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Reflections on Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife

Walter Moss: In her collection of four novellas gathered here under the title of the first of them, “The Liar’s Wife,” we see that she is a woman that understands the complexity of life and possesses strong spiritual and humanistic values.

In a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers Mary Gordon told him that two forces that threatened what she valued were intolerant fundamentalism and the tendency “to make everything about money.” In her collection of four novellas gathered here under the title of the first of them, “The Liar’s Wife,” we see that she is a woman that understands the complexity of life and possesses strong spiritual and humanistic values.

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In the collection’s third novella, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana,” a 90-year-old man recounts how he, Bill Morton, at age 17, introduced the famous German writer when he came to his high school in Gary—although Mann was teaching at Princeton in 1939 and moved to Los Angeles in 1942, he never really visited Gary, but such liberties are permitted in historical fiction. The story is mainly about the young Bill, and he tells us how he came to abhor the prejudice and discrimination he discovered against blacks and Jews in Gary.

The second novella, “Simone Weil in New York,” also involves a famous European who because of Hitler came to the United States (in 1942), although she remained much more briefly than Mann. A short “Afterword” on Weil and Mann helps us distinguish the facts of their lives from Gordon’s fictional use of them. Whereas Gordon tells us more about Mann’s writings than his real life self, she depicts the personality and ideas of the French philosopher Weil in more detail—and overall quite accurately. Another contrast is that Weil interacts much more with her former fictional French pupil, Genevieve Levy (née Le Clos), than Mann does will Bill Morton—Levy is caring for her infant son alone while her husband is with the army on Pacific battlefields.

Readers unfamiliar with Weil will benefit from being introduced to this amazing but certainly unconventional woman who died at age 34 in England in 1943. In the years after her death, one of France’s most famous writers, Albert Camus, published eight of her works and said she was “the only great spirit of our age.” Aider-of-the-poor Dorothy Day sometimes quoted her. And a recent documentary on her emphasizing her compassion has been praised by filmmaker Michael Moore, who called it “a profound and moving film on a woman who continues to speak to all of us” and it “challenges all of us not to look the other way when we see the suffering of others.”

Reading these two novellas dealing with Mann and Weil reminds me of the great debt we owe to all the immigrants, many of them Jews (as was Weil), who came to the United States because of Hitler and European Fascism. Historian H. Stuart Hughes referred to this phenomenon as the “Great Migration” and thought it “the most important cultural event—or series of events—of the second quarter of the twentieth century.”

Gordon writes not as a professional biographer, or as a historian, but as a master of the story form, as a careful reader, as a woman attuned to power and longing and as a believer for whom God is a mystery but no stranger.

But, as a reviewer of Gordon’s earlier Joan of Arcobserved, “Gordon writes not as a professional biographer, or as a historian, but as a master of the story form, as a careful reader, as a woman attuned to power and longing and as a believer for whom God is a mystery but no stranger.” Both of the novellas discussed so far deal with young people, Bill Morton and Genevieve Levy, trying to figure out how best to live their lives. Interacting with Mann and Weil are for Morton and Levy part of that process.

The collection’s other two novellas also deal with how one should live one’s life, a central question for philosophers like Socrates and Plato and in more modern times the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

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The last story, “Fine Arts” is about Theresa Riordan, a Yale graduate student who receives a grant to study a 15th-century sculptor in Lucca, Italy. Age 25, she is a year older than Genevieve in the Weil story and eight years older than Bill Morton throughout most of the Mann novella. Thus, all three of the stories concern themselves with young people who are still carving out their identities, trying to figure out who they are and what their role in life should be. Gordon weaves into her stories the families and background of her young protagonists. She is a practicing but undogmatic and tolerant Catholic, and Theresa owes much of her pre-Yale education to nuns, whom she loves for their goodness and courage: “They visit people on death row. They hire ex-cons to do their yard work, and face up to their neighbors’ complaints. They stand up to the bishops who could ruin them financially.”

But like Morton and Levy, this art student is a conflicted person. Before going to Italy she had a continuing sexual relationship with her Yale professor and chief mentor. Young Bill Morton in the Mann novella also struggles with sex, having guilty feelings for frequently masturbating. Genevieve Levy’s chief inner conflict is not sexual, but to what extent she should conform with the demanding standards Weil advocates and lives. Although Jewish, Weil counsels following the example of Jesus and not the Bible’s Old Testament, which she once wrote, “made cruelty [to the Hebrews’ foes] permissible, even mandatory.” At one point, Weil advises Genevieve to have a Catholic priest baptize her son, which would be contrary to the faith of Genevieve’s Jewish husband. (Weil herself was never baptized. Despite her admiration for Jesus and many Catholic teachings, she was critical of institutional Catholicism and its past behavior: “Throughout many centuries of Christianity, Romans and Hebrews have been admired, read, and emulated in words and deeds, cited whenever a crime needed justification.”

“Fine Arts” is not only the longest of the four novellas, it also features the most surprises. Two especially are crucial to the story, but I’ll not decrease the enjoyment of any future readers by revealing them here

Unlike the protagonists of the other three novella’s, Jocelyn of the “Liar’s Wife,” is old (72) and a retired scientist. The story revolves around an unexpected visit paid on her by her first husband, the Irishman Johnny Shaughnessy (the “liar”), whom she has not seen since she left him in Dublin a half century earlier. Johnny was and still is a guitar-playing minor entertainer who appears at Irish pubs. Accompanying him on the surprise visit is his latest “lady,” Linnet. Neither of them with much money, they earn a little entertaining as “Dixie and Dub”—she from the south and he from Dublin.

At age 72 Jocelyn is generally self-satisfied, at least she is before Johnny and Linnet arrive at one of the three houses she and her second husband own: “A happy marriage. Healthy children, happier themselves than not. Work she enjoyed. More than enough money.” Grandchildren. When she looks at Linnet, who is about her own age, she sees badly dyed hair, “very bad false teeth,” and a probable “boob job,” a “phrase Jocelyn loathed.” Johnny also little resembles the young Irish charmer she had married and then gone to Dublin with, before fleeing back home before two years had passed: “Now his mouth was just the mouth of an old man with a bad set of dentures.”

As the three of them talk in her home—her present husband is out of town—and later go to a restaurant where “Dixie and Dub” play and sing, the conflicted Jocelyn gradually goes from feeling superior and snobbish to appreciating the inner beauty of Johnny and Linnet. “Everything in her life,” Jocelyn realizes, “had been carefully chosen, carefully tended. Contained.” Johnny had been her one wild fling. “Johnny had not contained his life or been contained. He had loved women, left them and been left. . . . He hadn’t even enough money for proper medical care. . . . He had loved life [as he told her]. He had lived it abundantly.” And when Linnet sang, Jocelyn marveled at her “miraculous voice, clear and pure.” “She felt suddenly smaller than the two of them with her safe life, her safe home, her safe marriage.”

Thus young or old, Gordon’s protagonists puzzle over how best to live. They realize there are no easy answers, but like Socrates they are aware that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss