Books

Women like us, cities like ours

If Nora Ephron is my bedside companion, she whose books are a hoot, and helped me wade through many a heartburn, her death three years ago came to me as stealthily as Vivian Gornick entered my life this summer. A random read in The Guardian yielded The Odd Woman and the City. I have been described odd before, so the kindred feeling the title evoked.

Gornick, I discovered, was the soul-searching, deeply introspective alter ego of Ephron, more likely to leave you floundering.

The two women have a few things in common. New York is the stage where they express themselves through their writings. They were journalists to begin with. Ephron at Esquire and contributor to the New Yorker. Gornick began her foray in writing with Village Voice as reporter, graduating to a formidable critic, essayist, memorist and contributor to the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly with over 14 published books to her credit. The three that’ll remain in my knapsack for a long time:

—  The Odd Woman and the City: To read it after a Japanese thriller is like a retreat to the womb, the beginning. “The most vital form of connection other than sex,” writes Vivian Gornick, “is conversation,” and that sets the pace for this memoir as I imagine the life Gornick, a celebrated memoirist and critic, has led, just as she imagines the lives of those she encounters in New York and submits them to inquiry. A stranger to their world, she is an observer as she submits their lives to her surgical gaze. I ask myself whether she is a lonely woman and my answer is, maybe not, or then, maybe she is. Her deeply personal engagement with her city, her long walks to clear her head, her tenuous friendship with Leonard, who she describes as odd, come with the revelation that she too is an odd woman trying to make peace with the city she has chosen to live. “If life begins to feel like the sum of its disabilities, I take a walk up to Times Square—home to the savviest underclass in the world—where I quickly regain perspective.” That’s the odd woman for you as she negotiates her life as a teenager, feminist, writer with a few broken marriages behind her.

— The Men in My Life: This is about the men with whom Gornick shares her passion for reading and writing, but as a critic she also examines them as they battle the demons of their lives, one of who led her to title the memoir, Odd Woman and The City, and the others who wrote the finest prose out of a sense of estrangement with the world. Gornick looks at Gissing, Naipaul, Bellow, Ginsberg, Roth and others in a collection of essays that are in part an appreciation of the lives of these literary men, and her understanding them as a woman who shares passion for literature.

— Fierce Attachments: It is no-holds-barred assessment of her relationship with her mother, by no stretch smooth. It would have come as a surprise if their relationship was untrammelled by her concerns. It is pockmarked with so many lows that you wonder how mother and daughter negotiated their daily lives and got past each other. Yet, so fierce is her passion to submit herself to scrutiny that this remains my favourite memoir.

To submit to Gornick is to submit yourself to inquiry and that, dear reader, is an unsettling experience. New York, New Delhi. It doesn’t really matter. I can place myself in her world.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:46:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/shelf-help-women-like-us-cities-like-ours/article7904429.ece

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