The Liar's Wife
There are four short novels in Mary Gordon's The Liar's Wife. Two of them you can ignore. Number two is about Simone Weil, and it is about as dry and harsh as (if we believe what is written here) Weil herself.
Number three is about the writer Thomas Mann's visit to Gary, Indiana, in 1939. And the story is, too, about as cold and boring as Mann was, from everything we've read about him.
The title story, the first one, is pretty drab, too. It's about Ireland and the Irish and the apparent national characteristic of being unable to utter a word that isn't dipped in twaddle. The author even tries to explain these languorous stretches of truth, the ones that some of us find so beguiling. It's all a matter of pride, she says.
Early in their marriage, Jossy discovers her husband's lie about his father. He said that they had buried him ten years ago. We find out that he's not dead, he just told her so because he didn't like the old bastard. She, being American, and Catholic, and innocent . . . well, she had to confront him. It's all a matter of The Holy Truth. But one of her Irish pals tells her to hang on.
"I wouldn't be so quick to be telling him," Moira said, and Claire nodded her agreement.
"But I have to tell him, I couldn't have this secret between us. It would poison everything."
"Only if you let it," Claire said. "What would poison everything is if you shamed him. You have to understand the Irish, Jocelyn. We're easily shamed: it's usually our first response to nearly everything." Shamed, she says, by parents, the church, the British, "maybe even the land itself."
Jossy says she must, and Claire says, "Well, my love, I'd say then it's your funeral. And it will be no Finnegan's wake, let me tell you. There won't be lots of fun at this."
§ § §
"Fine Arts" is the longest story of the four, and probably the best. Theresa Riordan is moving to Italy to study sculptures of the great 15th century Italian artist Matteo Civitali. She has been preparing for years for this, has been doing her graduate thesis on Civitali at Yale School of Fine Arts, has studied with a known expert (who did, for free, extra graduate work with her by bedding her down when his wife was out of the picture).
Now Theresa is beyond all that, has arrived in Lucca, goes directly to the Civitali museum.
What she felt looking at the figure of Jesus was not pleasure, but shock. Because this Jesus was, himself, shocked, unable fully to understand what had befallen him. His face expressed a stricken incomprehension. His arms, open at his sides, his palms facing upwards, said most clearly: "How can this be happening? To me? In this world? Here? Now?
Within a short time, Theresa makes contact with Gregory Allard, an ancient American who lives there in Lucca, who collects art. She manages to meet him by a letter of introduction from her thesis advisor and former bedmate (he sent her an email when she left town, officially dumping her from the marriage bed).
When she finally meets Allard, she decides that he looks like a grasshopper, but no prob: it turns out that he's also a serious and knowledgeable collector of good art. He has two Civitalis in his house, and an appreciation for this shy and obviously inexperienced young woman. Another bed hopper, we think.
Evidently no: the very first thing he asks her when they meet is if she thinks he should buy a statue by Civitali that has been offered to him by a local dealer. She thinks, in the vernacular of current juveniles OMG, but then says, "I would be happy to look at it, as long as you don't ask me whether I think it's authentic or not."
Thus begins a friendship between him and this typical Gordon character . . . a shy rather lumpy Catholic woman, continually berating herself, always thinking of things she should (or should not) have said, one of those people haunted forever by what the French call "L'esprit de l'escalier" --- all the smart answers stocked in the brainpan that you and I should have used back there when we were arguing about art, or life, or love, or about the meaning of it all.
§ § §
Anyway, she is enchanted by the artist --- tells Allard it is Civitali's "mixture of containment and tenderness" that attracted her. He is one of those minor major figures from back then which would be a perfect study for a gifted amateur like Theresa, a painter/sculptor from 500 years ago who few of us have ever heard about, who lived and worked and died long ago, left behind a few superb pieces --- one whose history and works haven't been corrupted by popularity. Theresa can become an expert on him in no time at all, possibly already is.
And Allard is just the perfect person for her to use as a foil. He owns rare pieces by this rare artist, so that when she writes her PhD thesis on Civitali, she'll be one of the few experts in the world to have seen these pieces hidden away for so long.
And so she enters into the orbit of the one person who can help her the most, but does so in such an unexpected way, with such an unexpected outcome, that you and I cannot help but be swept up by the moral of this story. Which has little to do with art, and much to do with Allard, graduated from Harvard; married, beloved wife dead of lupus; so rich (tells us "I never had to worry about money") . . . and Theresa, so Catholic, shy, innocent, protected, unloved. Boring.
And then there's Allard's son Ivo.
This jerky punk son comes to be a great whiff of the not-musty, a creep who stops off at the old man's house when he feels like it, brings along his nervy young German friends, and his lusty girl Sage --- all of them playing "techno" music full blast back in the back of the house.
§ § §
The old grasshopper brings Theresa into the room with the marble statue, and says "Don't be frightened of her, hold her if you like, she's been around for a while and I know you will treat her well." If I didn't know better, I'd think the old galoot was introducing Theresa to someone she can love.
