Wednesday 27 May 2009

Reading Flannery O'Connor

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.


  1. I'd be glad to hear from anyone who's read more of O'Connor and can give me a steer. Some say A Good Man is the worst place to start...

  2. Ah, I love O'Connor and have the weird distinction of having written the first biography of her -- for young adults, with a foreword by Jerry Lewis! (I'm not kidding.)

    Her stories are difficult, but I would imagine especially so for you. First, they are steeped in the American South, which is a Christ-haunted region (F's term) with its terrible history of slavery and savagery. But it's also a comic place, with the lower classes providing many of the laughs. Her mix of humor and tragedy is known as "the Grotesque" in scholarly circles and "Southern Gothic" in less scholarly ones.

    I've read and analyzed all of her stories, Nige, and taught them many times. I've also read all of her letters and other documents. Plus there's a new bio out by a friend of mine from grad school, Brad Gooch, and it's also very good. But the best way to see *her* is to a) read the stories and b) read "The Habit of Being," her collected letters.

    Have fun!

  3. I will Susan! Thanks v much for that - must have been the best work Jerry Lewis ever did....

  4. i've only read Wise Blood but thought it was terrific - unsettling but good.

  5. I too started with A Good Man, and then progressed to The Collected Stories and finally to Wise Blood. I just picked up The Violent Bear It Away yesterday. I don't feel the poorer for this order.

    For myself, O'Connor's writing is blessedly unlike drinking. One's ability to discern and appreciate quality doesn't diminish with increased consumption. I don't think, then, it matters where you start. Each sip will be delicious.

  6. Ah, another reader of O'Connor! I invite you to drop in at Novels, Stories, and More where I have been doing a multi-part series on WISE BLOOD

  7. Thanks RT, that is fascinating - I can see I'm embarked on a long hard road with Flannery...

  8. Nay, not a hard road but an invigorating road along which O'Connor offers much to ponder that is important to each of us (whether or not we ascribe to her Roman Catholic view of existence).

    I am endlessly fascinated by what O'Connor was able to accomplish in such a small body of work in such a short amount of time. I believe, however, that her awareness of her own temporal mortality because of a terminal condition affected the texture, themes, and urgency of her work. Whenever I read anything by O'Connor, I am influenced to more carefully consider my own place and participation in what O'Connor perceived as a sacred evolutionary process in which "every that rises must converge." However, individual readers must interpret their own destiny within that convergence. That rather than O'Connor's religious sensibilities is what makes her work universal and intriguing. Enjoy your reading of O'Connor and keep all of us posted about your experiences.

  9. Of course, rather than typing "every that rises must converge" in my previous posting, I had intended the following, which accurately reflects the title of her short story and collection: "everything that rises must converge." I regret the error.

  10. Thanks very much for that, R.T. I am beginning to see what kind of journey Flannery is taking me on, and it is fascinating - and challenging. She really is like no other writer I have experienced. I am just finishing A Good Man - taking it very slowly - and will take a break before moving on. But move on I definitely shall...

  11. Postscript: Please note, Nige, that I have begun a series at my post in which I focus on O'Connor's individual stories. Please visit and comment on any or all story postings.

  12. Terrance C Bramblett16 June 2009 at 04:45

    Hey.. just came upon your blog entry while doing a Google search for F.O'C essays.

    She is one of my favorite writers and (I think) perhaps the best short story writer in 20th century America. I grew up reading her stories and through my life, every time I pick them up, I always find a new level.

    For the best examples of her conciseness, humor, and terror wrapped into the most efficient packages, I would recommend "The River", "A Late Encounter With the Enemy", and "Revelation." These are powerful and they cut sharp as a knife (especially to a liberal agnostic like myself; these are stories where she did her best at discomfiting humanist readers like me.)

    There are a couple that come off too preachy... I am thinking of "The Lame Shall Enter First," which is devastating, but seems too pat in its denunciation of the humanist mindset.

    "The Displaced Person" is also a big favorite.. its nuances of social relations between classes, races, nationalities and faiths show what a close observer she was of human behavior.