Posts Tagged ‘Flannery O’Connor’

“Mark Twain, but with a harder edge”: new film on Flannery O’Connor – and here’s the trailer!

Friday, September 27th, 2019

Among the highlights during my brief Chicago visit last week was the first-ever full screening for a general audience of Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The film, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, includes never-before-seen archival footage and photographs. Mary Steenburgen narrates, with interviews from Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff, Tommy Lee Jones, Mary Karr, Alice McDermott, Conan O’Brien, Mary Gordon, and people from O’Connor’s life. (The film includes “motion graphics,” rather than “dramatic reenactments,” in keeping with the requirements of the O’Connor Trust.)

“Most literary biopics and most documentaries about writers fail in my opinion because they tend to exclude or at least minimize the writing when of course the writing itself is the key element that defines why we care about the writer,” said film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, in remarks before the screening. He was critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2008, and author of a number of books on films. “There’s an analogous problem for me in most films that feature jazz, where it’s felt that audiences are too restless to sit still for uninterrupted writing.”

Then he cited Wendy Lesser, writing in Bookforum: “Flannery O’Connor is like Mark Twainbut with a harder edge. Both the pathos and the ludicrousness of the life she perceives and creates are always present to her, and which one will win out depends on how wrathful she feels her God to be at any given time.”

“Ignorance is by no means her only target. Knowingness, of a highly educated and smug sort, also comes under fire, especially in the later stories that are more visibly self-mocking.”

But the final word in his remarks was from O’Connor herself, in her preface to Wise Blood: “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, called it “a beautiful and important film about one of our great American artists.” The screening at Loyola’s Damen Cinema was part of the “Catholic Imagination” conference, launched by Dana Gioia in 2015.

Flannery O’Connor onstage: racial divide becomes a chasm in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

A flirtatious “toddler” (Carlton Terrence Taylor) crosses the racial divide. (Photo: Paula Court)

An interesting evening in Chicago with Flannery O’Connor‘s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a short story movingly performed (every word of it, including the “he saids” and “she saids”) by the NYC-based company Compagnia De’ Colombari at Loyola University’s Newhart Family Theatre last week. (It moves to Yale and Fordham this weekend, see here.)

The storyline underscores the racial tensions in the Jim Crow South, but, this being Flannery O’Connor, nuance and contradictions take center stage. The focus is on the tense relationship between a mother who reflects the unabashed racist views of the era, and a resentful “liberal” son returning from college – wholly  dependent on his mother’s pocketbook, pantry, and home.

Excerpt from Time Out New York‘s review of the play: “The ensemble is terrific, smoothly slipping in and out of character. …  dark unsettling magic of O’Connor’s art—coming through full force in this exceptionally sensitive translation.” (The translation from the written word to the stage, that is.)

To much of the audience, commenting during the onstage discussion with the cast afterwards, the racism was a shock. But my interest is, I think, where O’Connor’s was: the son is a hundred percent “right” in his message, but who he is interferes with what he says. The mother with the repugnant attitudes may be the more humane of the two. She flirts charmingly with a black toddler on a bus – the only time in the play there is a real connection across the racial divide.

Incidentally, the title “Everything That Rises Must Converge” refers to a sublime phrase from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

Back to the story. O’Connor’s text drips with irony, noting that, in spite of his mother, Julian had turned out so very well. The story continues:

In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

The bus stopped with a sudden jerk and shook him from his meditation. A woman from the back lurched forward with little steps and barely escaped falling in his newspaper as she righted herself. She got off and a large Negro got on. Julian kept his paper lowered to watch. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation. It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles. The Negro was well dressed and carried a briefcase. He looked around and then sat down on the other end of the seat where the woman with the red and white canvas sandals was sitting. He immediately unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it. Julian’s mother’s elbow at once prodded insistently into his ribs. “Now you see why I won’t ride on these buses by myself,” she whispered.

The woman with the red and white canvas sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone farther back in the bus and taken the seat of the woman who had got off. His mother leaned forward and cast her an approving look.

Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position, he looked serenely across at his mother. Her face had turned an angry red. He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her.

He would have liked to get in conversation with the Negro and to talk with him about art or politics or any subject that would be above the comprehension of those around them, but the man remained entrenched behind his paper. He was either ignoring the change of seating or had never noticed it. There was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.

His mother kept her eyes fixed reproachfully on his face. The woman with the protruding teeth was looking at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her.

