The National Catholic Review

Mary Gordon is a New York-based American Catholic writer and English professor at Barnard College. She is best known for her novels, memoirs and literary criticism on a wide variety of topics from religion to biography. She holds a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.A. from Syracuse University.

In 2007, Ms. Gordon was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has also received a Lila Acheson Wallace Reader's Digest Writer's Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship

Ms. Gordon’s latest book, “The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas,” is a collection of four stories that will be published in hardback on Aug. 5. On July 17, I interviewed Ms. Gordon by telephone about her writing and her new book.

What inspired this new collection of novellas?

I wanted to write about Europeans in America and Americans in Europe. That was my basic idea. I had also been obsessed with Simone Weil for years and years and year. And finally I thought of a way of approaching her fictionally, in this new collection, through the character of an old student of hers. I’m also very interested in differences between accepted behaviors in different cultures and how one can radically misunderstand them rather innocently. And then I was just interested in the question that if you are an American whose great love objects aesthetically are European, like they are for my art historian in the book, what does that do?

I’m also very interested in the idea of American innocence, particularly in relation to Europeans and particularly centering around World War II. So all of those things came together, but the overarching idea was Americans in Europe and Europeans in America—you know, what Henry James did, but with sort of a different slant. I’m also kind of fascinated by the fact that for my generation, all the dreams of the better life or of the superior life were dreams of Europe. You know, we thought that if we just watched European movies and dressed like Europeans and ate like Europeans and held our forks like Europeans, we would somehow have access to a finer world. That’s over and that interests me very much.

Who are you writing for?

Dead people. I always try to write for the dead writers I really admire; I like to think they’re kind of looking over my shoulder. If you worry about an audience, you just make yourself crazy. You can’t figure it out anyway, it’s a fantasy, it can be wrong, and you just give yourself a lot of needless anxiety.

Is there a deeper level of meaning or a unifying theme to these stories?

I think I’m also interested in how one knows the “self,” how we discover who we really are, what’s important to us, how we learn those things, and moments in which that becomes rather climactic or dramatic.

Some people identify you as a Catholic writer. In what way is that true of you?

You know, I think that really is true, and it’s probably hurt me a lot because nobody likes Catholics—with good reason. I understand why people don’t like Catholics. I felt like every time John Paul II or Benedict XVI said something about sexuality, I lost a hundred readers, because I think that the church has been in such a bad odor since Humanae Vitae. People assume that if you say you’re Catholic, you’re kind of stupid. I always say that if you tell people you’re Catholic, they take 90 IQ points off you. Andrew Greeley says anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable American prejudice and I understand why people would be prejudiced against Catholicism.

I think that my language, my imagery, my habit of mind is very formed by Catholicism. With Catholicism, because it is a faith centered on incarnational truth, there’s always the idea that the physical and the spiritual are inextricably intermixed. And I think that’s what I’m always writing about. The sacramental life of the church insists on a sensual component to a spiritual life. The prayer life of the church, with the repetitions of the liturgy and the sense of timelessness, was very important in my formation. And then the language of prayer and the habit of prayer had an influence.

Has your Catholic faith evolved or changed during the course of your writing career?

Well, interestingly, when I first started writing I was extremely alienated from the church and I was pretty angry at the sexual repression. You know, I’m a person who came of age in the ‘60s and I’m a feminist, and the sexual phobia and misogyny that have plagued Catholicism were deal-breakers for me for a long time. I thought, you know, I cannot really be part of this organization whose morality is immoral to me. And I started going to the Episcopal Church and gradually realized that wasn’t home for me. Luckily I met some wonderful progressive Catholics, sisters and priests who really led me to say that I could keep my ethical standards and be in a position of critical witness while still being part of the church. I had thought that no, if I can’t go along with the Vatican, I can’t be going to Mass. But I gave that idea up because I missed it too much.

Who are the biggest influences on your faith and career?

I don’t think I have a career, I have a vocation. Career sounds like you’re hoping for some sort of success and I think that just gets in the way of doing what it is that you need to do, making real art. So who are the writers who have been particularly important for me? Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Henry James and Katherine Anne Porter are the beloved ghosts who I feel hover over my shoulder and look down on me when I’m writing. They’re my communion of saints.

