Mem­o­ries of mother of all ac­ri­mo­nious ar­gu­ments

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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