You can read the whole short story here.

Racial discomfort on a public bus. (Photo: Paula Court)

The teenage Flannery O’Connor: “I have so much to do that it scares me.”

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Flannery O’Connor with Robie Macauley and Arthur Koestler in Iowa, 1947. (Photo: Cmacauley/Creative Commons)

Image, a journal headed by the estimable Gregory Wolfe, has a scoop in its fall issue: the never-before-published college journal kept by writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). According to Mark Bosco: “Four years ago my colleague Elizabeth Coffman and I embarked on a feature-length documentary about O’Connor’s life and work, and so we found ourselves at Emory University, where O’Connor’s archive had recently found a home. We already had over thirty hours of recorded interviews … It was time to see – and to touch – the physical objects of her life and photograph them for use in our documentary. We found in a box a Sterling notebook, standard issue for students in those days, inscribed ‘Higher Mathematics I.’ On perusing it we discovered an earlier attempt at a journal when O’Connor was just eighteen years old and already at Georgia State College for Women. She wrote her first dated entry during her Christmas Break, on December 29, 1943, and her last is marked February 6, 1944 – in all, a mere thirty pages. Reading it, you see O’Connor trying out the journal form as a way to examine her thoughts.”

It’s not online, so here is a short excerpt from “Higher Mathematics: An Introduction.” (And you can get a copy of the issue here.)

From the January 19, 1944 page in the journal:

I begin to wonder – what next? I have always wondered, but this wondering is different. This wondering sees me on the threshold of something or near it. I realize for the first time that all these knots must be untied – all this tangle unstrung – and me got out of the middle of it.”

I don’t like to write about things that make me lonesome. Yet they are so big – to me now. I hate to think of saying “goodbye” – the actual mechanics of the thing grieve me more than the loss. The way the rest will do – what they may say. If I should begin to feel sorry for myself – however erroneously – I could easily move myself to a liquid-eyed condition, and that would be disastrous. I have such an affection for myself. It is second only to the one I have for Regina [her mother]. No one else approaches it. I realize that joyfully just now. If I loved anyone as much or more than myself and he were to leave, I would be too unhappy to want myself to advance; as it is, I look forward to many profitable hours. I have so much to do that it scares me.

She was already beginning to experience the symptoms of lupus, which she mistook for arthritis. She was diagnosed with the disease, which had killed her father, in 1952, and lived for another dozen years – five more than expected. She died at 39.

A novelist? “He knows no obligations of honor.”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

Joseph and Marguerite Frank, chuckling in their apartment. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Another sunny autumn day in Palo Alto.  And yes, California’s reputation for non-seasons notwithstanding, there were buckets of crisp red and orange and yellow leaves everywhere.

I spent the late afternoon chatting at a Stanford cafe with Marguerite and Joe Frank, the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our era, and the author of a big, thick, multi-volume biography.

Joe was in a wheelchair, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front – a souvenir from a film crew. The longtime Paris denizen told me the cap was a good way to ferret out the Americans in France; they react to the title. Meanwhile, Marguerite advised me where to find Romanesque architecture in southern France next month.

Conversation inevitably turned Slavic.  Joe recalled Czesław Miłosz‘s visit to campus, some years ago.  The Polish poet thought highly of the Dostoevsky scholar – and said so in his address.  Miłosz taught Dostoevsky at Berkeley for years, but why is a little of a mystery.  Robert Hass told me a decade ago:  “Some of us asked him if he’d read Flannery O’Connor, and he said no. Had he read so-and-so? ‘No.’ And finally he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with the novel.’ That’s a different way of thinking.”

It wasn’t the only different way of thinking on the subject of Dostoevsky.  I was reminded me of something I found this morning, while doing some reading for my upcoming talk on Miłosz at the British Academy.  From the Paris Review interview with the poet and Robert Faggen:


Without honor?


Since then you have been uninterested in writing novels. You seem to have a quarrel with the genre. Why?


It’s an impure form. I taught Dostoyevsky at Berkeley for twenty years. A born novelist, he would sacrifice everything; he knows no obligations of honor. He would put anything in a novel. Dostoyevsky created a character in The Idiot, General Ivolgin, who is a liar and tells stories—how he lost his leg in a war, how he buried his leg, and then what he inscribed on the tombstone. The inscription is taken from the tomb of Dostoyevsky’s mother. There you have a true novelist. I couldn’t do that.