Mary Gordon is the author of novels, memoirs, and literary critcism. At the time of this interview, she she had just published her first novel, Final Payments, about a thirty-year-old woman who, up until her father's death, had been his caretaker for over twenty years (as is customary of an Irish-Catholic family). The novel tracks her late journey of self-reinvention, her relationships with two very different men.
Diana Cooper-Clark: How do you feel about the critical response to Final Payments? Did you find it particularly perceptive?
Mary Gordon: I thought Wilfrid Sheed's review in The New York Review of Books was. And that was about it. Every now and again somebody says something that you like to hear, but it turned out that only the Sheed review was instructive to me.
DCC: In your view what is the function of the critic?
MG: To make known good things that are around so that people want to read them. I don't think about criticism in terms of setting standards. For me the ideal critic would be Virginia Woolf; somebody who says, "This is wonderful. You should really read this for this particular reason.''
DCC: Do you believe in such a thing as the "function" of the novel, of literature?
MG: Pleasure. If it's accidentally instructive, that's all to the good. But its main function is to be beautiful and, in some sense, true in a very large way I can't even begin to explain. Again Virginia Woolf, "What I want to do is to tell the truth and to create something of beauty." I think that's what the novel is supposed to do. I don't think it makes people any better. If that were true, English departments would be the moral paragons of this or any other age. And anyone who has taught for two minutes knows that they are not. I am very attracted to formal beauty. I like a well-made piece of work. I like balance, so that's very important to me. I'm by nature a Classicist. I am by nature anti-Romantic.
DCC: How do you define the religious novel? I know you were doing a course on the religious novel last year. Now I'm thinking for instance that Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, defines the religious as something of honesty and ultimate concern, and he said that a rock by Cézanne is more religious than Christ on the cross by a sentimental German painter named Uhde. How do you feel about that definition of the “religious”?
MG: l think it's nonsense because it devalues both the religious experience and the experience of Cézanne. All beauty is not religious in its nature, and all aesthetic or heartfelt responses are not religious, and I don't like that kind of sloppiness. For me the religious novel would be something which had a relationship to God at the center of it. No, I don't think that swimming in the ocean is as religious an act as contemplative prayer, which is not to say that one is more valuable than the other. If you call everything religious, then nothing is religious.
DCC: And so Final Payments would not be a religious novel by that definition, or would it?
MG: Well, it's certainly not a religious novel in the way that one of Mauriac's would be, or one of Bemanos's, but I think that Isabel is searching, trying to come to terms with her religious life. I would not say that her path of self-identification is a religious path, but in that she is so formed by religion and really sees everything in metaphors of Catholicism so much—I think it is.
DCC: And to pick up that point of using Roman Catholicism as a metaphor, do you think that the more secular world that we live in today has anaesthetized people to the symbolic world, to the understanding or sensibility of the symbolic, and has this changed writing styles, writing approaches?
MG: What’s happened doesn’t have to with secularism, it has to do with communication. A symbol has to have a kind of thickness to it; something that has to build up over time for people to be able really to be able to respond to it, and I think the whole tenor and tempo of the age is something…the symbol of our age would have to be very evanescent because we’re not interested in things that accrete over time, that build up meaning over time, and also if everybody’s getting the same kind of stimuli all over the world, which people are now, I don’t think there’s very much chance for the particular symbol…I don’t think it has much to do with religion, I think it has to do with the speed at which we live and our terrible disregard for history, because a symbol only takes on meaning as it attaches to the past.
DCC: Wallace Fowlie has stated: “American literature is quite thoroughly non-Catholic. There has never been in this country anything that would resemble a Catholic school of letters or move in literature.'' Do you agree?
