Gornick’s new book is part memoiristic collage, part literary criticism, yet it is also an urgent argument that rereading offers the opportunity not just to correct and adjust one’s recollection of a book but to correct and adjust one’s perception of oneself ... If there’s something both simplistic and almost academic-seeming in that prescription for greater enlightenment, Gornick’s lively, personable book is evidence of the pleasure that can result from the endeavor. Unfinished Business is sneakily poignant ... the book moves beyond these elegantly rendered but somewhat superficial dimensions of her life to traverse her greatest disappointments ... It is one of the great ironies of consuming literature that as much as we read to expand our minds, we often take in only whatever it is that we are primed to absorb at a particular moment. Do not, Gornick says in this brief, incisive book, let that be the end of it.
Chronic rereaders of the author’s essays, criticism, biographies, and memoirs will recognize in her spare and elegant new book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, a familiar commitment to class consciousness, cultural politics, gender, and close reading — not only of literature, but of daily human relationships ... Unfinished Business takes us somewhere else with the same anecdote — further down the line of self-knowledge, through the aftermath of second-wave feminism, to the 'unfinished business' that fuels Gornick’s present interest in rereading ... To read Gornick’s unabashed insights, with their hallmark clarity and searching self-scrutiny, is balm for the soul in uncertain times: this new book arrives at a good moment ... for Gornick, rereading, like reading, is also about pleasure, good company, playful internal dialogue, and intimacy ... The essays in Unfinished Business are hybrid forms in which literary analysis, close reading, personal narrative, anecdotal aside, and sudden revelation alternate and combine. Which is to say they are essays par excellence, in the best, most old-fashioned sense of the form, à la Montaigne, De Quincey, Woolf, Orwell, Ginzburg, James Baldwin ... The effect is to telescope reading and writing, in past, present, and future tenses: we are all patchwork and collage, haunted for better or worse by our experiences and ideas, and how we have tried to reckon with them — in life and in writing.
...[an] enchanting and addictive little book—whose size and shape make it feel like it contains epigrams and instructions for life when in fact it contains not so much instructions for life, but life itself ... Like some of [Gornick's] other books, Unfinished Business takes up literary criticism in Gornick’s distinctly participatory way; putting the " ‘personal’ and the ‘journalism’ together proportionally,” as she says in her introduction ... Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Natalia Ginzburg, and Thomas Hardy...all are reexperienced in the same lucid, mercilessly penetrating way.
... a chronicle of the protean perceptions and interpretations drawn from among the books that have, for one reason or another, stayed with Gornick through the passage of decades. Unfinished Business does not present as a work of literary criticism per se. While it is concerned with interpretation and meaning, its fundamental focus is on that most peculiar of phenomena, the way that texts appear to change as we reread them throughout our lives ... the book’s aim is critical mainly in its attempt to demonstrate the ways that meaning is generated by response, and Gornick certainly is convincing when she takes the perceived textual qualities of realness and life and brings them to bear on her own life, particularly in those cases where what had appeared to be real and living to the twenty-year-old Gornick is not at all what seems to the thirty- or sixty- or eighty-year-old Gornick to possess those qualities ... My own response to Gornick’s insights varied. Gornick’s resolute desire to frame her view of literature in terms of its emotional component seems to me to falter a little when it encounters more formidable roadblocks thrown up by style ... If I happen to feel that Gornick’s response to Duras is a little tortured—that Duras does not yield easily to the sort of inquiry to which Gornick seeks to subject her—there lies the heart of Unfinished Business: Gornick and I both find so much of interest in The Lover, and yet her interests and my own seem scarcely to intersect ... our interest in Unfinished Business lies less in her hypotheses and conclusions than it does in her process of evaluating and reevaluating books, and consequently in the sort of woman Gornick believes herself to be and to have been through the successive stages of her life.
This is not a guide for how to be. The books that draw her are madeleines, summoning the self she was at previous readings. Criticism in Gornick’s hands is a sneaky form of autobiography—a series of love letters to moments she was jolted into consciousness. Sneaky and enlivening because the narrator looks out at something other than itself, and in that looking reveals a self to the reader ... some stunning examples of literary analysis ... Gornick’s jumpcuts are richly entertaining. Also, they dramatize the way we become known to ourselves through reading ... Arousal and deadened feeling are two hot spots for Gornick in whatever she reads, and by revealing the private nature of these themes to us, she enlarges her authority to speak about them ... As the chapters unfold, the delight Gornick takes is in the provisional nature of any reading, and her prose takes flight, growing more cunning and imaginative. In the third chapter, like the fulcrum of a seesaw, she tells a startling and crazy story that is so narratively right for her book, she would have needed to invent it if it hadn’t happened.