Your non-fiction works include personal memoirs, a book on Jesus, and a biography of St. Joan of Arc. What draws you to St. Joan?

She was fearless. She was a girl, I mean she was 19 when she died, and it’s just the knowledge that she was right. And there were all these powerful men ringed around her and she was going to be true to her vision. It’s just that kind of courage and being willing to give everything for a vision that is so moving to me.

Are you currently working on or planning any new books?

Yes, I’m actually writing a novel that is set during the Spanish Civil War. One of the reasons it’s always fascinated me is because I was brought up in an extremely conservative Catholic environment in the ‘50s. All I ever heard about the Spanish Civil War was “Franco is a saint, he’s preserving Catholicism, the leftists rape nuns and murder priests.” End of story. Then I got to Columbia in the ‘60s and all I heard was “the Lincoln Brigade soldiers were pure heroes, Francoists were murderers supported by Hitler and Mussolini, and the left was absolutely as pure as the driven snow.” And it fascinated me that there could be two such absolutely conflicting narratives of the same events. The reality is it was a total bloodbath on both sides. It was real bloodlust.

Unless you’re Catholic, you don’t really get that the whole damn thing was about the church. There was a rage against the church on the left. I mean, there’s no reason to burn down churches unless you’re really angry at the church. Then on the right, there were priests preaching “kill people” and priests armed with machine guns, priests suggesting that pregnant Communist women should be shot. And there were people killing priests and nuns on the other side. So I think so much of that’s Catholicism and people who acknowledge that on the right are total pro-Francoists, which I’m not. Again, Franco was armed by Hitler and Mussolini, and the left wasn’t. But Simone Weil went to Spain to fight with the anarchists and George Bernanos—who is another writer I love very much—went there as a royalist. She was completely left-wing and he was completely right-wing, but both of them wrote the same thing for the press on both sides: that there is such bloodlust on both sides that it’s impossible to say one side is good and one side is evil. You just can’t. And they both wrote that from different political perspectives on what they’d seen. She wrote to him and said “you’re a royalist and I’m an anarchist, I thought you were my enemy, but you’re my brother.” And it’s that ability to see the sins of your own side that fascinated me.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

Consolation. I think that’s the point of art, that life is really a vale of tears in many ways, and ideally art gives us a hint of meaning and value and beauty, and that’s what we do.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

Show Comments (15)

Comments (hide)

Kevin McDermott | 8/19/2014 - 12:18pm

You have my regards for trying to focus the comments on the books, Beth.

Gordon's a terrific writer, and I have always admired her range and the depth of her intelligence, going all the way back to The Company of Women. She has a great way of capturing the deeps of ordinary things, and still write page-turners. Read, for example, her appreciation of Eduard Vuillard--http://goo.gl/d3LqMz --which I read 25 years ago and still remember.

I have not yet read The Liar's Wife, but I will. I can recommend The Other Side, which is my favorite of her books.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/17/2014 - 3:57pm

The 2nd story of this book, "Simone Weil in NYC" is astounding. Though this is fiction, nowhere have I ever found an author take on the task of personally exploring this very odd yet very brilliant woman. I have marveled at the honesty and insightful depths of Weil's writing, but could never get the person of Simone into any kind of focus. Finally, now, with the help of Mary Gordon, Simone has a human face that I can recognize.

Joseph Brookbank | 8/13/2014 - 3:04pm

"People assume that if you say you’re Catholic, you’re kind of stupid." How ironic. Truly understanding the teachings of Humanae Vitae taught by Pope Paul and affirmed by his successors (including Pope Francis) requires more intellect, not less. Same with the Church's teachings on marriage. Adherence to the moral relativism of the current moron majority (in both America and the Church) is the easy--and stupid--way out. Does abortion, sexual promiscuity and the selfishness of choosing to have a small family lead a Catholic closer to God? Or does it line the pockets of abortion providers and drug companies? More irony for the anti-capitalism progressives. Sin is extremely profitable.

Robert Helfman | 8/18/2014 - 11:01am

Mary Gordon: "Nobody likes Catholics". More fuel for the fire. I cannot say I am Catholic without first hedging and hawing and apologizing for the institutional church-and people like you.

sandor jakcsy | 8/13/2014 - 12:59pm

Vince Killoran, I suggest reading what Goebbels has to say about capitalism, he and his fellow national socialists were as left wing as they come, only replacing the internationalism with nationalism.

Vince Killoran | 8/13/2014 - 2:43pm

I have read what Goebbels had to say about capitalism but that means very little (c'mon, he was the Minister of Propaganda!). The Nazis were not socialists--Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he picked the name in order to confuse members of the German Socialist, Marxist and Communist parties, or at least steal potential membership from them. Hitler sought to replace "class struggle" with "race struggle" and the notion that the proletariat would create revolution with the glorification of the leader.

Sure, conservative blogs and Fox push the Nazis=socialists argument but historians--working in archives--do not draw this conclusion. Big business--including DuPont and GE--had a profitable arrangement with the Nazi government.

Tim O'Leary | 8/15/2014 - 1:15am

Some quick points to add to the discussion. The terms “right” and “left” originated in the French Revolution for factions supporting the King (and Catholicism) and the Revolution (and Atheism). After 1791, the right called itself the “conscientious defenders of the constitution,” leaving the ancient regime but becoming a force for law, order, devolved power and support of subsidiary institutions (churches, universities, judiciary, etc.).

Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party (DAP) in 1920. That party was already anti-Semitic and nationalist, but was also both anti-Marxist and anti-capitalist, long before Goebbels (see wiki on the DAP). Hitler quickly gained influence and the party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), and then the Nazi Party. It was definitely a very different entity than the more radically egalitarian and internationalist Communist party (called themselves International Socialists). But, both shared revolutionary methods, totalitarian governance, the atheism/irreligion and the claim to represent the “ordinary” worker or citizen/comrade in opposition to other societal institutions it could not yet control (such as large corporations, universities and the churches).

While there have been much more benign forms of socialism than International or National Socialism, all forms share a distrust in the free market and a belief that societal problems are most efficiently solved by the government. Socialism favors nationalization of healthcare, education and large businesses, and favors high taxes and redistribution, over economic growth. Socialism generally gives short shift to intermediary institutions and frequently takes the opposing side to business, traditional morality, voluntary associations and churches. So, while Hitler’s Nazis morphed into something very different from most types of real socialism around the world, they did start out there as a populist anti-capitalist "workers" party. They were also completely alien to anything that might correctly be described as right-wing in current US politics. Yet, that never stops the left calling their opponents Nazis – all the time.

J Cosgrove | 8/12/2014 - 10:54am

Someone should tell Mary Gordon that there is no "right." There is a "left" but no clear definition of the "right." The communists, nazis, fascists, socialists are all of the left. Someone best described it as a bunch of mad dogs fighting over the same carcass. Franco was just another of these variants. All would align themselves with others but all wanted government control of the economy.

For those who believe Franco was a person of the "right", the definition of his political party, Falange, is Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of the National Syndicalist Offensive. And syndicalist means union control of the economy.

So Ms Gordon, get your history straight.

Vince Killoran | 8/12/2014 - 2:11pm

The clear and undisputed fact is that labor unions suffered persecution under Franco.

I'm amused by Cosgrove's effort to take the name of a political party or nation and try to extrapolate its left-wing nature. (This is something I hear on talk radio about the Nazis.) By his reckoning the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka, North Korea) is both democratic and a republic--kind of like, the USA, right?

J Cosgrove | 8/13/2014 - 4:03pm

I stand by everything I said. Unions were an essential part of Franco's world. They may not be the unions a lot of people would like including me but neither were the unions in the Soviet Union. Whatever economic activity there was in any of the fascist countries it was there to serve the state unless they were small local ones.

Again I reiterate there is no good definition of "right" unless one wants to call it a hierarchical society and communism fits that description. So is communism an exemplar of the right.

Vince Killoran | 8/14/2014 - 11:52am

"I stand by everything I said."

