Women in love

Sue Wilson talks to American writer Mary Gordon, author of three new novellas exploring the life and loves of women today.

Mary Gordon is one of those writers who has never hit the heights ofcelebrity but has. with each successive book. added another solid block to a growing reputation. Born in Long Island into a devout Catholic family. currently a literature professor at New York‘s Barnard College. she published her first novel. Final Payments. in 1978. and has since written both fiction and non-fiction to widespread acclaim. Her new book The Rest ofler. consists ofthree novellas. detailing the experiences of three very different but equally vividly realised women.

'lmmaculate Man' finds its unnamed. divorced narrator. a social worker for abused women. in the midst of an affair with a (previously virgin) Catholic priest. rnarvelling that she has found true, passionate love when she‘d given up hoping for it. yet beset by the fear that now he has discovered sex he will leave her for someone younger and prettier. ‘Living at Home' focuses on a 45-year-old doctor who works with autistic children, living after three failed marriages - with a restless Italian journalist who specialises in Third World conflict. Here. Gordon employs autism as a mirror held up to ‘normal’ life.


Mary Gordon

‘The children whom I treat have trouble

understanding the idea of what makes up a person. a person consistently recognisable. consistently the same. The odd thing. to me. is how wholeheartedly the rest of us pretend to understand.‘ As in ‘lmmaculate Man‘. the fragility and fragrnentedness of experience and identity are conveyed rather than described. as Gordon’s associative. lluid. seemingly unstructured prose offers us a quiet. skilful blend of half-revelation. paradox. uncertainty and contradiction: ‘We don‘t know much yet about how women might really be. if they felt they could be however they liked.‘

The question of identity also permeates the book’s title novella. in which an elderly Italian woman returns to her birthplace 63 years after she was sent to America aged fifteen. shamed and bereft after the death of her lover in a suicide pact on which she

reneged at the last minute. She has lived a numbed. shadowed existence but now. confronting her past.

I she begins to piece together some sense of herself:

: ‘She sees that she has before her an important task: to l understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her . . . That there is some line running through her body like a wick.‘

‘l was really thinking about men and women. and the many different ways men and women shape and place their lives in relation to each other.‘ says Gordon of her meditative. multi-faceted approach. ‘I think what I wanted to do was talk about the paradox that. supposing you have a full life you have work. you have children. interests. friends and yet you love one human being very deeply. and you love them in the body. which creates a particular kind of very primitive and deep attachment. At the same time. your lover is not absolutely the centre of your existence twenty-four hours a day. seven days a week; even if we are passionate and sexual. even if the loss of him would be devastating. it's not the whole story. That‘s the kind of calculus l was interested in exploring.‘

Gordon is conscious, she says. of writing against the American literary tradition. which ‘has never been very interested in the inner lives of women'. and sees herself as influenced more by European writers such as Virginia Woolf. Marguerite Duras and Christa Wolf. With its concentration on the internal and the emotional. her writing is of the sort that would be trivialised by many American (and British) critics as ‘women‘s fiction‘. but this is. emphatically. not something that bothers her. ‘Consider the opposite. if a male writer was told women wouldn't read his books; he'd probably say. so what? The attitude wouldn't be that the writer was doing something wrong. more ‘well. ifthey'd shape up. they'd like it‘. 5 and I think that's the attitude we have to take: ifthey l shape up then they'll like it.‘

, The Rest of Life is published by Bloomsbury at | £14.99.

_ Lady

needed counterweight.

it primarily as a semi-autobiographical novel, or turn quickly to Donald Clarke’s new biography as a much-

Wishing On The Moon sets the record

Clarke, the editor oi Penguin’s extremely useiul Encyclopedia oi Popular Music, was born near ’Chicago, but has lived in England ior twenty years. He was able to draw on


You don’t have to be a jazz ten to know and love the music oi Billie Holiday. Even it she herseli was a jazz musician (and I use that word very deliberately Indeed) to her very core, her unique vocal style has appealed across the board, and many at the records she cut were at least as much sophisticated pop as out-and-out jazz. She also attracted the kind oi media attention usually reserved ior pop stars, a process which reached its apogee when a hopelessly miscast Diana Ross played Holiday in the Hollywood version oi her ‘autoblography’, Lady Sings the Blues In 1972. That book, ghost-written by loumalist William nutty, was only ever written to attract the movies in the iirst place, and has been the source oi

Billie Holiday

many oi the legends surrounding her, to which the iilm version added its own additional layer oi invention. Holiday almost certainly never actually read the book once it was written; she was irank in some areas, downright sell-servineg ilctlonal in others. By all means read it, but read

straight on many areas oi Holiday’s Iiie, especially her early years, and corrects many oi the popular myths which have grown up around this compelling iigure. It traces her iraught history with iamily, sex and narcotics in perceptive detail, and she emerges as a hugely complex, contradictory iigure, a strong and hugely giited woman who commanded incredible loyalty and love, but at the same time a victim oi her own deeply- rooted weaknesses.

‘One oi the earliest reviews complained that the book did not capture Blllie’s character,’ says Clarke. ‘But ior me, the reviewer has missed the point I try to make, and that is that you can’t pin her down to any simple encapsulation. She was not only a very complex woman, but she constantly changed, even in


a huge archive oi interview transcripts prepared by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died beiore her own projected book on Holiday could get underway; this was supplemented by his own researches, both into her personal liie, and, most importantly, Into her music, and the music that was going on around her.

‘I was anxious to get that ‘liie and times’ balance in the book. I always subscribed to the idea that her earlier music was best, but I eventually came to the conclusion that her work was very connected right the way through. Her greatest giit was as an interpreter oi the songs she sang, and she never lost that, but ii I had to chose, I would say the discs she cut with lester Young in 1937 are my iavourltes.’ (Kenny Mathieson)

Wishing On The Moon: The Liie and Times oi Billie Holiday is published by Viking at £16.99.

l l

The List l4--27 January I994 65