May 01, 2017

Mary Gordon

Fiction as a weapon against tyranny
Interview by

In her latest novel, Mary Gordon explores faith, family and war through dual narratives: that of a woman who joins the forces fighting Franco in late-1930s Spain, and of her granddaughter in 2009. There Your Heart Lies displays tremendous historical depth and emotional resonance.

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In her latest novel, Mary Gordon explores faith, family and war through dual narratives: that of a woman who joins the forces fighting Franco in late-1930s Spain, and of her granddaughter in 2009. There Your Heart Lies displays tremendous historical depth and emotional resonance.

Where does the title of the novel come from?
From the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is telling people not to covet material possessions and says, “For where your treasure is, there also does your heart lie.”

What inspired this novel?
I have been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. I was brought up in a very politically conservative Catholic environment, which saw Franco as the Savior of Western civilization, particularly the Catholic Church. When the words “Spanish Civil War” were spoken, they were always followed by, “nuns were raped, priests were killed.” I went to Barnard in 1967, the first non-Catholic institution I had ever been attached to, and there I heard that no nuns were ever raped, no priests were ever killed and that either 1) the Lincoln Brigade were all heroes of the people or 2) those influenced by Orwell insisting that the Anarchists were all heroes of the people destroyed by the Stalinists.

But what brought it all together was my reading of Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos. Simone Weil went to Spain to fight with the anarchists, but was appalled by their blood lust. Bernanos, a devout Catholic, was originally pro-Franco, his son was a Falangist, but he was so appalled by the brutality of the Francoists in the name of God and the church that he wrote an impassioned book condemning them. Both Weil and Bernanos wrote their impressions, she for the left-wing press, he for the right. She wrote to him, saying “I am an anarchist. You are a royalist. I thought you were my enemy, but you are my brother.”

In short, what fascinated me was the evidence of such conflicting narratives that only the two great writers could see through, or see clearly, that in such horror, there was only the tragedy of blood. That being said, everything I have read and thought insists that I believe that the Francoists, armed by Mussolini and Hitler, and acting in the name of and with the support of the Church, were the greatest monsters.

Some of the stories in The Liar’s Wife (2014) were also explorations of American innocence and European experience. Do you see these themes in There Your Heart Lies?
Yes, I do. Of course, there is the great ghost of Henry James who has gone there before me, with a greatness I could never approach.

“Fiction is the opposite of the Tweet: It insists on itself, its opposite and something in between. A complexity of thought that is the only weapon against tyranny.”

Reading a novel with such deep political and religious themes is interesting in today’s current political climate. How do you think fiction adds to our understanding of current affairs?
I think that fiction is the only way we an try to make sense of the conflicting and confounding barrage of information that makes us despair, otherwise, of making meaning. Fiction is the opposite of the Tweet: It insists on itself, its opposite and something in between. A complexity of thought that is the only weapon against tyranny.

Faith has been a significant part of all of your books, and it’s certainly a factor in this one. Do you think of yourself as a Catholic writer?
Well—in that I was formed by that imagination, those images, those habits of mind. But I don’t identify strongly with other “Catholic” writers; they have never been my models. Even Flannery O’Connor, whom I deeply admire, has not been important to my work in the way that Virginia Woolf, Turgenev, Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Anne Porter have been.

You have taught at Barnard since 1988. What are some of the things that keep you in the classroom?
The wonderful sense that young people are excited and passionate about the same things about which I was excited and passionate when I was young.

What book(s) is/are on your nightstand now?
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumgaglia. Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises. Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk. The Collected Poems of W.H. Auden.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of There Your Heart Lies.

Author photo © Christopher Greenleaf. 

Get the Book

There Your Heart Lies

There Your Heart Lies

By Mary Gordon
Pantheon
ISBN 9780307907943

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