The woman always in search of herself

When American essayist Vivian Gornick was 13, her father died of a heart attack, leaving her mother mournful for the rest of her life.

Now 80, Gornick says that being an only child amid such "Chekovian" pining meant that anything she had to say about who she was, and who she wanted to be, often fell on deaf ears. She recalls the worst of it in her critically acclaimed 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments.

As she told The Believer magazine in March, she has since evolved such that when readers of her writing meet her for the first time, they are often taken aback by her being "a lot brasher, a lot more confrontational, a lot less thoughtful and a lot more reckless in her certainties".

After graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees from the City College of New York and New York University respectively, she wrote about the American feminist movement for the New York lifestyle magazine The Village Voice between 1969 and 1977.

Twice married, and divorced, with no children, Gornick freelanced after quitting The Village Voice, supplementing her meagre scribe's income with teaching stints at, among others, the University of Arizona. She has 13 books to her name, on various subjects, over the past 25 years or so, including about her travels as a Jewess in Egypt, women scientists and the art of writing personal narratives. The last of these is required reading for many master's of fine art courses worldwide.

She has published many essays in such notables as The Atlantic, The Paris Review and The New York Times (NYT). She once stunned an NYT editor by insisting that he publish her letter on being abused verbally by a fellow passenger on a city bus.

As the Guardian newspaper noted in May, she now lives surrounded by cats and books in her otherwise spartan apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. It is an hour's drive from the Bronx, where she was born to a Ukrainian dress presser and his bookkeeper wife.

In her new book, The Odd Woman And The City, she writes that her heart has long "hardened" against romantic love, realising after her first divorce that "I was born to find the wrong man".

Fans of her spare, unsparing prose would insist that they are inadvertent beneficiaries of her courage in chronicling her search for self.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'The woman always in search of herself'. Print Edition | Subscribe