Monday, August 31, 2015


Anna with her son, illustration by K. Rudakov

(29) Secondary characters and significant details in "Anna Karenina"

One of Tolstoy's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to draw rounded characters. We could mention many examples of secondary characters in the novel who are fully delineated: Anna's son Seryozha, Dolly and Stiva, the animal characters Laska the dog and Pava the cow. But Tolstoy can also bring to life characters who step only briefly into the novel, sometimes for a page or two, sometimes for a paragraph, sometimes for only a sentence.

Take the director of the ballroom activities in Part One, Ch. 2: "the famous master of ceremonies, a married, handsome and stately man, Egorushka Korsunsky. Having just left Countess Banina, with who he had danced the first round of the waltz, surveying his realm, that is, the few pairs who had joined the dancing, he caught sight of Kitty entering and hurried up to her with that special, loose-jointed amble characteristic only of ball directors, bowed, and without even asking whether or not she wanted to, raised his arm in order to place it around her slender waist" (73, Schwartz trans.).

A page later another character, little more than a bald spot, but alive,pokes his nose into the novel: "There was the beauty Lydie, Korsunsky's wife, impossibly bared; there was the hostess; there was Krivin with the shiny bald spot who was always to be found wherever the cream of society was."

Two more examples:

(1) Lyovin and Kitty are staying in a provincial hotel, caring for Lyovin's dying brother. Embarrassed that Kitty is in the presence of his brother's companion, a prostitute, Lyovin speaks: "'Really, one can't discuss this in the hallway!' said Lyovin, looking around, vexed, at a gentleman who, with trembling legs, as if on business of his own, was just that moment walking down the hall" (Part V, Ch. 17). The gentleman limps his way down the corridor and out the door of Russian literature, never to return, and you wonder what his business was and why his legs were trembling.

(2) Part One, Ch. 31. Besotted with love for Anna, Vronsky is riding the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. "Vronsky did not even attempt to sleep that night. He sat up, either looking straight ahead or glancing at the people coming in and out, and if before he had amazed and upset people who did not know him with his look of unshakable calm, then now he seemed even prouder and more self-possessed. He looked at people as if they were things. A nervous young man, a clerk in a district court who was sitting across from him, hated him for that look. The young man even kept asking him for a light, and trying to start up a conversation, and even pushed against him to make him feel he was a person, not an object, but Vronsky kept looking at him as he would at a street lamp, and the young man grimaced, sensing he was losing his composure under the pressure of this refusal to recognize him as a man, and because of this he was unable to fall asleep" (97). Look at me, acknowledge my existence, for I too am a man. You might imagine the young clerk the next morning, dazed and grumpy from a sleepless night, on his way to work and still hating that supercilious officer in the train. His attitude would, however, be much changed, were he aware that the officer had just got himself involved with a married woman, and that that adulterous love would make of his life a misery, would, ultimately, destroy him.

There are so many great, telling little details in the book that you could go on and on listing them:

Anna and Kitty speaking just before the ball, where Anna is to meet the man Kitty loves, Vronsky, where the quick destruction of her marriage will begin:

"'Will you go to this ball?' asked Kitty.

'I don't think I can avoid it. Here, take this,' she told Tanya, who was pulling the loose-fitting [wedding] ring off her white, tapered finger" (69). [Ring on the way off, marriage on the way out].

Other examples:

(1) "In the intervals of utter quiet he could hear the rustle of last year's leaves, stirring with the earth thawing and the grass growing.

"Imagine that! I can hear and see the grass growing! Lyovin told himself, having noticed a wet aspen leaf the color of slate shifting under a blade of young grass" (Part Two, Ch. 15).

(2) "The crowd of relatives and friends, buzzing with talk and rustling their trains, advanced behind them. Someone bent over and straightened the bride's train. It became so quiet in the church that they could hear drops of wax fall [from the candles]" (Part V, Ch. 4, the scene of the wedding of Kitty and Lyovin)

(3) At the train station in Petersburg Vronsky sees for the first time the husband of the woman he has just fallen in love with:

"Seeing Alexei Aleksandrovich with his Petersburg-fresh face and sternly self-assured figure, wearing his round hat, and with his slightly hunched back, Vronsky did now believe in him and experienced an unpleasant sensation, similar to that which a man would experience who was tormented by thirst and had reached a spring but had found in this spring a dog, sheep or pig that had drunk and muddied the water. Alexei Aleksandrovich's gait, the way he swung his entire pelvis, and his flat feet especially offended Vronsky" (Part One, Ch. 31).

