Memoir-mania has gripped the book-publishing industry: this spring, no less than 44 personal memoirs will be published by the major houses; the New York Times Magazine will devote an entire issue to the art of the contemporary memoir on May 12. Now novelist Mary Gordon ("Final Payments," "The Company of Women") has tackled the genre in a brave book about her father.
Gordon's father died of a heart attack when she was seven. The first chapters of her memoir describe an exceptional man with loving detail. Ohio-born, Harvard- and Oxford-educated, he was a devoted Catholic (he had converted from Judaism as a child). As a young man, he frequented the bistros of Paris and entertained a wide, literary circle of friends before sweeping Gordon's mother off her feet when he was in his 40s. He died of a heart attack at the age of 53, leaving an only child and wife.
Gordon went to Barnard and became a novelist. She looked to her family for inspiration and indulged in a detective hunt into her father's past to find out more about the man she had never known as an adult. What she discovered was shocking. Her father was born in Lithuania, not Ohio; he had converted from Judaism, but he was a raving anti-Semite who fearlessly put those feelings into print. (In a magazine article Gordon discovers, her father refers to Einstein as a "Jew-boy" and a "ham-hater.") Gordon's father also wrote softcore pornography; he never went to Harvard or Oxford and had never returned to Europe after his birth. Yet what remains strong throughout is the sense that the love he felt for his daughter was real and profound.
This is a tough, sad book. It's like unearthing a diary from a distant, difficult time in life and forcing yourself to reread and relive the terrible events. Toward the end, when Gordon indulges in a dreamlike sequence in which she puts her father on trial (providing him with characteristics borrowed from Ezra Pound, Bernard Berenson, Henry Roth and H.L. Mencken), her generally crisp writing becomes muddy and sentimental. Apart from that one departure, Gordon's story is terrifying and powerful.