Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp, eds. Flannery O'Connor's Radical Reality. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. ISBN 1-57003-601-2
As is well known, the literature of Flannery O'Connor has become increasingly influential with the passing of time and its author is now regarded as one of the best American writers. In the last years, critics and readers have focused on O'Connor's writings with renewed interest and a variety of new insights on this writer keep attracting the attention of O'Connor's followers. The present volume, edited by two experts on Southern writing, Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp, is a clear example of such diversity of essays and critics: it brings together a distinguished group of O'Connor scholars —four of them were friends of the writer—who concentrate on issues that transcend the strictly literary in order to explore the theological and philosophical foundations of O'Connor's art.
The book's introduction explains the meaning of its title and the impulse that unifies the essays: both the editors and the contributors want to go beyond the epithet "grotesque" —used and abused to describe O'Connor's fiction—and analyse the meaning of her peculiar use of terror, precisely in the aftermath of September 11, when fear has grown into worldwide paranoia. In different ways, the essays discuss how O’Connor’s work is connected with the political, social and cultural issues of her time, but also with the main concerns of the 21st century. Some of the contributions have a philosophical/theological orientation and focus on the influence of a number of thinkers on O'Connor's work and religious beliefs. In turn, others analyse O'Connor's intertextual influence on the narrative of her contemporaries, or even on her own fiction (in the case of her cartoons). Finally, a few essays have a more literary or biographical character. The volume closes with a clarifying four-page section devoted to the curriculum vitae of the contributors, which is relevant to the contents of the essays.
In his insightful essay, "A Good Monk is Hard to Find", Michael Kreyling situates O'Connor in the political and social context of her time, emphasizing the fact that she was a cold-war writer, and that the political circumstances of that period are central to the themes of her tales. Kreyling relates O'Connor to Thomas Merton (an American Catholic writer contemporary with her who became a monk after his membership in the Communist party), pointing out the different way in which religion and politics affected them. Kreyling concludes that in O'Connor's fiction, cultural politics and social conformity proved stronger than her religious beliefs. In contrast with this ideological and contextual study, Lila N. Meeks focuses on the spiritual realm in her approach —"Flannery O'Connor's Art: A Gesture of Grace"— insisting on the centrality of grace in O'Connor's fiction, which in her view, is connected to O'Connor's awareness of early death.
Kelly Gerald's "The World of the Cartoons and Their Importance to O'Connor's Fiction" analyses O'Connor's cartoons, observing their close relationship with her literary writings. Against critical indifference, Gerald points out the various ways in which these artistic creations are linked: for instance, both convey social satire —attack on social and intellectual pretensions— the use of distortion in the depiction of characters, and&xnbsp; ironic distance. All these are elements that O'Connor had explored in her cartoons before their treatment in fiction. Although Gerald remarks that O'Connor's cartoons are unavailable for public viewing, we cannot help missing in the essay the inclusion of some of them as illustration of her descriptions.
In his essay, "He Would have Been a Good Man", Marshall Bruce Gentry analyses the striking similarities between O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, as well as between O'Connor's "The River" and Capote's "Handcarved Coffins". Gentry argues that despite the evident intertextuality, Capote's intention was to learn from O'Connor, not to plagiarize her. He discusses the figure of the Misfit and the protagonists of In Cold Blood, focusing on the concepts of compassion and meanness in both texts, and on the attitude of both writers towards their characters. Gentry also finds traces of the Misfit's meanness in other O'Connor tales, and concludes that although there are parallels between "A Good Man.." and In Cold Blood, the attitude of the central characters is completely different: in that sense, as Gentry remarks, Capote reverses O'Connor's effect.
As I mentioned before, some essays focus on the intellectual and theological influences on O'Connor: this is the case of W.A. Sessions's "Then I discovered the Germans" and Sarah Gordon's "Seeking Beauty in Darkness". In the former, Sessions explores the impact of Romano Guardini —theologian, philosopher and literary critic— and other German thinkers of the interwar period on O'Connor, and argues that O'Connor's reading of Guardini may account for the striking difference between O'Connor and other Southern writers, such as W. Faulkner, E. Welty or W. Styron. On the other hand, S. Gordon concentrates on French Catholic thinkers such as Henri Bergson and Léon Bloy, who in turn influenced Jacques Maritain, whose importance for O'Connor is well known. Gordon discusses central concepts for Bergson, like intuition and durée, and describes some similarities between Bloy's literary characters and O'Connor's. She also relates Bloy to O'Connor using Maritain's phrase about Bloy: both "seek beauty in darkness". However, O'Connor was much more conservative than Bloy in her social behaviour.