Note also that Anna, who gets off that same train enamored of Vronsky, now sees her husband only as a pair of ears. She had never noticed before the odd way that his ears stand out. "Ах, Боже мой! отчего у него стали такие уши? (My God! How did his ears get like that?)." On this detail, see a previous post, # 6, "Karenin's Ears."

Sunday, August 30, 2015


(28) Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Neurons

Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is full of passages in which "inner voices" speak with characters. Here is an example [all page numbers here from the Marian Schwartz translation, 2014]. Early in the novel (Part One, Ch.15) Kitty has just rejected Lyovin's proposal, thinking herself in love with Vronsky. "She vividly recalled that courageous, resolute face, the noble calm and the goodness toward everyone that illuminated everything; she recalled the love for her of the man she loved, and once again she felt joy in her heart, and with a smile of happiness she lay her head upon her pillow. 'It's too bad, it is, but what can I do? I'm not to blame,' she told herself, but an inner voice told her otherwise. Whether she regretted having misled Lyovin or having refused him she didn't know. But her happiness was poisoned by doubts" (52). Something inside Kitty knows something that she does not about Vronsky.

Another example is Koznyshev, who is trying and yet resisting proposing to Varenka (see an extended treatment of this scene in an earlier posting, #14 on Anna Karenina, "Love and Mushrooms"). "Quickly in his mind he repeated all the arguments in favor of his decision. He repeated to himself, too, the words with which he wanted to express his proposal; but instead of these words, a thought came to him unexpectedly, and he suddenly asked, 'What is the difference between the white and the brown [mushroom]?'

"Varenka's lips were trembling from agitation when she answered: 'In the cap there is almost no difference, but there is in the stem.'

"As soon as these words had been said, both he and she realized that it was over, that what ought to have been said would not be said, and their agitation, which before this had reached the highest degree, began to subside" (518).

So someone, or something, inside Koznyshev speaks words that establish there will be no marriage proposal. He himself is unaware of where the words come from, but something inside him has subtly worked to sabotage the proposal. Modern-day brain scientists would assume that one or some of the multitude of neurons deep within the human brain were opposed to the marriage, and it was they who created the sabotage. Only within the past 10-15 years neuroscientists have come up with amazing new discoveries about the extent to which we humans are controlled by neurons deep within our brains, how we are largely unaware of even important decisions relative to our lives that those anonymous neurons make. See, e.g., David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011), a recent study written for laymen.

Tolstoy, who of course never had a chance to read recent studies in neuroscience, was, nonetheless, amazing insightful in the ways that he intuited things about the workings of human psyches and brains. Here is another example. In Eagleman's book he mentions how eyewitness testimony is largely untrustworthy, since deep in our brains we see things and people that we, for all that, never get around to seeing on the conscious level. One neuron or other, so to speak, may not want us to see what we see.

In Part Three, Ch. 12 of AK Lyovin has spent the night in a haystack and is walking home in the early morning, when he sees a passing carriage harnessed to a team of four horses:

"Dozing in the corner of the carriage was an old woman, but by the window, evidently having only just awakened, sat a young girl holding the ribbons of her white cap with both hands. Fair and pensive, filled with an elegant and complex inner life alien to Lyovin, she was looking past him at the sunrise.

"The very instant this vision was disappearing, her truthful eyes looked at him. She recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face.

"He could not be mistaken. There was only one pair of eyes in the world like that. There was only one being in the world capable of concentrating for him the entire light and meaning of life. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Ergushovo from the railway station, and all that had made Lyovin so restless that sleepless night, all the decisions he had made, all of that suddenly vanished. He recalled with disgust his dreams of marrying a peasant girl" (255).

Skip ahead a hundred pages and we have the scene in which Kitty and Lyovin meet again (Part Four, Ch. 11). Sitting together, they are "having their own conversation, not even a conversation, but a kind of mysterious communication that tied them closer and closer together by the minute and produced in both a sense of joyous terror before the unknown into which they were entering" (358). This scene is to culminate in the famous chalk writing business and the second (wordless) proposal of marriage a few pages later.

Here Lyovin remarks that he had seen her in her carriage last year, "told her how he had been walking back from the mowing down the highway and encountered her.

"'It was very early in the morning. You had probably only just awakened. Your maman was sleeping in her corner.It was a marvelous morning. I was walking along and wondering who that was in the carriage with the team of four. A glorious team of four with bells, and for an instant you flashed by, and I saw through the window--you were sitting like this and holding the ties or your bonnet with both hands and thinking terribly hard about something," he said, smiling. 'How I would have liked to know what you were thinking about then. Something important?'