MG: Yes I do. Sure, it makes a lot of sense. The Catholic church in America is an immigrant church. And immigrants were worried about making money and surviving, and learning was a threat to the family. The more you learned, the more likely you were to leave home. The Catholic church in America has been phenomenally anti-intellectual. To go to school and to study philosophy or literature or art is very different because it's learning that won't get you anywhere, except out of the community. And they're right. What is touching and moving is the loneliness of the immigrant experience, always feeling an outsider, always defining yourself as "not Protestant," and even later on as "not Jewish," knowing that you somehow never had access to the real power, and kind of looking in with your nose pressed against the window. Also I think that's very much a feature of Catholicism in America.
It's also a profoundly anti-sexual tradition, and that's a big problem with it in a way that the French Catholics really aren't and the Italian Catholics really aren't. Irish Catholicism is very anti-sexual, and the sexy people get out of the church; they have to. What you're left with is a marvelous ascetic type who stays in the church, or a person like Flannery O'Connor who's a virgin through and through, one of those wise and fierce Antigones. They can stay and be quite interesting and quite admirable, but the sexual people have to get out.
DCC: Who do you consider to be the best Catholic writers?
MG: Bernanos I think is the greatest. And Mauriac, who's very great, Flannery O'Connor, although she's a Catholic writer who never writes about Catholics...Graham Greene, a wonderful writer.
DCC: How about somebody like Waugh or Muriel Spark? Do you consider them Catholic writers?
MG: Well they'd like to be considered Catholic writers. I don't know. I have a lot of trouble with Muriel Spark. She's awfully thin to me. And Waugh was a brilliant stylist, and I even like Brideshead Revisited, which about three people in the world do…
DCC: The Christian in our society must confront certain essential paradoxes of her faith. On the one hand, she is taught the need to lose one's life in order to save it. The lives and writings of saints and ascetics illustrate this impulse toward retirement and withdrawal. On the other hand, the Incarnation, by which God became man, and dwelt among men in the world and in history with all of its evils, defies this withdrawal. Therefore the Christian lives both in heaven and earth. Does the character of Isabel in any way embody this paradox?
MG: Yes, it's something I think about all the time. It's a terrible paradox; having a body even as Christ had a body with affections and needs and connections and yet knowing or sensing somehow that there's this angelic realm that you might almost have access to if you just give up this body. But it seems to me that the impulse of charity comes from the Incarnation, comes from going out. I've always wondered how a contemplative can fulfill his obligation in charity because in some ways it's a profoundly egocentric life. You spend all of your time getting rid of your flesh and the hell with everybody else's flesh; if they're starving and leprous, that's their tough luck.
DCC: Carl Jung believed that religion binds humanity together. Do you agree?
MG: No. I think it probably separates men, one from the other. If you got two people together talking about religion they'd usually disagree, but if you got people talking about the way they felt about their children they'd probably agree. Human affection is much more universal than religion.
DCC: What is the meaning of Isabel's sacrifice? She has given up her life for her father but she makes that statement "not with self-pity but with extreme pride.'' But sacrifice in the book, especially with Margaret, seems to be more than the "pride of sacrifice," the "romance of devotion,'' the idea of martyrdom.
MG: What was very important to me was to make the distinction between genuine sacrifice motivated not only by love but by affection which seems to me to be of immense importance in life. The kind of sacrifice that Isabel practiced in relation to Margaret is a kind of theft, sacrifice for its own sake without any movement of the heart. Sacrifice as an abstraction is hateful unless you really want to. Certainly there would be points when the person is physically appalling to you at that particular time. But unless you have a memory of a stirring in the heart, I think you have no right to sacrifice.
DCC: What do you like best and what do you like least about your work?
MG: What I like best is that sometimes I think I write really smashing sentences. What I like least is that there are certain things that I just can't do. I fear a narrowness of range. I can never write about violence—physical violence. I'm not very good at young men, men who have a sexual identity. And I wish I were better. But Flannery O'Connor says that everything that is important to a writer she learns before the age of eight and I was brought up in a very female-centric world. But I wish…I find men so incomprehensible that I can't write about them very well.
DCC: In his review, Peter Prescott said that the best men and the most convincing in Final Payments are the invalid father and the alcoholic priest, both of whom are "unsexed." You do agree with him.
