December 16, 2008

Review: Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch, in his biography of Flannery O'Connor, quotes his subject: "There won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." But Gooch proves that notion false with an absorbing biography of one of the most fascinating of 20th century writers.

Flannery's wit and sharp sense of humor is ever present despite the sometimes grim subject matter. On a trip to Lourdes she assured Betty Hester that "I am one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it." She went into the waters of the spring anyway, saying that "at least there are no societal trappings along with the medieval hygiene....I saw nothing but peasants and was very conscious of the distinct odor of the crowd."

Gooch builds suspense while deftly handling subjects such as the gradual learning of the nature of her disease and how a potentially serious romantic relationship ended when he married someone else. Betty Hester's loss of faith was another blow, using the plural as a mask for personal pain: "I don't know anything that could grieve us here like this news." Gooch says that she came to blame this loss of faith on Irish Murdoch, whose works she found "completely hollow". Hester grew infatuated with Murdoch in what the author terms a "weird literary battle for Betty's soul."

Reviews and reactions to O'Connor's fiction from the literary world was especially interesting. T.S. Eliot said he was "quite horrified by those [stories] I read. She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance."

O'Connor was delighted when she came across things that looked as they really were so it was appropriate that it was her eyes that many visitors to Andalasia found remarkable. Her friend Maryat called them "astonishingly beautiful". She saw suffering as a gift, seeing a connection between her illness and her literary career:
When she broke the news of her lupus to Robert Lowell, in March 1953, she swore that "I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing." Spinning her own life as a parable of a prodigal daughter, forced home against her wishes and finding a consoling gift, she later encouraged the young Southern novelist Cecil Dawkins: "I stayed away [in New York] from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depending on my staying away. I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here."
Anecdotes abound, such as this tidbit of what captured her attention on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Cloisters in New York:
In the soft light of the Early Gothic Hall...she was drawn to a four-foot-high statue of Virgin and Child, with both parties "laughing; not smiling, laughing."...What chiefly pixilated her in the sculpture was its artistic sensibility. As she wrote to a friend, "Back then their religious sense was not cut off from their artistic sense.' Embodying a profound spirituality that could accommodate humor, even outright laughter - a recipe she was working toward in her own novel - the statue...was living proof of Maritain's writings on the breadth of expression possible in religious art."
And on the issue of faith and mystery, Flannery writes in response to a friend who worried about the challenge of secular learning:
"At one time, the clash of different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith." Instead she suggested a respect for 'mystery,' a term she first applied to illness, but which was increasingly key to her theology. As for the conundrum of predestination and God's punishment, she offered a literary answer: "Even if there were no Church to teach me this, writing two novels would do it. I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge."
Two nitpicks: the author suggests that her final two stories display a development in O'Connor's vision, a development which doesn't appear to be explicitly defined other than a quote referring to a critic saying there was a "mellowing" in her fiction. More on that theme would've been helpful. Also O'Connor's reaction against Communism during the late '40s was labeled as "shrill" and apocalyptic though given the level of death, both spiritual and physical in Stalin's U.S.S.R., her response seems proportionate.

But Gooch has given us a great treat in this excellent and fair-minded biography of a story-teller who once said that it "requires considerable courage not to turn away from the story-teller."

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