"Wasn't I very untidy? she thought; but when she saw the ecstatic smile these details evoked in his recollection, she sensed that, on the contrary, the impression she had produced was good. She blushed and laughed delightedly.

'Truly, I don't recall" (358)

But wait a minute. Back on p. 255 Tolstoy told us that "she recognized him, and astonished delight lit up her face." Now she does not recall. Did she really see him or not? Or did one neuron see her future husband and light up her face with delight, while another neuron decided to keep this encounter hidden within her subconscious? You wonder what Tolstoy wants us to think here. You wonder if maybe he just made a mistake and forgot what he had written one hundred pages earlier. Given his obsessive re-writings of his texts, you doubt that this "seeing and not seeing" was not put there on purpose, to show us one more time how strange our psyches conceal some seeings from us and reveal others.

One other possibility: when he saw Kitty's face light up with delight at recognizing him, Lyovin, could be, was indulging himself in some wishful thinking. We'll never know, since all persons capable of answering our questions are no longer amidst the living. At any rate, Tolstoy is dead. As for Kitty and Lyovin, they will live forever on the pages of this great novel, but they cannot answer questions from our dimension.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

THE TSAR in "Anna Karenina"

(27) Appearances of Tsar Aleksandr II in "Anna Karenina"

In the famous steeplechase scene (Part II, Ch. 22-29) Tolstoy repeatedly emphasizes the presence of the Sovereign and the court at the races [all page references here are to the Marian Schwartz translation, 2014]. P. 177: "he [Vronsky] would arrive when the entire court was already there." P. 182: "The big barrier was directly in front of the tsar's pavilion. The sovereign, the entire court, and the crowds of people--everyone was looking at them [the riders]." P. 186-87: "Alexei Aleksandrovich [Karenin]. . . had decided he would proceed straight from an early dinner to the dacha to see his wife and from there to the races, where the entire court would be present..." P. 193: "The race was unlucky, and of the seventeen men, more than half fell and were badly hurt. By the end of the race everyone was upset, a feeling magnified even more by the fact that the sovereign was not pleased." P. 194: "an officer galloped up and reported something to the sovereign. Anna strained forward, listening."

The emperor is mentioned several times in the novel, once even by name: P. 733: [Lyovin speaking] "Have you heard, Mikhailych, about the war?" He turned to him. "What was that they read in church? What do you think? Should we be fighting for the Christians?

"What's for us to think? Aleksandr Nikolaevich, our emperor, he's thought it over for us; he thinks everything over for us. He knows best."

With Lyovin's [and his own] opposition to sending Russian volunteers to help Serbia in its war against the Turks, Tolstoy, at this point in the novel, obviously is hinting that the sovereign does NOT know best. But there are other, more important reasons why Tolstoy introduces the emperor as a character in his novel.

The main theme of the novel is marriage and family. The main mover of the plot is adultery, that of Anna and Vronsky. Modern readers unaware of Russian history will be unaware how neatly Tsar Aleksandr II fits into those major themes. Aleksandr Nikolaevich first met Ekaterina Mikhailovna Dolgorukova when she was twelve. When he was forty-eight years old he fell in love with her (she was seventeen). Their first sexual contact came in July, 1866, and for the whole rest of his life (he died in 1881, assassinated) he was obsessed with Ekaterina Mikhailovna.

The tsar apparently had had many mistresses in the past, and his wife the tsarina had always looked the other way. She looked the other way this time too, but this time it was different. Ekaterina Mikhailovna became, in effect, a second wife for him, and she bore him three children. In July, 1880, after the death of the tsarina he married EM, and issued a decree, declaring that she would be given the title Serene Princess and that the three children would have all rights of legitimacy. The marriage, of course, was morganatic: none of the children had any right of succession to the throne.

Almost from the beginning the second illegal wife and family were an open secret in court circles. Tolstoy, along with most of the Russian aristocracy, surely knew this secret, and he neatly incorporated the adulterer Aleksandr into his novel on family and adultery. You wonder if the tsar ever read the novel, or if any of his advisors ever dared mention to him his role in it.

