New York -- In the novels and short stories of Mary Gordon, memory and reality shift and flicker like shadows in candlelight. Her characters discover that memory records both the real and the imagined and may be ever-changing. Ms. Gordon -- author of six books of fiction and one of essays -- has seen that same flickering in her own life.
A few years ago, she began writing a biography of her father, of whom she had many fond recollections. He was born Jewish, converted to Catholicism and died when his daughter was only 7. But as Mary Gordon delved into his past, she discovered that many of the most important things he had said, and many of the most important things she had believed, were false.
What began as the biography of a man and father has become Ms. Gordon's attempt to deal with the disturbing shift and flicker of a daughter's memories. Of necessity, the book attempts to describe the pressure to assimilate that her father, a Jewish immigrant, must have felt when building a life in the United
Ms. Gordon will be in Columbia tomorrow to read from her work-in-progress, tentatively titled "Losing My Father." The event, which is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, coincidentally takes place on Father's Day.
"In an odd way I had prepared myself for this because [my fiction] plays with the unreliability of memory and the way that we can easily re-narrativize stories," she says. We re-order, she says, prettify and, when necessary, forget.
"Memory exists in a certain relationship to the physical world that can't be discounted, but within those parameters there's a lot of invention, and that's very painful."
Ms. Gordon's father was 55 years old when his only child was born. He had converted to Catholicism in the 1930s -- before he met her mother, a working-class, Irish Catholic woman. Mary's mother, though handicapped from having had polio when she was 3 years old, supported her family by working as a legal secretary.
Ms. Gordon, now 45, describes her relationship with her father as "intense," loving, close.
But while poring over property records, school yearbooks and city directories, the writer discovered that her father was not the person he said he was. He was born in Lithuania, not Ohio. He was five years older than he admitted. He did not attend Harvard as he told everyone. He had been married before he met her mother. His name -- the name that Ms. Gordon gave her son -- was not David, but Israel.
Neither the author nor her mother, who is now elderly and ill, had known any of this.
"Almost everything I had thought I knew about my father, from his name to his place of birth to his language of origin to the education of the people in his family, was gone," says the author. "It absolutely made me feel insane."
She dealt with her confusion and pain by persevering -- and by trying to understand.
"I really tried to put myself in the position of being a bookish boy in Ohio [where her father grew up] with dreams of high culture," she explains. At that time, her father must have felt that "everything that is desirable in America is achievable only if you hide or lose your Jewishness, so I really tried to understand how insane that would make you feel."
Now Ms. Gordon, who has just wrapped up the writing seminar she teaches at Barnard College, is scrambling to meet a July deadline for the book, which will be published next year. And she is already looking forward to her next creation. "I'm longing to do fiction. If I don't like someone's life, I just change it," she says, laughing.
As she talks, the author sits in the sun-washed dining room of the large apartment she shares with her two children and husband Arthur Cash, a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
As she answers her visitor's questions, she ousts her 12-year-old son David from his place in front of the computer because its beeping noises are distracting. Her husband, wearing overalls and leading a large black dog on a leash, and Anna, her 15-year-old daughter, wander through the room, too. Each one greets Ms. Gordon's visitor kindly, but with little interest: This family is by now used to reporters in the dining room.
A biography is something of a departure for Ms. Gordon. Though in 1991 she published a collection of essays titled "Good Boys and Dead Girls," she's best known for her beautiful, often meditative fiction.
Born and raised in Far Rockaway, New York, as a Catholic, Ms. Gordon weaves stories steeped in the traditions and mores of the church. Often narrated by a woman, her works explore the role of women's lives as they deal with aging parents, children, lovers, husbands.
Her first novel, "Final Payments," tells the tale of a young woman, Isabel Moore, who devotes much of her life to nursing her devoutly Catholic father, who has fallen ill.
When the book, which deals with the theme of sacrifice, was published in 1978, Ms. Gordon, then 29, instantly was hailed as a gifted new voice. One critic wrote: "All of a sudden, this first novel has surged up out of the 'me-generation' of self-absorbed, navel-contemplating, dropout American children, and has knocked the critics for a loop."
"Mary Gordon cuts across several audiences -- she takes in the same sort of audience [as] a lot of other women who write about contemporary domestic situations, such as Anne Tyler, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle -- but then she has a much more explicitly Catholic audience, like Flannery O'Connor, J. F. Powers," said Madison Smartt Bell, the Baltimore author who tomorrow will introduce Ms. Gordon.
"Then I think she has another related reputation as a kind of essayist, a feminist social critic. Not all women who write novels of the genre that she writes also engage in this kind of socially critical nonfiction writing," he adds.
And in her latest publication, three novellas published in 1993 under the title "The Rest of Life," Ms. Gordon describes the secret, passionate love lives of three women of differing ages and cultures.
Ms. Gordon does most of her writing in the early mornings, rising before other members of her family and going quietly to her apartment studio. Using the same fountain pen to which she is "fetishistically attached" and the same type of notebook, she writes longhand.
But before writing a word, she reads. "I start my writing day with reading just to get the hum going in my brains. I usually start my writing day with a little Proust," she says.
For her, the actual writing process is both a mystery and a trial. "There are long periods of revision and long periods of not knowing how to do it," she says.
"You have to have the patience to admit you don't know how to do it and say, 'I have this idea and absolutely no language for it.' You have to to be able to live with the pain of that . . . and to have the humility to look at your first draft and say, 'Oh my God, what vulgar person wrote that?' "
If, in Ms. Gordon's books, life often seems exhausting, burdensome enough to cause stooped shoulders and bowed heads, it also is, in the end, colorful and rich like an Oriental carpet full of burgundies and golds and made to endure.
"Life is a great labor," she says. "But it is also punctuated by moments of Matisse -- moments of great color and voluptuousness and hilarity."
What: Mary Gordon reads from her book-in-progress about her father
When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
Where: Howard Community College, Smith Theater, Columbia
Call: (410) 715-3055