How it’s New York: Mary Gordon teaches at Barnard College in New York and participated in one of the New York Public Library’s “Word for Word” open air readings in Bryant Park.
How it’s Irish: She is one of the leading contemporary Irish-American novelists.

Michelle Woods learns that love doesn’t have to be Philip Roth and lesbians with dildos…
“I like to blame Hemingway for everything!” Mary Gordon exclaimed under the plane trees in Bryant Park. Gordon read briefly from her new novel (and 16th book!), The Love of My Youth, a book set in Rome and centering on two ex-lovers who meet after 40 years.

The ex-lovers, Miranda and Adam, tour Rome to reacquaint themselves with each other, including a trip to Keats’ grave where someone has scrawled a poem. Miranda asks an Italian tour guide at the cemetery who wrote the evidently 19th century verse, and he improbably answers “Hemingway” figuring that all Americans would have heard of him.
In a public discussion with one of her ex-students (and novelist), Maggie Pouncey (who runs her own blog, “Monk’s House”, and has recently published the book Perfect Reader), after the reading, Gordon explained that she was interested in her generation and what had happened to the idealism of the sixties. Also at what happens to love to those in their sixties, and whether, at that point in time, you could look at your identity as being the same as that of your youth. (NB: I arrived home to find the AARP had sent me a card in the mail, and an invitation to join – a quarter century early!). How come, she wondered, the same generation who protested the Vietnam War went out and voted for George W. Bush?

“There is no falseness in either of them, Adam and Miranda,”

the narrator says and the utter earnestness of these boomers permeates the narrative, and, at times, this earnestness is both sweet and deliberately wry. The young Miranda thinks to herself that:

she doesn’t want to be a wife, she wants to be someone’s great love. She is afraid that this will not happen before the world is annihilated.

The novel moves between the present and their meanderings through Rome and the past as the terrible (well, not that terrible) secret of why they broke up is revealed. Miranda chose to become a doctor and wonders if this has fulfilled her ethical stance of the 1960s; Adam failed as a concert pianist but teaches music wondering whether his choice of aesthetics over politics was worthwhile. Both are now happily married (Gordon admitted that she didn’t know whether or not they would make love by the end of the book until the third draft). I’ll leave you some suspense.

What struck me reading the novel was that the boomers thought it was about them changing the world, when in fact it was about them, full stop. The phrase, the personal is political, should be shot. It was a tragically misdirected time, focused on the individual’s response to the world rather than the world itself. I was also reading, coincidentally, Thomas Bernhard’s rapturously misanthropic novel, Extinction, also set in Rome. Bernhard who grew up in Austria in WWII, set about eviscerating post-War Austria in his plays and novels. The novels are masterpieces in their utterly dark and utterly hilarious excavating of the Austrian post-war bourgeoisie, pretending that nothing bad happened, no one was to blame, in recursive, obsessive prose that speaks to the trauma (but funny!). His novel (go and read it now!), The Loser, focuses on two fictional classmates of Glenn Gould, who give up playing the piano in the face of seeing it played by a genius, a blast of consciousness compared to mousy Adam.

What Bernhard does is take his generation and culture apart for its sins, in a way that Gordon does not – her tone is elegiac and melancholy, but in the end her lovers, despite the loss of their illusions, have happy lives. It’s a thought that warms the cockles of the heart, but they’re some self-absorbed cockles. Of course the world didn’t change because of these people, and the easy treatment the generation gets here in the novel doesn’t pave the way for any answers.

But, as she pointed out in her excellent discussion with Pouncey, many novels (not written by Philip Roth whose seniors get bedded by lesbians with dildos, as one does) ignore the question of love in your sixties (several members of the audience were enthusiastically nodding) and she does provide a gentle, thoughtful account of that inner life in Loves of My Youth.

Also, I avoided Rome for many years thinking it too clichéd, then arrived there with a rosy-fingered sunset clutched over the Pantheon… and realized I’d been an idiot.   The book brought the city back, with its dust, Armani-suited vespa riders (not a stain on them! At 5pm!), and deeply good food (see previous, unstained, clause). 

Some place to fall in love.

About the Author