Mary Gordon

Virginia Woolf’s birthday. No writer has been more important in both my imagination and formation of myself as a writer. I remember reading her for the first time. I was 20. It was July of 1969. I was living in Cambridge, Mass., for the summer; Maureen was taking physics at Harvard, and I was working for an insurance company. I had come back to New York for the weekend, and in Penn Station I saw a very dusty paperback on sale. It was called Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I was hot on the trail for any woman writer, so I decided to invest in this unknown. Almost impossible to think now but, before the Quentin Bell biography, she was considered a genteel irrelevance. Relegated to the fusty sidelines. I was sitting by the Charles River waiting for Maureen to come out of the physics lab. A sentence pierced me. No, not a sentence, a phrase. “Trophies of nuts and roses.” I was writing only poetry then, and then, with a force, somewhat painful, as though a rib had been cracked, the idea: “You can write prose like that. I can write prose like that.”

Days in the Reading Room of the British Museum doing my dissertation on her. 1976. Unhappily married, happily copying down notes onto index cards in a room where I knew she’d sat.

Her madness and the sexuality have never interested me much. It is the complete absorption in the vocation of writing, the heroic determination to realize her vision as fully as possible, an achievement of great purity won by working like a horse. And her joy in language and literature.

I’m glad I never had to know her. She could be quite cruel. Ivy Compton-Burnett said something like: “She could say quite malicious things about people. One does it oneself, but one doesn’t expect it in Virginia Woolf.”

Apparently the Republicans have got nothing new from Monica Lewinsky. What frightens me about them is the obsessiveness that makes them reckless. They seem to ignore the brake of self-interest. Very few people want them to be doing what they are doing, but they keep on. This is madness, and I am always afraid that reason is very weak against this torrential force. Selfishly, I want them to stop so that I will not have to suffer anymore. Each morning I dread to read the headlines; I dread the evidence that these people, whom I can only fear, are in the ascendancy. Would a great novelist be able to get to the inner life of some of these Shopping Mall Christian congressmen with their bad toupees? Kenneth Starr, yes, but it is some of the minor players who paralyze the imagination. When did we all start saying “House managers,” believing we knew what we were talking about?

David leaves the house for basketball practice, chinning himself 15 times on the bar he’s installed in the living room doorway. A handsome, athletic, popular boy. Odd to have a son who’s the kind of boy who wouldn’t have paid attention to me in high school.