For details on the second, illegal family of the tsar, see, e.g., Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II, the Last Great Tsar.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Personal and Critical Essay on FLANNERY O'CONNOR

The Misfit in Exile

(A Personal and Critical Essay on Flannery O’Connor)

Here’s an example of what Southern was in the forties and fifties, when I was growing up. Our town, Mt. Dora, Florida, had a population of 5001. A carnival once came through when I was fifteen. They set up their tents out near Pistolville; Farris wheels and whirly-gigs, freak shows. They had the sheep with two heads, the snake woman, the kid in the iron lung. My friend L.W. was a good boy, but he was fifteen as well and full of hormones. He paid a quarter to get in one tent (males only). The audience sat up in bleachers, making off-color comments, and then a bunch of malnourished redneck girls came prancing out in bathing suits. They made circles around the proscenium, leering and winking at the audience. Then they left, and the barker said, “All right, yawl boys ain’t seen nothing yet. For another fifty cent, you proceed on back into this here next tent, and I guaran-damn-tee you that when you get back there, yawl won’t be looking at nothing but hot hair and pussy.
            Of course, everybody, including L.W., dug deep in their dungarees, and they all proceeded into the next tent, where, it turned out, they had only one scrawny blonde girl. She was performing behind a chain link fence, prancing around, creeping up to the fence then backing off. She was wearing absolutely nothing. Everybody was already seated but she was paying nobody any mind, still doing her little tiptoed dance with the hip shimmy. Then, finally, she yelled out to the men up in the stands: “All right, boys. Get your butts down by this fence and get your flies unbuttoned. Whip ‘em out, boys, and put ‘em through a hole in the fence. We gone see which one of yawl is the best man!”
            Then, believe it or not, so L.W. told it, five or six of those old boys in overalls (not bashful L.W., though) really did pull them out and stick them through that fence. Then the scrawny girl would boogie-woogie up to each standing tool, take it unto herself, and, in a loud laughing voice, give her opinion on its merits and demerits. Did L.W. actually watch that embarrassing spectacle, with interest and concupiscence, when he was only fifteen? He did, but he can’t recall the vulgar business to this very day without blushing. Some readers may find it hard to believe that a tent carnival in Georgia would put a hermaphrodite on display, a creature who (in a story by Flannery O’Connor) informed his/her audience: “God made me thisaway. . .This is the way He wanted me to be, and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it.” I have no trouble believing that, and neither would my boyhood friend. By the way, L.W. has a doctorate in education now, and he’s teaching AP classes in South Florida to this very day.

            Only in the early seventies, when I already had a Ph.D. in Russian from Vanderbilt, when I was a young assistant professor, teaching Russian language and literature at Miami University, did it suddenly dawn on me who I should have married: Flannery O’Connor. I read her fiction for the first time, and I thought, in the vernacular of her native Milledgeville (which differed very little from the vernacular that enveloped me as a child): (1) It ain’t no two ways about it. I am in the presence of a hard, formidable intelligence and a mighty fine creative talent (2) In every particular this woman is writing about the life that surrounded me, smothered me even, when I was a Southern child. Every line she writes is so familiar, and, besides that, she has this quirky, wicked Southern sense of humor. My sense of humor. I want to marry her.
But it was far too late. During the summer of 1964 I was in the army, living in a huge khaki field tent with fifty other soldiers. We were up on a hill, in a wheat field, overlooking the East German border, staring down at the barbed wire and the mine fields of a country that no longer exists (the German Democratic Republic). We were on a TDY exercise, we “Monterey Marys,” and we were supposed to be &^%*&*&^% (previous passage deleted for purposes of national security), but we spent most of our time listening to the Rolling Stones on a pirate radio station that broadcasted out of Luxembourg. Yes, reader, believe it or not, the Rolling Stones were already extant in 1964; they looked a bit younger back then. As for Mary Flannery, who at the very time I was up there in that wheat field, pulling guard duty, walking a German shepherd guard dog that enjoyed attacking all of us friends (there were no enemies around to attack), toting an empty M-14 assault rifle, protecting (ostensibly) my country from the Roosskies, Flannery was back in Georgia, dying. I was entirely ignorant of that fact; furthermore, I had never even heard of Flannery O’Connor.