Gornick recognizes that in that initial encounter, one might not be emotionally ready to appreciate a work fully, but with each rereading will recognize a new literary element or better understand a particular protagonist no matter how many times the book has been perused before ... A delightful entry for lovers of literature and literary criticism.
Though occasionally too close to her own readings in a way that risks alienating readers, at her best, Gornick gets the balance right, drawing on her own life without reducing literature to a therapeutic tool ... Gornick is never so reductive as to suggest that you need to have a particular emotional experience before you can understand its depiction in a book—only that such moments of recognition can heighten the experience of reading. It is in passages like these, where she more artfully connects her lived experience not only to the content but the style of the book at hand, that Unfinished Business is at its most appealing ... That a reader as observant as Gornick continues to find she was wrong in her assumptions about particular books, or that they contain a previously unnoticed negative capability, reveals the narrowness of literary essays that consider their subject primarily through a pragmatic lens ... Unfinished Business...show[s] the value of literary writing that places curiosity and questioning over definitive claims and myopia.
Gornick acknowledges that she has written about and quoted from several authors in this book before; they have been her literary companions at successive stages in her adult life. They comprise a group that is as idiosyncratic as Gornick’s perspective ... If you’ve never heard Gornick’s own intimate, passionate voice, take a listen ... Gornick seems to take for granted that her younger readers will be as captivated by his work as she was on repeated readings. She’s not inclined to widen her intense narrow focus on text and self and dive into an examination of the cultural and social contexts in which his novels were written and read. As a result, this chapter reads a bit like a museum piece ... Gornick’s description of Ginzburg’s books and essays (that I had picked up several times in the past but not found intriguing was so compelling that I drove to my local library and borrowed all of them ... a rewarding read, but as always when I finish one of Gornick’s books, it but left me wishing for more from this forthcoming, but ultimately very private, journalist.
... literary cognoscente will appreciate Vivian Gornick’s brilliance as a literary critic and her erudite, mature analysis. Others may find that analysis challenging if not inaccessible, especially if they are not familiar with the writers about whom Gornick writes. Nonetheless, for readers of good and important literature, this short book can be savored ... This collection of essays cuts across literary criticism, memoir, and biography as Gornick intersperses personal experience with literary insight, connecting those two elements in extraordinary ways. One sees clearly how growing older and more sophisticated in her thinking has made her a more astute observer of literature and people. We learn not just from a gifted critic, but from the interpretation of a person who lives life with a capital L ... pure Vivian Gornick—not always easy reading, but sufficiently gripping to make us carry on, page after page, with her as our teacher and literary mentor.
With its concentric rings of self-scrutiny, Unfinished Business shows that Gornick’s commitment to altering consciousness—above all, her own—has only intensified with time ... Against the backdrop of a cascade of national and global emergencies, Gornick’s dedicated decades of self-scrutiny seem an almost impossible luxury. The American romance with communism was a failure. But today, the rift in the self seems less consequential than the rift between rich and poor, and our economic, political, and ecological crises cannot be confronted in solitude.
Part memoir, part feminist literary analysis and wholly engaging ... Unfinished Business traces the development of a whole generation of politically-aware women who, in embracing feminism, rejected the romantic fairy tales of their childhoods and sought in vain for another paradigm that would allow men and women to join as equals. It did not exist at the time. Its creation would be left to succeeding generations of feminists.
Gornick’s ferocious but principled intelligence emanates from each of the essays in this distinctive collection ... The author reads more deeply and keenly than most, with perceptions amplified by the perspective of her 84 years ... As always, Gornick reveals as much about herself as about the writers whose works she explores; particularly arresting are her essays on Lawrence and on Natalia Ginzburg. Some may feel she has a tendency to overdramatize, but none will question her intellectual honesty ... Literature knows few champions as ardent and insightful—or as uncompromising—as Gornick, which is to readers’ good fortune.