After so many decades of reading (and forgetting), it's not often I come across a book I can truly say is unlike anything I've ever read before. But so it is with Flannery O'Connor, whose first volume of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955), I am reading now. It's an exhilarating, unnerving, even hair-raising experience. These stories seem to come out of a world where the familiar landmarks are either missing or displaced, where the people seem fully, shockingly alive but living by rules and assumptions that are hard to fathom. O'Connor's children are wise, and her villains are courtly, with a horrible dignity and strange philosophical or religious preoccupations (but they kill you anyway). Her characters, Robert Lowell said, are 'wholeheartedly horrible, and almost better than life' (better?). Everything seems harshly lit and foreshortened - transfigured in some way, but by what? If this is Grace, it's of a strange cruel kind, and it's hard to discern anything good happening to anyone. Yet there is definitely a comic undertone too, albeit of the blackest hue. O'Connor, whose bedside reading was Thomas Aquinas, called her style 'Christian realism'... I don't know - but I do know that reading A Good Man is the most bracing, jolting reading experience I've had in a long time - rather like receiving a succession of electric shocks. Certainly nothing could be further from the emotionally correct pieties of most contemporary fiction. I suspect she might be some kind of genius.
Afterthought: The nearest thing I've had to this jolting experience was reading the equally strange and uncompromising - but very English and very Edwardian - Ivy Compton Burnett.