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MARY GORDON, A WRITER OF EXQUISITE STRENGTH

John Leonard has this to say about Mary Gordon: "There's no brainier writer or reader, no more resourceful archeologist of hidden meanings." She is "sui generis and so is her book ('Shadow Man'): wounding, refulgent, redemptive."

Leonard, the former book editor of the New York Times and the Nation and eloquent pan-cultural commentator on CBS' "Sunday Morning," is one of many who think Mary Gordon one of the most brilliant and powerful writers in America.

"The Shadow Man" -- about her crazed father -- is only one of many Gordon books that people have sworn by since "Final Payments," her first novel about that same difficult father.

In a rare appearance, Gordon will read from her work at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Grupp Fireside Lounge of Canisius College, 2001 Main St., as part of the college's superb Contemporary Writers Series.

For a couple of decades now, the novelist and essayist has been the kind of writer other writers cherish, word by word, observation by observation, thought by thought.

Here is Mary Gordon, early on, making fine feminist trouble for anyone who would ask her to sit in the back of the bus: "I have been told by male but not female critics that my work was 'exquisite,' 'lovely,' 'like a watercolor.' They, of course, were painting in oils. They were doing the important work. Watercolors are cheap and plentiful; oils are costly . . . and the idea is that oil paintings will endure. But what will they endure against? Fire? Flood? Banks? Earthquake? Their endurance is another illusion, one more foolish bet against nature or against emotional vulnerabilities, one more scheme, like fallout shelters, one more gesture of illusory safety.

"There are people in the world who derive no small pleasure from the game of 'major' and 'minor.' They think that no major work can be painted in watercolors. They think, too, that Hemingway writing about boys in the woods is major, Mansfield writing about girls in the house is minor. Exquisite, they will hasten to insist, but minor."

So she tried to be a "good girl" and be a writer like James and Conrad. But "the writers I wanted to imitate were all women: Charlotte Bronte, Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen, Lessing, Olsen. I discovered that what I loved in writing was not distance but radical closeness; not the violence of the bizarre but the complexity of the quotidian."

That's Mary Gordon, the feminist, making her points for all time.

Here is Mary Gordon, the Catholic writer, educated by nuns, who is just as feminist and not by accident: "I have an odd feeling that it is better in some ways to grow up a Catholic woman. . . . because there existed a separate but equal world for women. The very sexual segregation spared you from a lower place in the hierarchy run by males. . . . There was a way in which the experience of femaleness was given a kind of validity -- it wasn't as if you were always looking over your shoulder for the approval of some male, because the males weren't around."

If Mary Gordon, then, is "minor," she has been doing it in such a way that it makes it seem excessive to be "major."

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