Theresa is a little stiff, a little ancient, and of course, being a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic,
I could look at this forever . . . because time was about to change and forever was about no change and she couldn't imagine there would be a time when she would want to be doing anything else than looking at the gentildonna, would want any change, any sense of moving on. And she knew that, like most of the things that came to her mind when she saw something beautiful, she couldn't say what she meant to anyone. There was only one word she wanted to say, and if she couldn't say what she meant to anyone, So she would say it now.
"Beautiful," she said.
"She is beautiful," Gregory Allard said, "And she is mine. And now, I feel, in some way, yours."
And then, here at the cusp, enter Ivo and Sage. "Everything about these two make Theresa feel clumsy, foolish, unfashionable, almost middle-aged, although she knew that Ivo was at least fifteen years older than she."
When Ivo asks about America and her favorite photographer --- he is a photographer --- she says that she is "not very interested in America." He responds, "Watch out Theresa, they never come to a good end, these Henry James girls. And it's always about money. Gregory [his father] knows all about money. Or no, he doesn't know anything. He doesn't have to." Another noisy father-kicker, boat-rocker.
As the story evolves, Ivo comes to be more involved than she and Gregory (and maybe even the rest of us . . . it was so calm and love-ancient-art before) could possibly want.
Then the final blow-your-head off ending, it all turns delicious, all the surprises one could ask, the final ennoblement of this emotionally stunted Theresa, where she discovers her previously hidden revolutionary heart. Which enchants Allard. Delights Ivo.
Yes, it's the final surprise ending that we could all want of this rather laconic writer, leaving us to advise you that, if you like art, and Italian art, and Italian people, and American humility: this is the right place for you.
§ § §
Me? But, in all, as Yoga Berri said, I shoulda' stood in bed. For my part, author Gordon should be hauled off to the courtroom, tried, and consigned for a couple of years to the Graybar Hotel. For what?
For that bum Donald Trump-like logic. . . the one used by people who say that blacks have natural rhythm, that Jews are good with money, that the Irish tell lies, that all Muslims are terrorists. We find some equally bad logic in two of the stories here, "Simone Weil in New York" and "Fine Arts."
Simone Weil's old student Genevieve has a brother Laurent. No one wants to be with him . . . except Weil. Why? Because he has "a distorted body." He's "one of the afflicted, his body broken from birth . . . Any God who would have allowed the fate of Laurent's body could only be a monster."
Misshapen in his mother's womb . . . Cerebral palsy . . . Sporadic control, only of his limbs. A bent spine, so that most days he presents to the world the shape of an upside-down L, his spine a flat table, parallel almost to the ground . . . when he was standing or walking, he would have to awkwardly twist his head, look up at them from a sidewise angle. Which made people more uncomfortable still.
Everybody "had trouble looking at him." And Laurent's personality? Zilch. At least from what we can devine from the narrative. Not interesting; chilly, really. Lots of sullen silences, temper tantrums, you have to be careful around him. Because he is afflicted. Broken.
And what the hell is he doing here in this story?
Apparently Ms. Gordon needed something or someone who could force Genevieve to hate God. So:
My brother, for love of whom, in outrage on whose behalf I refuse to bend the knee to any God.
The story demands an otherwise kindly character who hates God. Good. Let's give her a brother with a "broken" body. Tortured by an Unkind God. A perfect squeeze play on the reader.
And we get yet another distorted body in the "Fine Art." Theresa's father. Struck down in his prime. Hard working laborer. The back broken, on the job. The once happy-go-lucky guy. The family: they don't have much money, certainly not after the accident. No one to take care of him. He needs 24-hour a day nursing care. They park the hospital bed in the middle of the living room (it's a very small house). And Theresa and Mum do all the dirty work. For years.
Wasn't much fun, anymore . . . the old man. No more jokes, dappling the girl on his knee, tickling her. No wonder Theresa's so lorky. For the nuns where she went to school, she was a child of "affliction." Fortunately this burden disappears when Theresa finally gets out of the house and on into college and the broken old man died. Whew: just in time.
For those of us who are disabled, we figure we got enough problems without some author yanking us over plop in the middle of her desolate stories. Where we can rob all the other characters of life and hope. Want a fucked-up life? Call on your sullen local crip! We'll give you soomeone who's "misshapen," "bent," "broken." A genuine party-pooper
Of course Genevieve hates god. Because before she discovers Art, Theresa has a crappy life. Out for a sullen martyr for your story? Writeres in need used to use a drunken father, a dope-addled brother, a whiny mother. Now? Haul in some cripple to pour some vinegar in the punch. Story demands a crappy childhood. Bring down one of God's cruel plagues in order to jolly the plot along. These cripples! A burden to their families, to themselves. Morose. Petulant. Miserable louts.
Just what the doctor ordered.
--- Carlos Amantea