WHAT THEY TRADED: Flannery O'Connor
"When a Southerner wants to make a point, he tells a story," said Flannery O'Connor. "It's actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience."

Here is Flannery O'Connor's story of her happiest moment: when she was five, she taught a chicken to walk backwards, and then a man from the Pathe newsreel company came and filmed her and she was FAMOUS.

"That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me." said O'Connor. "It's all been downhill from there." She was joking, a little bit. What is a joke, exactly?

Flannery O'Connor was born right before the Depression hit in Savannah, Georgia, and her first memories must have been of rawboned folks trying not to die, every way they could.

Her father was one of the ones who didn't make it, and when she was 15 he died of lupus, a hereditary condition for the O'Connors.

Like being a werewolf.

Lupus makes you photosensitive. It makes you have awful skin rashes, red-stained teeth, and freakish hair growth in unsightly places. It is horribly painful. You howl, perhaps. You get fevers, busted joints, fatigue, ulcers, kidney pain, lumps under your skin. And then you die.

O'Connor had a hell of a run at the writing life before it got her. She graduated college in three, wrote a thesis that made everybody set down their gin and pause, got into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and then started living with the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (he probably translated the copy of "The Odyssey" and "Iliad" you have read).

Fitzgerald was married, but I bet they told each other lots of long cackling stories, and drank just enough to be happy for awhile. I bet O'Connor smiled benignly at Fitzgerald's jokes and obsession with war, valor, and Greeks, and he shook his head at her short stories, knowing he didn't understand them, knowing they were amazing anyway and always would be.

And then, when she was 26, the lupus hit her. They gave her five years to live. She decided to spend them writing and raising birds. Peacocks. Flannery O'Connor's life was a neon sign pointing to flightless birds.

She went back home, and wrote letters, 24 more stories, two novels, and many essays.

Kill a few hours and listen to her read in her own voice:

"Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction"

"A Good Man is Hard to Find"

Much is made of her religious leanings and beliefs, but she was only casually religious, really -- in the way of most Southerners who deeply don't care what you think about what they believe. She gets a bad rap for being "religious," but maybe only from people who have never lived in a town of 20,000 with 40 competing churches.

"I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else's. But behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there's no truth," wrote O'Connor. But also: "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not."

She was definitely religious for a fiction writer.

More than doctrine, she was interested in the phenomenon of "grace," meaning the spiritual act of people being wrenched violently into a deeper understanding of the world against their will.

In addition to corresponding with all the leading literary luminaries of the day from her sickbed in Georgia, O'Connor wrote a letter once a week to her best friend Betty, who was probably the love of her life in the only way that matters. They understood each other.

They both died in big, big pain. Flannery O' Connor died in the hospital when she was 39 from one last flare of lupus that was too much to handle. Betty killed herself in 1998. Their mutual pal William Sessions found the body:

"During the night of December 26, 1998, Hazel Elizabeth Hester shot herself through the left temple with her left hand, the gun muffled in two pieces of her jockey underwear. It was a hollow-nosed bullet (a particularly devastating kind and probably deliberately chosen because I found cases of such bullets in the house). The enormous impact insured there would be no lingering. It shattered her skull spraying blood all over the room that she was using as a place to sit and read in (a huddled mattress and blankets in a corner indicated she slept there as well). The blood formed a fine mist over the cigarettes and the books from Dickens and Murdoch nearby, but there were heavier blotches immediately near her body on a recent O'Connor Bulletin and the manuscripts of a play of mine she had recently read and two poems I had given her that afternoon."

The kind of blood that O'Connor believed in was real blood charged with the sacred. Real, fictional blood. Maybe Betty died like O'Connor lived, and vice versa.

"She would have been a good woman if there had been someone around to shoot her every day of her life," wrote O'Connor about the main character in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." That's another joke. Maybe. Being good for O'Connor meant migrating between stricture and creation with a smile.

Here's something true about her legacy, the people who read her work today, and that blood-spattered bulletin beside Betty Hester's body: the official newsletter of the Flannery O'Connor Society is called "Cheers!" That's fucking right. And you'd better believe it, if you want to keep smiling and if you want to learn to walk backwards instead of marching forward into the soup pot.

No matter what:



Posted by miracle on Fri, 09 May 2008 02:20:01 -0400 -- permanent link

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