The Weight of the Past, Part 1

I

I’ve recently read Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” novels, all but the last, each of them an affront to the conventional wisdom of how fiction works—or can’t—and last Tuesday I read Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (1987), a memoir published long before it was fashionable to do this kind of thing, in other words long before young writers gave up on first novels about coming of age and started remembering the real absurdity of actual childhoods (she wrote it at the age of 46).

The weight of the past in these books is palpable, overwhelming, inescapable.  It makes you—the reader—feel that you’re just not pressed and contained enough by an unwanted, unchosen inheritance, but only because you haven’t thought about it enough.  You are finally persuaded, without argument, that you are unconscious of your unconscious, and you’re being offered the reading cure.  Unlike your shrink, though, these writers force you to be aware of, but also on guard against, this deepest past, because, as they tell their stories, there is no exit from it: abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

In this sense, their (psycho)analysis is not only interminable, it is beautifully pointless, because it cannot produce change; the past comes alive in these excruciatingly enjoyable pages, but it stays the same.  All that’s left is an eternal return to sorrow over the broken promise of erotic connection to characters who could not have been cast in the original family romance.   And so you—the reader—end up mourning for the demise or the impossibility of sublimation, as an old-school shrink might put it.

I say this with complete admiration for the prodigious talent on display in these books.

II

The common thread here, the dead weight of the past, is surprising to begin with, because Patrick Melrose hates his origins but can’t forget them—and thus can’t outlive them—while Vivian Gornick had already created a writerly life so different from her parochial origins in the Jewish tenements of the Lower East Side that you have to wonder why she wants to remember them.  But then you realize that neither character is able or willing to give up these original attachments—they both act as if this renunciation would amount to some kind of betrayal of the past, and it is this refusal, this determined return to the repressed, that makes their stories so compelling.  These are bildungsromans without development: Oedipus rests.

Of both Patrick and Vivian, you could then say what Auden once said of the characters in Poe’s feverish stories: they’re “as passive as the ‘I’ in dreams.”  And that fact might alert us to the possibility that our readerly obligation now includes a kind of transference: these characters enlist us in a strenuous effort of interpretation that asks us to complete their stories by going beyond them, and giving them a meaning their authors refuse, or can’t remember.  But this may well be the cultural function, or rather effect, of the search for lost time that novelists and memoirists—and, I would add, historians—engage us in, regardless of their intentions or abilities.  Either we fill in the blanks with our own imaginative and narrative resources, or the story stops making sense; but in doing so, we’re equipping ourselves to tell our own stories, to be participants in as well as recipients of a culture.

What we call the “suspension of disbelief” is, in this sense, a product rather than a predicate of taking narrative seriously: it’s the retrospective effort of interpretation that allows us to identify with the others who congregate there, in the story, but also in the world elsewhere.  We constantly make the effort prospectively, too, because we know that the next sentence or image will make sense of the last.  Either way, we know we’re the surgeons who must suture these divisions of time.  We know that every story is still undone.

III

Vivian can set a scene in time and then make you feel like you’re there, as her neighbor, mentor, and nemesis Nettie—she’s the woman whose sexuality explodes Vivian’s adolescence—could do just by arranging things in a graceful way, things you wouldn’t otherwise even notice.  These are not the same gifts, indeed only the best writers are blessed with both—memory of that and observation of this often exclude each other, especially as we all store up hopes against the future.  The passage between the present and the past is never easy, precisely because we know, having rowed those boats against the current, that our attitudes toward history produce what will become posterity.

Fierce Attachments is a visual feast—we’re watching a woman who is trying to carve out a life in which work and love can become equally satisfying emotional salients.  She navigates the choice by walking the street of New York with her mother, where space becomes time, where the stories about the neighbors become both descriptions of blue skies crowded by old buildings and devious introductions to Vivian’s fleeting attachments.  Can work and love be what Freud certified as the twinned imperatives of normal life, or must we all be Odd Women?  That’s Vivian’s question.  The love of, the sex with, the attachments to her wild yet convenient men–they’re always occasional, in both senses, never more than the momentary embodiment of the “passive feeling life”—these must become, by her own accounting, a drag on the “active expressive life” that is work, the stuff of real life. (p. 175).  The either/or choice, the zero-sum game that must follow, finally makes her chaste, attached only to her mother.  That is a sorry ending because the capacity for sublimation that would allow for commitments beyond this originary roster is on brilliant display throughout the book.

Vivian wants that “rectangle” between forehead and groin—it’s the mind/body metaphor that controls the whole narrative, and it works as a kind of intellectual geometry—to expand beyond the cramped space of the study where she escapes from Stefan, the husband, and from the rest of the world in the post-Berkeley New York apartment, and finally where (how) she understands that her lover’s marriage confines her.

“That space.  It begins in the middle of my forehead and ends in the middle of my groin.  It is, variously, as wide as my body, as narrow as a slit in a fortress wall.  On days when thought flows freely or better yet clarifies with effort, it expands gloriously.  On days when anxiety and self-pity crowd in, it shrinks, how fast it shrinks!”  (p. 103)

Or again:  “The limits of exploration on the life of our feelings were set by Joe’s marriage, and those limits were close in.  However deeply we might feel, our love could not make laws or map territory. . . .We were in possession of a small interior space somewhere in the midst of a fertile region of unknown proportion..  Around this space stood boundaries of rigid stability.  . . .  At about this same time I realized that the rectangle inside of which my thoughts lived or died was also a small interior space into which my working life had crammed itself, rather than that the work had carved out of the larger body of a free self the shape and extent of the territory it needed to occupy.” (p. 173)

Vivian wants, always, to grasp the thinking and the writing as an erotic adventure—work is love, so it must be at least as exciting as any of the affairs.  The poignant, hilarious story of her relation with her mother is, I think, a way of saying that if she repressed any of her feelings toward this figure, she wouldn’t be able to tell her story: this primal, ferocious love has become a life’s work.  But that conflation of work and love finally, inevitably, makes her lonely, unable to translate the originally fierce attachments into the language of everyday life, where representations of the original are never the same as the original, and, as a result, are better or worse. The space for her thoughts finally shrinks to these meager origins, back into the small rooms of her childhood and youth.

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