Sure, I thought as much. Still, your position is at odds with the historical record.

I do not understand your other point about "right," communism, and "exemplar."

J Cosgrove | 8/14/2014 - 4:13pm

First, fascism. Mussolini was a hard core socialist who got involved in the syndicalist movement and then national syndicalism. He died while trying to rewrite the Communist Manifesto. To think that he pursued a non-socialist ideology in between is nonsense. He was trying to implement a practical way to execute his ideology. Taking already intact social and economic institutions was a smart thing to do. It did not mean he became one of them or that he ended up as one of them but he did control them. He did end up as just another dictator. Communism and socialism in their pure form cannot succeed because they defy human nature. In the 1920's they did not know this but ideologues such as Mussolini tried to find a way to make it happen but in the end they all become despots.

He was also a darling of the left in the 1920's and 1930's and only in later years did he fall out of favor. I was in northern Croatia and Trieste a month ago and he was spoken of favorably by a couple of the guides we had. Some still love Tito too. Those that lost out when the communists were thrown out.

When Cole Porter's show, Anything Goes, came to London in the mid 1930's they rewrote some of the lines of the songs to be more appropriate for London. One variation to "You're the Top" was

You're the top! You're the Great Houdini! You're the top! You are Mussolini!

Franco in comparison was small potatoes but is best remembered because he defeated a communist government in the making and was brutal in doing it. But to call Franco and what he did, an element of the "right" is ludicrous even though the left since the 1930's have been doing it. Saying it does not make it true.

The basis of Franco's rule was the Movimiento Nacional

The Movimiento Nacional (National Movement) was the name given to the nationalist inspired mechanism during Francoist rule in Spain, which purported to be the only channel of participation to Spanish public life. It responded to a doctrine of corporatism in which only so-called "natural entities" could express themselves: families, municipalities and unions

Franco actually included others such as the Church and the military in this participation but unions were a major part of it. He did ban certain unions just as the Soviets suppressed competing socialist movements. But Franco was not an ideologue but a military one who adopted one of the left ideologies for his rule.

From Wikipedia, on the basis of fascist economics:

An inherent aspect of fascist economies was economic dirigisme, meaning an economy where the government exerts strong directive influence, and effectively controls production and allocation of resources. In general, apart from the nationalizations of some industries, fascist economies were based on private property and private initiative, but these were contingent upon service to the state.

Now you mention US corporations dealing with Nazi Germany. How is this meaningful? There has always been businesses in Democratic countries that have dealt with communist countries. That does not make the communist countries, capitalist.

The corporations within the fascist countries were essentially organs of the state, some of them pretty large. It would have been stupid to dismantle them or nationalize them in the short run when you can control them. But for Spain that was not a major issue as its economy was relatively primitive. Later in Franco's reign he opened up Spain to the free market and its economy improved dramatically.

I still maintain that the use of the term "right" is meaningless and is used as a convenient pejorative for what you do not like. Ms. Gordon is a prime example of this.

I do not understand your other point about "right," communism, and "exemplar."

This was a facetious comment showing the vacuousness of communism and socialism. These ideas cannot work because they contradict human nature. They end up requiring very harsh impositions on the society to maintain their power and the so called system in place. One of the things they do is maintain privileges for those in power and their children. It ends up as an hierarchical system. One definition used in the past for the term "right" is a hierarchical system. So communism ends up as a harsh form of an hierarchical system or a government of the "right." This shows the whole left/right comparisons as fatuous. But we have authors on this site who do it all the time.

Vince Killoran | 8/14/2014 - 11:47pm

Franco allowed unions like China allows the "Catholic Church." I'm sorry but you are plain wrong about this--and I mean factually wrong. His "unions" did not allow for collective bargaining or strikes. Only late in Franco's rule did rank-and-file unionists push for anything resembling a bona fide industrial relations system.

I'm not sure how to disabuse you of your equating socialism with fascism. It's a meat-and-potatoes talking point these days for the Right. It's also factually incorrect if that matters at all. There are many reasons--some of which I've already discussed. One of the key differences is that the fascist discarded the notion of historical materialism (including class conflict); they replaced it with the cult of the leader. Hitler hated communists and socialists and they hated him.

