiseley stands as something of an apotheosis, turning loneliness into a matter of principle. His fascination with anthropology and geological time takes him so far from the world of human relationships that in his memoir

he would treat himself much as he would any other specimen he might be digging out. In fact, the memoir is subtitled “an excavation.” Early family life would be sketched only broadly; sex, marriage, and friendship spoken of not at all; neither would we learn much about the author as a figure in the world.

Then there are the struggles of men born to groups otherwise disfavored or ill-situated, for whom Chekhov’s dictum takes on a particular weight. George Gissing and H.G. Wells chafed against the strictures of Victorian society and caste, while Allen Ginsberg embodied a liberationist moment that more successfully waged war against sexual and political repression. A fascinating essay on Baldwin and V.S. Naipaul looks at their disparate responses to racism.

In all of these essays, sympathy remains the dominant mode. Gornick observes the impasses at which her subjects find themselves – as men and as writers – but does not suggest that they could or should have done otherwise. Thus, speaking of Eiseley’s radical loneliness:

Yet for all that he cannot or will not address openly, Eiseley never seems either dishonest or withholding. On the contrary, the incapacity is moving. Clearly, the silence within remains a torment and, for him, a living proof of his own oddity.

Gornick’s sympathy also helps us through the familiar experience of confronting the unappetizing details of so many writers’ biographies. We learn, for example, that Wells – after an open marriage in which “he seems never to have reflected on the meaning of his having pushed another human being out of shape entirely for the sake of his own comfort” – is shocked when his mistress Moura Budberg refuses to marry him and is devastated to find himself lied to. (She turns out to have been a Soviet spy – as always, it’s the possession of a secret life that’s the real betrayal.) Suddenly, he can empathize with the women who came before:

Had Jane suffered jealousy? Or any of the other women he’d made to care for him, and then been flagrantly unfaithful to? Whenever one had complained or made a scene, he’d simply considered her an irrational hysteric. Now, however, he began to see that scientific socialism would not be as easy to achieve as he had originally thought. There were all these intangibles in the human makeup, the drives that reason could not influence, the ones that would always subvert rational needs in a rational society.

Should it really be so difficult for a man of Wells’s imagination to reach such a familiar conclusion? But in probing the connections between writing and life, Gornick reminds us again and again how men and women alike are trapped in the specificity of their experience. Here Chekhov again is the touchstone: this time she refers to the doctor of Ward Six, unable to empathize with the inmates until he becomes one.

There are two pieces, however, in which the equation shifts. One is reprinted from The End of the Novel of Love: an examination of the “tenderhearted men” Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Andre Dubus. The other discusses Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, describing, in an echo of the argument from “Novel of Love” how each writer’s Jewishness came, for a time, to embody a larger idea of self-fashioning, and how that period came to an end. In each case, Gornick does what critics often seem reluctant to do: she says, in effect, “Yes, these are important voices. However, something in their view of the world is off. In fact, they have gotten something important quite wrong.” Not surprisingly, in both cases, that something is women, and the great transformation in the relations between men and women over the last half century. In the case of Carver, Ford and Dubus, she argues that their view of “men-and-women-together” is less truthful than their reputation for tough realism would lead us to believe. As she writes of the married couple at the heart of Carver’s short story “Are These Actual Miles?”:

The two have never been real to each other. They were bound to end in her stretch marks, his convertible. Carver knows that. Instead of being jolted by what he knows, startled into another posture, he feels only sad and bad…. In short, the work is sentimental. Trapped inside that sentimentality is the struggle so many women and so many men are waging now to make sense of themselves as they actually are.

While these writers, when faced with the upheaval in sex roles, retreat into nostalgia, Bellow and Roth famously rage against the dying of the light. While their breakthrough works – Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus – echo the sentimental troika in showing what she terms a “tenderness” towards men and women together, each went on lay their bottomless grievances at the feet of women. It’s an old story:

In Portnoy’s Complaint, probably for the first time in Jewish-American literature, woman-hating is openly equated with a consuming anger at what it means to be pushed to the margin, generation after generation. For men like Bellow and Roth, the sense of outrage was so pent-up that it was inevitable not only that it would vent itself on those closest to hand, but that it would confuse them with the powers that be.

Recalling the poignant end of Columbus – “I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her” – Gornick is uncharacteristically caustic in her reply: “A long while? How about never?”

Even at this moment, we’re struck by how much more Gornick is able to imagine Roth’s and Bellow’s struggles than they can recognize those of the women in their books. This failure has often been dismissed as a “merely” political concern: to dwell on it is to refuse to accept these writers on their own terms, to place one’s own agenda ahead of the writer’s autonomy. Yet as Gornick argued in a passage from The Situation and the Story that could serve as this epigraph to this volume,

In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the reader, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing.

These essays are animated by such movement as Gornick leads us to see these writers as they might see themselves. Absorbing their perspectives, the book is haunted by the difficulties that these men have in acting and being in the world, despite their presumed authority to do so. Echoing the theme of Gornick’s most recent book, The Solitude of Self, a book-length meditation on the life and activism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the essays ask whether loneliness might be a product not only of our social and political alienation but the most fundamental human situation. While for Stanton such a situation necessitates a deeper engagement with the world, for a writer like Eiseley it can only be recognized: “For Eiseley, the universe is not filled with loneliness, the universe is loneliness.” For the most part these men turn primarily to writing itself as a means of communication and transformation. Nowhere is this yearning stronger than in her portrait of poet and critic Randall Jarrell:

Jarrell once said that without literature human life was animal life. By literature, he meant, equally, both the writing of books and the reading of them. Reading Jarrell thought, gave us back ourselves in a way that no other kind of non-material nourishment could match. In the ordinary dailiness of life we are alone in our heads, locked into a chaos of half-thoughts, fleeting angers, confused desires. When you read, the noise in your head clears out…. Now, you’ve got company you’re connected. No longer do you feel alienated not from yourself, not from others. Reading, therefore, is a supremely civilizing act.

Yet Jarrell’s social phobias, anxieties, and depression mounted as he aged. Aging was particularly vexing for him; as the years went on he could not recognize himself, undermining the self-knowledge he craved: “while reading gave Randall Jarrell his life, in the end it could not save it.” It is ultimately not surprising that, like the romances of politics, love, and work Gornick has explored throughout her career, the romance of literature should similarly disappoint. Nonetheless, a lifetime of reading has given her the language with which we might begin to understand what remains in its wake.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray.