Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

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In The Situation and the Story, Gornick’s classic writing craft book, she describes the difference between the two as the situation being what happened—the plot—and the story being “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” A memoir includes both the experience and the author’s perspective on it. She goes on to say, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.

It starts out in an all-Jewish apartment building in the Bronx, where Gornick’s mother reigned over her neighbors by virtue of “the certainty of her manner”. Supremely self-confident, riding on the myth of her perfect marriage to a man who adores her, she exercises her authority, giving advice and arbitrating quarrels.

She seemed never to be troubled by the notion that there might be two sides to a story, or more than one interpretation of an event. She knew that, compared with the women around her, she was “developed”—a person of higher thought and feeling—so what was there to think about?

Gornick powerfully describes that world of women, the world of the kitchen that looked out on the alley in the back of the building, the gossip exchanged and schedules arranged while leaning out of the window hanging wet clothes on the line. But she also shows us how limiting that world could be, how her mother despised it, channeling her restlessness and boredom, like a torrent confined to a narrow gulley. “Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator.”

The structure of the book brilliantly reinforces this double view; like a stereoscope we get the experience of the past and Gornick’s present-day perspective on it. Chapters alternate between stories of the past and current interactions with her now-aged mother during their marathon walks of the streets of New York.

I read recently, though I can’t remember where, that the tension created by these two sometimes conflicting views of the past is one reason memoirs are so fascinating. Even in a memoir written entirely from a child’s viewpoint, we know that it is the adult author who is selecting and arranging incidents for us.

In her craft book, Gornick delves into memoirists “whose work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.” And it is Gornick’s self, forged by encounters with her strong-willed and much-loved mother, who finally captured my attention in this book. As in the best memoirs, Gornick wastes no time on complaints, but rather treats her mother with love and respect, even if sometimes also with exasperation. Gornick doesn’t spare herself, but admits her own mistakes. And I think we all know that moment when we look in the mirror and see our parent’s face looking back at us.

Gornick goes on to say of the memoirists in her craft book, “But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.” (emphasis mine)

Fierce Attachments is truly literature, and a story you will not forget.

What memoirs do you recommend?

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