Fierce Attachments: A MEMOIR by Vivian Gornick (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $15.95; 195 pp.)

Merkin's first novel, "Enchantment" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), was published in September, 1986. She is a book editor in New York City

Fierce Attachments," the somewhat literal, even clinical-sounding title of Vivian Gornick's memoir, is a book that will leave its readers anything but dispassionate. Brimming with life, with what the author describes as "a kind of idiot attention to the look and feel of things," it is a sustained close-up of a mother-daughter relationship--that much examined, deified, and excoriated arrangement of birth in which all women find themselves.

Gornick has written a private reminiscence, with the thinnest patina of structure, yet the vividness of her style and the honesty of her perception are such that they infuse her account with the force of parable. The specific data of her personal history notwithstanding, Gornick's story is a generic, timeless one: the Search for a Self, for a bounded identity. It is a story that should be of interest to both sexes but will undoubtedly engage female readers, for whom matters of selfhood (despite proclamations to the contrary) seem to be especially problematic.

Interestingly enough, coming as it does from a self-defined feminist and leftist (Gornick is the author of, among other volumes, "Essays in Feminism" and "The Romance of American Communism"), "Fierce Attachments" is almost free of ideological agendas. What little the book does contain in the way of homage to the salvaging effect of politics seem like obligatory bows in the direction of distant gods. Instead of the carefully honed phrases and single-minded convictions of rhetoric, Gornick's musings and questions strike complex, often ambiguous tonalities. Instead of coming away with assurances, the reader gets stuck with the same quandary that the author finds herself in: Where do "significant others" (to borrow a hideous but useful phrase)--mothers, siblings, role models, friends--leave off and each of us, in our own skin, begin?

"Fierce Attachments" pivots between long, detail-drenched gazes at the past and quick glimpses of the present. In the present, the writer, now in her late 40s, and her mother, in her late 70s, take walks together around New York City. They are two "urban peasants," delighting in long hikes, trailing up Lexington Avenue and down 8th or 9th Avenue. Although the two women live only a mile apart from each other in Lower Manhattan, Gornick explains that they "visit best" on these walks. En route, they exchange barbed confidences and pungent memories, amorous advances tinged with nostalgia and a joint sense of grievance.

Gornick's mother sounds, in her casually ribald way with words, like a mixture of Ed Koch and Henny Youngman. The daughter, in her defiant yet dependent need to bring her mother to account, is forever flaunting the real world at someone whose equally strong need, beneath her tough language, is to idealize it--a woman who once explained to a teen-age Gornick that a prostitute was "a person without a home." Not only does the adult Gornick assert to her disbelieving mother that "nowadays love has to be earned. Even by mothers and sons," but she is happy to provide graphic enlightenment on the subject of homosexuality: "What do homosexuals do?" her mother asks. "They do everything you do, Ma."

Neither of them succeeds in defeating the other, nor, one senses, do they really want to. For along with their vigilantly maintained antagonism, Gornick and her mother also enjoy a genuine rapport, a sympathetic attunement of vulnerabilities: "We share an appreciation of clothes, my mother and I . . . but we cannot bear to shop, either of us. . . . When we stand as we do now, before a store window, forced to realize that there are women who dress with deliberation, we are aware of mutual disability, and we become what we often are: two women of remarkably similar inhibitions bonded together. . . ."

The real power of their bond lies, of course, in the world of the past. With intensely colored backward glances, Gornick paints in a whole landscape of childhood and adolescence: the cramped Bronx apartment shared by two adults and two children (what, I wonder, became of the writer's brother, "on guard from age 10"?); the rich communal life of a building populated by Jewish immigrants; the ripe-for-the-plucking neighbor, Nettie, who suggested to an impressionable, daydreaming Gornick that among the enraged female compromises--"the bargains . . . struck with life"--on view all around her was also the bargain of sex.

