Mary Gordon’s latest work, The Liar’s Wife, is a collection of novellas whose settings span Europe and America, pre- and post-World War II, and whose narrators are surprisingly adept truth-tellers - so deft, in fact, as to tell you truths about yourself that you might have a hard time believing.
There is Jocelyn, who finds herself tending her dead mother’s house at the height of post-retirement bliss when her ex-husband pulls into her driveway, steering a Frito-Lay truck; Genevieve, a former student of Simone Weil, who tends her infant son and invalid brother while coping with Weil’s sudden reappearance in her life; Bill, an old man reminiscing about his encounters with the German writer Thomas Mann before the explosion of WWII; and Theresa, a young art scholar whose trip to Italy curtails an awkward affair.
At first, the collection bored me. What initially kept me from following these narrators was a tendency on Gordon’s part to overindulge their inner monologues. But I eventually realized that what was waking me during the night was not my toddler, but the sound of these narrators’ voices in my head, calling me to pay better attention.
The narrator I heard the most clearly was Genevieve, whose relationship with the famous Weil is marked by a vacillating sense of obligation and disgust. A well-known Christian philosopher, Weil is depicted in a decidedly unflattering light. For Genevieve, Weil was someone whom she adored as a girl, but whose abrasive personality and emotional abruptness burdens Genevieve in a particularly intimate way. Seeing Weil as a “wounded bird” keeps Genevieve from simply cutting her off, even as her requests are both impossible and unavoidable (such as when Weil demands to baptize Genevieve’s Jewish son).
And what makes Weil unavoidable for Genevieve? What makes each of these narrators return to their lovers and heroes with recognition of their flaws and, at the same time, courage?
What these narrators begged of me was my time, my mind and my willingness to listen to them.
It comes, I think, from an openness to examine themselves and to be honest about what they find. And what they find is what is common to each of us: the desire to be seen as righteous, the need for love, the uneasy satisfaction that follows judging someone who has wronged us.
This, again, is clearest with Genevieve, who allows Weil into her life, not out of mere politeness, but out of a sense of obligation. For better or worse, Genevieve feels that she owes Weil something - if nothing else, the act of answering the door at tea time, knowing that Weil is standing at the door with the potential to turn Genevieve’s already difficult day into a worse one.
In the process, Genevieve embodies Weil’s own teaching: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She opens her door; she offers tea and rationed butter; she listens. This is what each narrator does for both others and themselves - they pay full attention to the lives they live, and to the inner workings of not only the hearts of others, but to their own.
The light that falls on the characters, of course, falls on us. For me, simply paying attention to these narrators and letting their words and actions fill my own thoughts was the most difficult form of attention. My own ability to pay attention to others (even and especially literary characters) is weak. I am too readily preoccupied by my own thoughts and needs.
But Gordon’s work calls that out for me. And for other readers, it might call out other ways that our inattention diminishes the quality of our lives, and the lives of others. This echoes the words of Christ in Luke: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” What these narrators begged of me was my time, my mind and my willingness to listen to them as they themselves struggled to give what others required of them in their stories. They will probably require the same of you, and in so doing, show you a more excellent way.