Finally, Franco's attempt to create a corporativist/organic order reminds me of the Catholic Church's fondness for this scheme in the mid-20th century. Does that mean that the CC was fascistic?

If there is some new thread of this discussion where you draw on historical evidence (with real historians not Cole Porter lyrics and Wikipedia) then I'll be glad to participate further.

J Cosgrove | 8/16/2014 - 10:27am

Franco allowed unions like China allows the "Catholic Church

So we have Franco allowed unions. Agree. They were not the type of unions that you approve of and neither would i approve of these unions. No one is saying Franco was a good guy only that he implemented a variation of a leftist government that was anti capitalist. Also the government he fought against and defeated was an extremely oppressive government. The communist did not allow unions either. Maybe in the beginning but not after power was consolidated. So Franco's unions had more of a say in policy than in the Soviet Union.

I'm not sure how to disabuse you of your equating socialism with fascism.

I am not equating them completely. Just that they are different versions of statist control of the economy and both are anti-capitalist. One way of looking at them is that they are different species of the same political genera. Fascism attracted socialist in droves to it. To say the Hitler tricked them is absurd. Hitler and Mussolini before him based their appeal on nationalism and a major part of Hitler's appeal was anti-semitism. But that has nothing to do with their economic objectives. It was actually a much stronger appeal than socialism and Marxism had for people because in addition to a hatred of capitalism, nationalism was a very strong positive attractor while anti-semitism was based on a hatred but very strong for some people.

Marxism is mainly a philosophy of hate too, hate for anyone who is successful. There was never a way for the workers ever to get much better under Marxism. Which is why it quickly led to oppression. It is interesting that Russia also had a strong nationalist attraction to the people just as it did in Italy, Germany and Spain. We are seeing a strong nationalist attraction now in China. But nationalism is not an economic system. It helps round up the people into your system whatever it is.

One of the key differences is that the fascist discarded the notion of historical materialism (including class conflict); they replaced it with the cult of the leader.

What has this to do with anything? Are you saying that historical materialism and class conflict are the essence of a leftist government? This is saying that atheism is essential to a leftist government and I agree that most leftist tend to be atheist but it not part of leftist essence. These elements were essentially part of Marxism which is mainly a nonsense philosophy. Marx mainly hated and wrote thousands of pages about what he hated but wrote almost nothing about a positive system. Why because there is no coherent positive system. So I would not offer up class struggle and materialism as an essential part of the left.

As far a cult leaders, what were Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim il sung, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot? They're were all despots. Are you saying that they were fascists too. Many would agree with that. Communism/Fascism - just different varieties of the same political/economic family.

A couple further points - Socialism, the non-Marxist variety, also has no successes. In its current forms it is a parasite off of the free market. It depends on the free market to provide the money for its programs but of itself can not produce a vibrant society. This is not to say that many of the social programs it espouses are not useful but each should be evaluated as to whether there are better alternatives and if they are in the end counter productive.

The lyrics to Cole Porter's song were meant to show how well Mussolini was accepted by elite society in the 1930's. There is no way one of the top Broadway musicals of the era would have included such a positive reference to him if he wasn't looked up to as figure to admire by the elite. Of course a couple years after Anything Goes appeared, he was anathema. And as I said Mussolini started out as a socialist and died as one.

Franco was unpopular because he fought against a degenerative political system that was the darling of the left. If he had overthrown some hated monarchy or a capitalist system and instituted the same system, he would have been a hero of the left celebrated till today. He also made the Catholic Church an integral part of his movement which is always a problem with the atheistic left. The left/right scenario is a smokescreen and meaningless.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/12/2014 - 9:09am

Thank you for this interview, Sean. I don't know how Mary Gordon has passed under my radar for so long. I downloaded a sample of "The Liar's Wife" yesterday and am hooked. I love Gordon's blunt and honest answers in the interview and I've been intrigued with Simone Weil for almost my whole life. I may be giving up my nightly TV habit to read more of Mary Gordon!