Flannery O’Connor died at 39 from lupus. She also raised peacocks, pheasants, geese, swans, chickens and Muscovy ducks, as this picture (which I would like to think a self-portrait) makes clear.
Wise Blood, her 1952 novel, is a parade of Southern grotesques. It details the heresy of Hazel Motes, preacher and sole member of ‘The Church without Christ’. It is a novel replete with cruelty and meaness. A policeman pushes a man’s car off a cliff; another man visits the zoo each day so he can swear at the animals. When a gorilla famous from films comes to town, he is thankful for “the opportunity to insult a successful ape”.
All of this is immensely enjoyable, and written in very sharp prose. But for me these warped (and often comic) characters failed to resonate. I’m not sure if this is a fault of mine, or the novel. As O’Connor says in her introduction,
“That belief in Christ is for some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.”
Whilst I don’t think the struggle to accept Christ a matter of no consequence, I, as a secular reader (probably true of her contemporary audience as well) need some help in trying to empathise with characters for whom it is an essential question. Which could, I suppose, beg the question- Isn’t it one of the jobs of the author to preach to those yet to be converted? To create characters and situations so compelling that we care about those involved, even when, especially when, they are wildly dissimilar to us and our secular preoccupations?
It is certainly possible to do so. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, though its premise is perhaps not initially engaging- an aged pastor in a small town writing letters for his son to read when he is older -is nonetheless one of the most affecting explorations of faith I have read.
Perhaps my problem with Wise Blood was its style- because of the restricted emotional palette, it was too easy to dismiss the characters’ (no doubt theologically interesting) concerns as simply those of grotesques and fanatics. The only other book of hers I’ve read is her Collected Stories, which for many is an unshakeable part of the canon. Whilst this is not a claim I am in any position to challenge- there is too much fine writing in them for that -the thing about reading a life’s work in one lump is that although it allows you to discern certain thematic or formal preoccupations, it can expose a paucity of ambition on the writer’s part. By this I mean an unwillingness to write certain kinds of story or character (it being my assumption that the best writers are capable of doing anything), or an over-reliance on particular narrative forms or plots. Stories that work very well on their own, or in their smaller, original collections, when placed in proximity can undermine each other. With O’Connor, many of the stories start in a comic vein, then abruptly shift to the violent or tragic, a technique I eventually found irksome for its predictability. This is almost true of Wise Blood as well, though it can also be said that no book could fully recover a tragic or even serious tone after a chapter like the one involving Enoch and the Gorilla, which may have started off as a short story then been shoehorned into the novel (purists will certainly know).
Finally, there is at last a definitive biography of O’Connor, of which the reviews are trickling in. I shall read it, if only to learn about the animosity between herself and Carson McCullers, whose work I can imagine she found too whimsical and charming.