Memories of mother of all acrimonious arguments
FROM UPPER Broadway to Fifth Avenue, 23rd Street to the downtown delis and discount stores of Delancey Street, Vivian Gornick and her mother stroll through Manhattan, battling more than they bond.
Indeed, the argumentative acid in Gornick’s Fierce Attachments seems strong enough to burn the sidewalks as Gornick mère et fille pass by.
Thismemoirof theirbarbedrelationship (first published in 1987 and now reprised by Daunt Books) is as honest as it is untender. And there are glimpses of horrifying humour — as they took the air, Gornick’s mother, Bess, would sometimes accost complete strangers in the street to announce: “This is my daughter. She hates me.” An old friend,
Vivian Gornik: candid contretemps meeting Gornick years later, talked of old times before delivering the cruellest coup de grâce: “Your mother never loved you.”
But Fierce Attachments is more than a literary variation on the unsubtle Mommie Dearest genre. Interspersing vivid scenes of their poison promenades, are transporting vignettes of Gornick’s 1950s childhood in the Bronx. Her tenement block returns to life in all its washing-line hurly burly, its unsavoury intimacies and tragic technicolor.
The Jewish women who held intimate dominion here were “urban peasants” — crude-tongued, quarrelsome gossips. They knew too much of one another’s business, but were a ready source of strength and succour. Bess was a cut above, scathing, smart, a onetime communist organiser who nonetheless believed that love — at least in her own seemingly perfect marriage — was the one worthwhile jewel in a woman’s life. Gornick was just 13 when her father died, following three swift, successive heart attacks.
Informed by hospital telegram, Bess never recovered: marooned in lifelong grief and depression, she sought to throw herself into her husband’s open grave, mourning so long and effusively that there was no space for young Vivian to discharge any distress of her o wn. A n x i e t y and fear bound Gornick to her mother’s side.
Although she would later graduate in English literature and embrace full-on feminism, Gornick never quite threw off the notion that a good marriage is woman’s highest ideal. This clashed confusingly with the siren song she’d learned too young from neighbour Nettie, who assuaged her own widowed loneliness with a string of gentlemen callers (includ- ing the local priest). Nettie’s gift to the teenage Gornick was a crash course in sexual wiles.
Gornick’s narrative springs from that transforming time when young women sought to slough off their inherited passivity. “Life is difficult: a glory and a punishment,” she observes, kicking against the stereotype of a sex born to clean and suffer.
Her own three failed relationships earn scant compassion from her mother — “Why do you pick one schlemiel after another… Do you do this to make me miserable?”
The memoir is a tale of two women both unfulfilled and wanting more, rarely able to call a mutual truce, yet too grudgingly alike to separate for long. Unsurprisingly, on reading this newly published edition, Bess accused her daughter of holding her up to public ridicule. Intriguingly, a year on, she was signing copies.
Her mother announced to complete strangers: ‘This is my daughter. She hates me.’
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer