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BOOK REVIEW

She tends to take them at their word

October 05, 2008|Judith Lewis

The Men in My Life

Vivian Gornick

MIT Press/Boston Review: 224 pp., $14.95

VIVIAN GORNICK makes you want to read. In her new collection of essays, "The Men in My Life," authors, all great literary men, come alive on the page like great characters, bleeding, raging and most of all trying (but almost always failing) to love. Gornick does not begrudge them this; she does not berate them like a woman scorned, nor does she dismiss them as a monolith of patriarchy. Instead, she reaches through the pages to understand how they became that way. In the process, she seems also to be trying to understand how she came to love them -- reluctantly, in some cases, but well enough to write about all of them with grace.

Gornick is not the first to suffer the ambivalence of the feminist bookworm. Every woman who ever immersed herself in Beat poetry and grew up mimicking Philip Roth has had to struggle with a culture that regarded her as at least irrelevant and at worst frantically despised. Roth in particular has inspired reams of outrage from women, and Gornick reserves a special hatchet for him. Openly doubting the longevity of the woman-hating books he wrote in the 28-year period between "Portnoy's Complaint" and "American Pastoral," she acknowledges as well "the loneliness trapped inside Roth's radiant poison." Her bit of pity is like uranium on a missile: The harsh words only land harder and penetrate deeper.

She does not deny, however, Roth's epic moment in the Jewish American experience, and her writing sends you back to him -- and to his predecessor, Saul Bellow -- if only to witness what she so stingingly observes. She is a woman who loves to read, and a reader who never fears descending into the muck of humanity: She rereads H.G. Wells' tortured memoir -- a "prolonged reflection on romantic love" -- every year. She marvels at how misery produces literary triumphs and loneliness distorts or dignifies an author's imagination. Her voyeuristic curiosity makes irresistible reading.

Throughout "The Men in My Life," Gornick ranks authors according to how well they applied the world's most powerful creative force: self-loathing. Allen Ginsberg emerged from "certifiable madness in the living room" to reach "an inspired transcendence worthy of Emerson, Wordsworth [and] Buddha." The 19th century British novelist George Gissing lived desperately, but Gornick's enthusiasm for his crackling social satire could move the most timid reader to tackle Gissing's daunting "New Grub Street."

And if only Trinidad-born, British-educated V.S. Naipaul had not hardened himself against the "humiliations heaped on a 'little brown Englishman,' " he might have risen above generalized misanthropy. Gornick contrasts him with his "fraternal twin," James Baldwin, who understood how racism induces a self-hatred that steals "the lives not only of black people but of white people as well."

Yet the self-hatred that steals our lives also makes us write, Gornick implies. Without it, the writer has nothing to put on the page, and the reader no reason to look. In an essay from her 1997 book, "The End of the Novel of Love," transplanted here, Gornick puts Richard Ford, Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver in a category with Hemingway: men who find in their hopeless relations with women "a strength of despair from which their powers derive."

Their work "leaves me with the taste of ashes in my mouth," she admits, but she never stops reading.

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Judith Lewis is a freelance writer.

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