Flannery O'Connor and Peacock. Flickr

I Take it All as a Blessing

Fifty years have passed since her death in 1964, and next year will be the 90th anniversary of her birth. Flannery O'Connor:
Luca Doninelli

Fifty years have passed since her death in 1964, and next year will be the 90th anniversary of her birth. If she were alive today, Flannery O’ Connor would be 89 years old. Among us, perhaps, as a dear but severe old woman, with the hope of having another few years of life. We might go and visit her, and likely fall victim to that sharp tongue of hers. I imagine her as lucid, mischievous, and trenchant as ever.

All of this might have been possible if it had not been for the terrible disease lupus, which took her life at only 39 years old. For almost the entirety of her short life, O’Connor belonged to that region known simply as the “Deep South”–the same place that nurtured its foremost native son, William Faulkner. This setting provided the backdrop for their comedies and tragedies, and allowed the full fascinating display of how man’s freedom (and often his folly) is played out.

Clear ties bind the writers of the South. As different as they may be in style and technique, authors from the Deep South share the underlying reference point of the world where their stories take place and the distinctive characters that inhabit it. O’ Connor, for example, may have had no great love for Truman Capote, but the world they describe is very similar. I am not sure how familiar O’Connor was with Carson McCullers (read The Ballad of the Sad Café), but the commonalities abound.

The Deep South can often seem a hard and hostile world, proud, and slow to heed the so-called lessons of the urbanized North and its ‘civilization.’
Just read O’Connor’s first short story “The Geranium.” It describes people who, if they’re going to be duped by anyone, would prefer it were by soapbox preachers and traveling Bible salesmen rather than the architects of skyscrapers and megacities.

. Faulkner, McCullers, Eudora Welty and Truman Capote are only some of the names that make up this exclusive literary company; this is a world of irreparable actions, emotions, and incurable ills–a world that seems too extreme to be considered a home by real, organized, and intellectual societies. It’s a sort of strange kind of family: nothing too harmonious, just like life. Perhaps it’s precisely for this reason that we are drawn to their haunting stories, and even if we are far from the world they describe, we feel that it is somehow close. We are touched by it the same way we are moved by the haunting echoes of the blues songs sung in the Mississippi delta. Shakespeare may have said it earlier: “What’s Hecuba to him? Or he to Hecuba?” (Hamlet, II, ii, v. 1632) Yet, hearing his cry, we feel the urge to cry with him.If it can be said that the seemingly solitary O’Connor is actually accompanied by many storytellers who are kindred spirits, it can perhaps be said that she has even more companions in her chosen literary form, the short story, of which she is the unsurpassable master. Saying this may somewhat overshadow her novels, but it was undoubtedly for the art of the short story that O’Connor’s name became well-known.

The American short story is not merely a short tale. The history of literature is full of short tales. In our modern epoch alone, I could cite extraordinary examples from authors that include Poe, Maupassant, Joyce, Chekov, Singer and many others.

The American short story, however, has a nature all its own, one that we could describe–in an oversimplification– as follows: in a short story, the ‘whole tale’ and the ‘story told’ do not always perfectly overlap. A tale must have a beginning, some development, and an end, but the short story can simply ‘say’ what it has to say even before the“whole tale” is resolved. When the short story has said what it set out to say, the author has the right and responsibility to bring it to a close. From Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever to Raymond Carver and Alice Munro this particularly difficult-to-compose genre has given the world extraordinary masterpieces. And Flannery O’Connor occupies a central place among their ranks.

It is my impression that O’Connor pioneered a new take on Hemingway’s model of the short story, and that her shift in style was taken on by almost all of her most significant successors, including Carver (though he seemed to have no great love for her; but it’s hard to love someone we could never surpass!) and Munro.

O’Connor wrote five or six stories which could each easily vie for the title in a contest for the most beautiful story ever written. Among my favorites are: “The Geranium,” “Good Country People,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” and lastly, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which reaches the height of Flannery’s innovative artistry. It is a tale in which the author herself seems to know nothing, and where the writing–just like the jazz improvisations of Miles Davis–relies on an endless series of thrills, surprises, and small seemingly random events through which the story, that at first appears trivial, takes on a definitive power.

ALL OF EXISTENCE. In every instant, life and death are at stake, and so therefore every moment has a decisive finality. For us these are merely expressions, but for O’Connor it is reality, the only true reality. All human action is essentially a suspended waiting, stretched out over the course of tiny, decisive moments.

Flannery O’Connor unknowingly created a literary revolution that fed on her formidable philosophical and theological knowledge. Her Catholicism was in no way strictly ethical or sentimental, and she instead deals with the very foundations of reality. And, if the world she describes to us seems strange, it is only because we have become strangers to those foundations. All of existence is a product of God’s continuous and unpredictable creation and because of this, O’Connor felt the urgency to plunge deeply into reality, deep enough to feel it vibrate in her bones.

But to write as she did requires a perceptive capacity that is hard to find, just as hard as–O’Connor writes–a good man is hard to find (what is a good man, after all, if not the surprising answer to a seemingly impossible hope?).

Many writers have learned from the school of Flannery O’Connor, but in my opinion they have mostly taken on the technical aspects (Munro especially) turning the story into a kind of tightrope, which mainly serves to measure the ability of the author to walk it. The basic, invisible structure–which O’Connor presents as if it were arbitrary, though it is really the foundation of everything–is missing.

Despite the many papers written, conferences given, and lectures dedicated to O’Connor, and despite the many talented writers all over the world that openly cite her influence, it is worth mentioning that there has been no “normalization” of Flannery O’Connor. Her work retains its scandalizing shock value for believers and non-believers alike. Her work resists being catalogued into the mausoleum of so-called classics, which in any case, includes many writers who can’t hold a candle to O’Connor.

“In every instant, life and death are at stake, and so therefore every moment has a decisive finality.”

A RADICAL IMPACT. The reason for this is twofold: on the one hand, O’Connor had such a radical impact on the way of writing fiction that the world of literature could not help but be affected, and on the other hand, this revolution (even in its technical aspects) originates from an understanding of history and of the world that is totally and incarnately Catholic.

For O’Connor, Milledgeville, where she lived and died, stands alongside Rome and Jerusalem: it was there that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection were lived out; just as it was for the Crusaders or pilgrims returning from the Holy Land, who re-created the holy sites they visited in their own homelands. By recreating the places they encountered, they made it possible for others to share in their pilgrimage, so that the scandal of the events that took place in the Holy Land could more forcefully challenge every person’s freedom.