These sections abound in deftly realized images--metaphors of constriction and release, the longing for freedom set against the safe dominion of the kitchen. Even a simple description of laundry set out to dry reflects the interior drama being played out: "Each apartment had its own line. . . . The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap . . . on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. . . ." The reader sees and feels the dilemma of burgeoning selfhood--which bargain to strike?--through the eyes of a child who watched and "deduced activity from consequence," who listened and learned "how to convert gossip into knowledge."

One of the more intriguing aspects of "Fierce Attachments" (although it is circled around rather than fully explored) has to do with the questions Gornick raises about women and their relationship to creative work. How much room of her own is the fiercely intelligent daughter of a fiercely intelligent but house-bound mother allowed to take up in the world? It is here, in the issue of spatial autonomy, that the reader senses the conflicts between the author and her mother finally reside.

If your mother has suspended her life for the idea of love--for a romanticized marriage to a dead husband--how do you clear the way to using your life for the idea of work? Near the end of the book, a middle-age Gornick--divorced, childless, the survivor of several love affairs, a successful writer and feminist activist--is asked by her analyst: "Why will you not leave that dark narrow passage?" The passage alluded to is both real and imaginary. On the one side, it leads backward to the foyer of the author's childhood, a space "full of threat and anxiety," but also providing a curious sanctuary: "It is in essence, a kind of perfumed ether. . . . It thrills and sedates me. . . ." The other exit, however, leads forward--"to the daily effort" of the professional writer, a painful struggle in which Gornick commits and re-commits herself to "the desk," to a sustained communion with her own intellectual energies.

"My brilliant daughter," Gornick's mother calls her, half-pridefully and half-hauntingly, on their sojourns across Manhattan. It is the alarmed, rueful endearment of a mother who sees herself writ large in her daughter. And in many ways, some that she knows and some that she may not even recognize, the writer is imprinted with her mother's "design." She has knowingly inherited, for instance, her mother's posture of ridicule; she has also imbibed, full-scale and less acknowledged, her mother's aversion to religion, especially to religious Judaism. Gornick's disdain for Orthodox Jews creeps almost unconsciously into her prose, filling it with pejoratives--"18th-Century," "filthy," "ultra-kosher." These seem too automatic, a lesson learned at her secular, Communist mother's knee, warning her away from the stench of ethnicity.

In a more significant sense though, Gornick has succeeded in breaking away. By the book's close, she has shifted her "fiercest attachment" to the "clear and steady" image of work: "a rectangle, all clear air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin." The transition is not an easy one; she discovers how much her response to intellectual stimuli depends on emotional factors--the personalness of women's (as distinct, I venture to say, from men's) responses to their own brains: "When I sat in the rocking chair, my eye scanning the shelves for something to read, I felt a dull pain remembering how hard Stefan had worked to put the shelves together and help me arrange the books. The pain made it difficult to read, or even to think, in this room." From this perspective, Gornick's account is especially fascinating because it documents the making of a specifically female sensibility--that convergence of intellect and feeling at which "the pale light of the foyer" gives way to the wide open space of self-invention: "I begin and end with myself."

"Fierce Attachments" is a work of emotional cartography, charting influences and mapping out a proximate territory of the Self. As long as the nature-versus-nurture debate rages, one can't make definite claims on the issue of personality. Still, it seemed to me while reading this book one might reasonably conjecture that certain environments produce certain types. Like Kate Simon's memoir, "Bronx Primitive," and Grace Paley's stories, Gornick's background is peopled with hearty women who seem to conceal beneath their bravado a great deal of depression. There is a bravery about these women--a bravery, I think, about both the author and her mother. If Gornick seems to have greater success figuring out her link to her mother in terms of anger and irritation rather than the more self-implicating bond of dependence and longing, she has withal undertaken an imaginative and daring journey. "Fierce Attachments" is direct and clear, a fishing line thrown to the bottom of the narcissistic pool wherein dart the bright, small clues to who we are.

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