Vivian Gornick’s “The Odd Woman and the City” is a book of ghosts. Ghosts of the past; ghosts of New York, which is for her both home and character; ghosts of a lifetime of reading, intentional and covert. These ghosts emerge when Gornick least expects it or are invoked directly in the text.
“It’s an evening in June,” she writes, “and I am taking a turn through Washington Square. As I stroll, I see in the air before me, like an image behind a scrim, the square as it looked when I was young, standing right behind the square that I’m actually looking at. That was a good fifty years ago, when my friends and I used to come down from the Bronx and in from Brooklyn on summer evenings and we’d walk around looking at a piece of world so different from that of our own neighborhoods, we might as well have been in Europe.”
This is not to say “The Odd Woman and the City” is nostalgic. As she has throughout her career, Gornick stands against nostalgia, which does not mean she stands against history. For her, however, history is a source of context, a way of tracing what has changed and what remains.
“I look through the scrim directly into those old memories,” she continues, “and I see they no longer have authority over me. I see the square as it is — black, brown, young: swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players — and I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York.”
Here, we have the heart of this elusive and stirring memoir — a companion piece of sorts to the magnificent “Fierce Attachments” (1987). In that book, Gornick used her relationship with her mother, antagonistic but at the same time inextricable, to frame a consideration of self and identity; part of it unfolds as a series of walks. “The Odd Woman and the City” takes a similar approach, although the author walks now with her friend Leonard, a gay man of like background and age.
Why walking? “On these long treks of ours,” she explains, “the … concept of ‘hours’ evaporated. The streets became one long ribbon of open road stretched out before us, with nothing to impede our progress. Time expanded to resemble time in one’s childhood, when it seemed never to end, as opposed to time now: always scarce, always pressing, always a fleeting marker of one’s emotional well-being.”
That question of time, of course, is essential to the memoir, which as a form unfolds in the amorphous middle ground between musing and memory.
For Gornick, such a middle ground is always front and center because she remains vividly aware of her own thinking as crucible. “The Odd Woman and the City” is full of what she knows, what she ponders and most of all what she has read. This makes sense, since she is a critic as well as a memoirist; her 1997 collection “The End of the Novel of Love” argues that “love as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia, not of discovery” — the anti-nostalgic perspective again — while “The Men in My Life” (2008) features essays, from a feminist perspective, about the male writers who have inspired and infuriated her, including Philip Roth, James Baldwin and George Gissing.
Gissing infuses this new book also; the title is a riff on his 1893 novel “The Odd Woman.” More important, though, are those other walker/writers: Charles Reznikoff, whose poetry she quotes at length, or Alfred Kazin, whose “A Walker in the City” (1951) is another story of a smart kid from the outer boroughs, beguiled by boulevardiers and books.
At one point, Gornick suggests that “life was either Chekhovian or Shakespearean,” by which she means fraught or epic. She makes no bones about which she believes her own to be. “We were all in thrall to neurotic longing,” she argues, comparing herself to Dorothea Brooke from “Middlemarch” and Isabel Archer, from “Portrait of a Lady.” "… Longing was what attracted us, what compelled our deepest attention. The essence, indeed, of a Chekhovian life.”
Still, if longing is, in some sense, what motivates “The Odd Woman and the City,” the book builds to its own measure of acceptance, as well. Gornick can be wickedly pointed — of a stilted dinner party, she writes, “The dinner is expensive, but the conversation is junk food” — but she is also clear-eyed, reflective; “That was simply the roller-coaster of life common to us all,” she observes of an older friend in an assisted care facility, “not actually a cause for sorrow.”
Such asides can be read as parables, which bestows upon the memoir the weight of a larger whole. Gornick describes what she sees on the bus, on the sidewalks, her interactions with the homeless and the forlorn. She helps an old man cross a dangerous patch of sidewalk, recalls seeing a deformed child on the subway (an echo of Montaigne’s “Of a Monstrous Child”).
It all adds up to nothing, and yet that nothing is the only thing we have. “There’s no way around this one, there is only the going through it,” Gornick insists, and the implication is that she is not only referring to herself but also to everyone.
Late in the book, Gornick describes a private reading, by an actor who has suffered a stroke, of Samuel Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing.” The performance takes place in the actor’s apartment and features the interplay of his broken voice with a recording of him 20 years younger and physically intact. The tension between life and art, perhaps, musing and memory, which is the tension embodied by this book.
“No need of a story,” the actor recites, “a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.” A remarkable line. But equally remarkable is what Gornick makes of it. “It was as if he had known it would be coming,” she tells us, “and had figured out a survival tactic in advance. He would go with it, ride it, in fact make use of it wherever it landed him.”
The Odd Woman and the City
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 176 pp., $22