MG: Yes. I have to do something terrible to my sexual men in order to understand them (laughs). I can't write sympathetically about a normally sexed man.
DCC: I would like your opinion on various attitudes toward the contemporary novel. First, the whole death of the novel debate between, for example, Cheever and Fowles who assert that the novel is alive and well versus Vidal and Capote who maintain that it is a dying art form and that journalism, magazines are taking over. What do you think about all that?
MG: I haven't thought much about it. I think that Capote and Vidal write journalism because they can't write novels, and infinitely would rather be writing novels but they can't, they're blocked. So I don't know; I suppose people don't need novels now, and that’s sad, but I think it’s their attention span.
DCC: Robert Scholes. I don't know if you're familiar with him; he's an academic modernist, he's a scholar and he advocates fictional fabulation, structural fabulation. This is the world, the Barth theme world, that would go beyond and ignore historical reality in order to create self-sufficient worlds like Pynchon, Gaddis, etc.
MG: Let them do it as long as I don't ever have to read it. I just find it totally boring. I'm interested in the novel as a form of high gossip and the more the novel gets away from gossip, the less I'm interested in reading it. I want to know about Jane and Mister Rochester. I want to know about Dorothy and Elizabeth Bennett. I want to know what happens to Sue Bridehead. I don't particularly like the Barth, Vonnegut, Barthelme trip where literature is about literature. I wouldn't want to say that they are wrong, that's not the way novels are to be written. I could change my mind in ten years. I never want to read Finnegans Wake; Finnegans Wake is about language, it's not about people. I think novels should be about people. Novels that are basically tricks to show us what writing a novel is really about, I'm not interested in. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf is my favorite novelist, and it seems to me she does all the stylization you could ever want to do, but doesn't move away from character, and so I think if they're crabbing they should just go and read Virginia Woolf and shut up (laughs).
DCC: How about Anaïs Nin and her notion of abstraction and the future of the novel?
MG: She's such a dumb... I just can't understand all that.
DCC: Which writers in the past do you admire, then?
MG: My favorite novelist is Jane Austen, and then I love Charlotte Brontë, and I love Hardy, and I love George Eliot, and I love Ford Maddox Ford. He's one of my favorites. I think I'm going to have to put him third after Woolf and Austen.
DCC: Would you consider any of these major influences to the point that you say that they influenced you in style or content?
MG: Virginia Woolf did. I was writing a dissertation on her when I was writing Final Payments, and I was copying out—I never finished it—but I was copying out passages of her novel in the afternoons, and I was writing my own work in the mornings, and I learned so much about prose writing from her.
DCC: Does your writing draw heavily from your own life? I' m thinking of Final Payments and short stories like ''The Thorn," "Now I Am Married ," "The Other Woman."
MG: I feel more free to be autobiographical in short stories than in novels. Somehow talking about yourself for ten pages is okay, but talking about yourself for three hundred pages is a bit much. Final Payments—I’ve said this a million times—is not about me, but I'm tempted to that setting; the setting of Irish Catholicism. But if you write a good novel who cares where it comes from. Virginia Woolf says about Charlotte Brontë: "always to be a governess and always to be in love is no advantage in a world in which most people are neither.'' On the other hand, we have Jane Eyre and Villette and I'm terribly glad we do. I don't care that she was being autobiographical. I care about the novel.
DCC: Virginia Woolf said that there's such a thing as a female sentence. She never expanded on it. But there are people who are working to create a feminist criticism. And a lot of female artists insist that female metaphors, for example, are very different...
MG: It might be true, but it's nothing I think about. I mean, I wonder about it, but I certainly don't wonder about it while I'm writing. I think it's much more simple than that; I think that women have a proclivity, women are trained to be more associative, and they're trained to be more interested in human relations, and so that's what they're going to tend to write about in their novels. That's what I'm interested in, and because I think other things are trivial, I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't read many novels that don't have women in them, I don't read many novels about men shooting up other men and finding out what their penises are for. That bores me to death. I'll read about what happens in the drawing room in Somerset by the hands of Jane Austen for fifty years, but don't ever ask me to read Conrad again.
