Mary Gordon

Up at 6, because I am behind in preparing for class. To teach Joseph Conrad to 200 students. A larger group than I have ever addressed–good, I suppose, for the vanity but disastrous for the sense of intimacy I enjoy in teaching. The Secret Agent is in many ways a perfect novel. I will teach it as a tender book, a feminist book. Most students if they have read Conrad have read only Heart of Darkness, and it has been taught to them as a bogey-text, an anti-imperialist text. What I want is to get them to see the triumphant style of Conrad, the formal power, the power of image making. I haven’t read the book in two years. What I remember most: two images, the player piano that bangs out tunes insanely in the dark, malign bar; the image of the bowler hat that rocks on its crown after Verloc is murdered. Also the description of a bad Italian restaurant’s “fraudulent cookery.” I must reread the books entirely every time I teach them, otherwise they aren’t fresh. This is very good for my own work, the kind of close reading motivated by a need not to sound like a fool. The Secret Agent is an important model for what I’m working on right now. How Conrad would hate it that I will teach The Secret Agent as a feminist text. The only uncorrupted values in the novel are the traditional female ones; the only moral centers are two women and a brain damaged child.

I didn’t get to do my own work yesterday, except to copy out a paragraph of Ford’s description of Conrad. His description of him as a wild robin that flew into the house gave me great joy. “A red breast and a greenish khaki body.” The bird “would hop through the inner doorway of the kitchen across an angle of the low dining room and so up the bedroom stairs. When the maid with the morning letters and the tea tray opened the bedroom door the robin would fly through the low, dark room and perch on a comb, stuck in a brush on the dressing table, against the long, low leaded windows.” I am humbled by the quality of the seeing, the “greenish khaki body,” the bird’s perching on a comb. My fear that I haven’t the gift, or the developed faculty of that kind of seeing.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a meeting at my mother’s nursing home, discussing the next phase of her care. She is refusing to eat. We decide what to do next. There is no good outcome for her now but death. My love for her now is hopeless and helpless, as everything about her now seems hopeless and helpless. In love, one of the most difficult things to do is to wait. And now there is nothing to do but wait, hope that she doesn’t suffer, hope that at the crucial moments I can be present. After this, I am too sad to work, and I go to the gym. Before the meeting I bought a dress that cost more than I could afford. A dress I imagine Maeve Brennan wearing to work at The New Yorker in 1952. The beautiful picture of her looking like a movie star. The subtle, elegant writer dying a mad old woman in the women’s bathroom of The New Yorker. Some lives are too hard. The dress is red wool with a cinched waist and a long, very full skirt. It has a black velvet collar and cuffs. It makes me very happy, as the red slippers with the gold bows that David P. brought me back from Italy can dispel my morning dread. Clothes mean more to me than my mother could ever have imagined. Of the things my mother thought of me, caring about being attractive was very low on the list. She was always surprised that I cared about being attractive and that some people thought I was. Somehow, attending to my bodily life, my female body life, seemed an important response to my mother’s decline. But I could have used the time to work.