Some of the contributions have a theological and religious content: In "The Church-Historical Origin of O'Connor's Blood Symbolism", Inger Thörnqvist argues that blood symbolism in O'Connor's fiction has its origin in early Christian imagery and thought, in which blood is the medium of divine signals. Her treatment of this symbolism was probably inspired by the church fathers and early Christian saints, and Thörnqvist analyses it both in O'Connor's novels and tales. In "The very heart of mystery", Jack Dillard Ashley focuses on theophany in O'Connor's stories: first, he explains the concept and clarifies the difference between it and epiphany, pointing out that whereas theophany is associated with the Old Testament, epiphany is associated with the New. He also provides a variety of biblical examples before concentrating on O'Connor's fiction. In fact, the contents of Ashley's learned and enlightening study go beyond the scope of the theophanic, since he also includes the epiphanic and the hierophanic in his analysis, and discusses examples of O'Connor's handling of the imagery of the four elements.
Karl-Heinz Westarp's essay, "Metaphoric Processes in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction" discusses the theological and spiritual aspects at work in O'Connor's use of metaphor. He argues that the incarnation of the Word is the central revelation in her fiction; since metaphor bridges the gap between the known and the unknown, Westarp suggests starting the analysis of O'Connor's fiction with a close reading of the linguistic surface, then focusing on the different layers of metaphor which finally will lead to an understanding of our fallen condition. It is the artistic perfection which surfaces in her prose that invites the reader to look beyond and search for its roots. In "Fiction's Echo of Revelation", Marion Montgomery analyses the influence of Thomas Aquinas on O'Connor and also on Maritain, whose Art and Scholasticism was, according to Montgomery, of special importance to O'Connor. In his contribution, "Toward Discerning How Flannery O'Connor's Fiction Can Be Considered 'Roman Catholic' ", Patrick Samway, S.J. also tackles the influence of Aquinas and Maritain on O'Connor. Samway argues that although O'Connor's spiritual and liturgical world was mainly informed by the prescriptions of the First Vatican Council, O'Connor's characters anticipate the dynamic thinking of Vatican II and represent types that many writers of her generation repressed: the mystic, the prophetic, the marginalized.
In contrast with the theological and religious flavour of these preceding essays, Hans H. Skei's contribution —"O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge and Theories of the Short Story Sequence"— attracts our attention to the field of critical theory and literary genres. Skei questions whether the collection of tales in that volume can be described as a short story cycle/sequence. Significantly, he starts by expressing his disagreement with critics who think that the study of short story cycles promises great rewards. Since, as he explains, theories of the short story cycle only offer interpretive significance if the insight and experience of the collection as a whole is larger than the sum of the experience of its individual stories, it is doubtful whether the critical tools appropriate for the analysis of Winesburg, Ohio, The Golden Apples or In Our Time will be helpful in the reading of O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.
Two of the last essays in the volume have a biographical character. "Flannery O'Connor as Communicant" is written by Jean W. Cash, the author of the first full-length biography of O’Connor. It is an interesting essay in which the author revisits different periods and events of O'Connor's life, pointing out the depth of her spiritual convictions and the importance of her daily religious practices. Frequently, Cash makes use of unpublished letters and personal interviews as a basis for her quotations. Ashley Brown's "Life at Andalusia" closes the collection of essays: as O'Connor's friend and correspondent since 1952, he had access to the family farm and had the opportunity of meeting O'Connor's visitors and friends such as Maryat Lee and Betty Hester —the anonymous "A" of O'Connor's letters. Brown concludes that despite the restrictions of her life at Andalusia, O'Connor was in contact with a surprising number of people and she can be taken to exemplify the regional ideal of the local within the universal.
As this summary has tried to point out, Flannery O'Connor's Radical Reality offers varied, original and insightful approaches to O'Connor's life and work. The book should be known by those concerned with the study of this author, and even if —as the editors remark— the volume is open to "newcomers", it will be especially appreciated by the connoisseurs of O'Connor's universe.
University of Zaragoza, Spain