DCC: Well you have met with tremendous success, and Graham Greene said something marvelous: "For the serious writer as for the priest, there is no such thing as success."
MG: Except in practical terms, if you have some money you have more time, and that's important. But on a profound level it's perfectly true: the only thing that matters is what you're doing in front of the page, and this has nothing to do with what anybody thinks about it.
DCC: Diane Keaton took an option on Final Payments. Can mediums be transferred? John Cheever says no.
MG: I don't think about it. If they make a movie I have nothing to do with it.
DCC: You would prefer it done well, but—
MG: Sure, but if it means that I could buy a house in Cape Cod, I would like to have a house in Cape Cod. I would feel terrific responsibility for anything I wrote. But because it's a different medium, I feel no responsibility for it. Even if they did it well, it wouldn't be mine anymore, so good luck to them. I just don't want to hear about it.
DCC: What is the role of an editor? You have published in Redbook, Mademoiselle, etc. Is there any kind of critical help on their part? Or is it a fait accompli when the story is submitted?
MG: You have to be very tough. If they say we are going to cut out the whole middle paragraph because we have an ad for shampoo there, you just have to say 'Well, you can't do that.' They cut things up and you just have to be ferocious.
DCC: That's outrageous. Isabel feels that her father's stroke cleanses her sin and is "the mechanism of forgiveness." What is the nature of her sin?
MG: Betraying her father.
DCC: Well, that leads me to the next question. The relationship between Isabel and her father is emotionally incestuous. They are ''connected by flesh;" her sexual relationship with David is a kind of punishment because her father is not jealous; she says that she has ''borne the impress of his body all my life;" she keeps Margaret from her father and is jealous that he has sent her money, written to her and sent her Christmas presents; she's angry at Eleanor's confession that she had sexual fantasies about her father; Isabel says: "I loved him more than anyone else;" her father says: ''I love you more than I love God. I love you more than God loves you. '' What part does this play in the motion of Isabel's life?
MG: Well, it's overwhelmingly clear. I do want to say that there is something overwhelming about their love for one another and not quite right. Romantic and compelling as it is, there's no way for her to be an adult as long as her father is alive. So although it is very attractive because it is so all-consuming, it is in some sense damaging to her as what we would call a healthy person. But she manages to survive it because there is that love there. Another writer that I love is Tillie Olsen and one of the messages of Tillie Olsen that has been very instructive to me is that even 'warped' love is somehow life-giving and in the end it will probably come out okay. I do believe that in some sort of very primitive way. That love, that any passionate attachment is all to the good.
DCC: In your excellent article on Archbishop Lefebvre, I felt that the modern world disappoints you. It is Kresge's not Balmain's. Is there a world where words like ''sublime,'' ''miracle,'' "mystery," "immutability," "the impossible," are realized and compatible with "certainty" and "authority"?
MG: Probably, but it would be such an awful world that I would never want to live there. People do such terrible things in the search for certainty and sublimity. You could say that's what the Nazis were looking for. That really is the root of totalitarianism. I think one must hunger for that and yet not try to put it into practice. But as a hunger it makes you much more interesting.
DCC: In reference to your next book, you said that you "want to be talking about women and their spiritual mentors, and the female habit of abdicating responsibility for their inner lives to the men—priests, lovers—who in one way or another compel them.'' Could you expand on that?
MG: I think we've always thought that anything not rooted in the flesh is the realm of men. So that if a woman had aspirations to be anything but rooted in the flesh, she had to go to another man for it. And he would tell her what she was really like. She would never go to another woman because she was mucking around in the same 'unsublime' area. And this kind of habit of women saying 'tell me what I'm like' to a man and believing him against all sorts of evidence, and then being willing to radically change your life is a very big pattern in everything from professors and students, to husbands and wives, to the Manson family, and it just seems to have very strong ramifications. Women believe that men have all the interesting data in some way. I hope it's changing now.
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