            But I knew her world, because it was mine. In the mid-fifties I played baseball on the Mt. Dora town team. Our rickety old stadium was out in Pistolville (the white trash section of our town). Our night games often coincided with services at a Holy Roller church right next to the ball park. While gangle-shanked Cecil Barks was kicking high his stick of a leg and delivering his knuckleball to the plate, I was standing in center field, listening to the shrieking and testifying that emanated from that concrete block building just outside the stadium gate. Listening to them exalt the prophet Ezekiel (whose saint’s day in the Eastern Othodox Church, by the way, is Aug. 3)—Ezekiel, who connected dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, and heard the word of the Lord.
            “Son/Daughter of Man, can these bones live?  And she, Mary Flannery, prophesied upon the bones for almost forty years, saying unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
            As a boy I recall huddling in the dark on our tiny screened front porch (two blocks from Hwy 441), watching, fascinated, as the Ku Klux Klan cavalcades drove past, meandering around the streets of our town. Their ultimate destination was East Town (black section), where they would erect a cross and then burn it. My Yankee Catholic mother tried to pull me back inside, but the spectacle was too eerie and thrilling to miss: those portly Ku Kluxers, sitting proud in their white sheets and pointy white hoods. One of them had a cigar (pronounced “seegar”), and he was smoking it through the mouth hole in his hood, pointing a red dot toward me. The locals called this exercise of putting on a presence and burning a cross “keeping the niggers in line.” What else? Lots. But if you want a sampling of my childhood, just read Flannery’s fiction. It’s all there.     

            In 1964 I had not yet learned how to read artistic literature. In college (University of Florida, 1958-1962) I had majored in political science and history, while taking a couple of creative writing courses on the side. Andrew Lytle, Flannery’s old mentor, taught one of those courses. He called me into his office one day, opened a Faulknerian text in the middle of the book, and asked me to explicate some symbolic imagery. I sat perplexed, turning red in the face, and he finally said, “Why, you didn’t read this book. You just skimmed it!” I suppose he was right. The textbook in Lytle’s course was Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction, the same one Flannery once used. Did I understand fiction? Hell, no!
            Lytle never enlightened me. I left his course just as ignorant about how to read or write creatively as I’d been when I walked in there. One day we ran into each other at the university cafeteria and sat down to eat together. I only wish that the imposing Lytle, with his musilaginous Southern voice, had told me to read Flannery, instead of blithering on about the merits of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, then asserting, with vehemence, “The South should have won that war; the South could have won that war!” Like F.O., I was never much for re-fighting the War Between the States, which was a common activity among the people who lived in my home town: Billy Pat Harding, Anna Pearl Haskins, Buddles Ledford, Flavell Bagwell, etc.

More Congruences

Our little town was not in rural Georgia, but it was a lot like rural Georgia. My father was a devoted Protestant from South Carolina who hated Catholicism and all the values of the Yankees. My mother was a devoted Catholic from New Jersey, a Yankee who despised Protestantism and other Southern institutions, such as racism. My sisters and I were baptized in the Catholic church, but we never were confirmed. Why? Who made us? God made us. My mother and father had no argument on that, but they disagreed on almost everything else. Daddy found my mother’s contention that only Roman Catholics would go to Heaven rather off-putting, to say the least. Our childhood consisted of a never-ending religious war, waged right in the middle of the household. Oh, one more thing: it appears that my mother and daddy loved each other. F.O’s works are good at showing how loving and hating often operate simultaneously.
After that stint in a German wheat field the army sent me to England, where I worked in a building without windows. I finished my daily intelligence tasks in three hours, then spent the other five hours reading Russian novels. Once I was reading Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, in Russian. A red-faced sergeant intruded into the little cubby hole where we worked, demanding to know what I was doing reading on the job. I simply held up the book and showed him the cover: with Идиот written on it in big Cyrillic letters. Immediately he backed off, intimidated by the hieroglyphics. We were allowed to read in Russian on the job. This was called, “keeping up the skills of the linguist.”
            In 1953 (this is a “coincident,” as F.O.s characters would say), Flannery O’Connor received a shipment of books and then had the following conversation with her mother Regina:
SHE: “Mobby Dick. I’ve always heard about that.”
ME: “Mow-by Dick.”
SHE: “Mow-by Dick. The Idiot. You would get something called Idiot. What’s it about?
ME: An idiot.[1]
While I was eating out with a fellow American professor in Moscow (1999), he casually mentioned that he had once met Flannery O’Connor. He had been teaching in Atlanta then, and somebody got up a group to drive up and visit Andalusia. He did not have a good recollection of that visit, he did not remember much of interest, but I wanted to reach over and touch him—one step (again), one short step away from the woman of my dreams!
                                    Taking Flannery, and a Group of Other Writers, to Russia

            The closest that Flannery O’Connor got to Russia was in her imagination, through her reading of Russian writers. Preparing for her reluctant “pilgrimage” to Europe in February, 1958, she joked as follows in a letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald: “Left for two minutes alone in foreign parts, Regina and I would probably end up behind the Iron Curtain asking the way to Lourdes in sign language.”[2] I taught Russian literature, the Russian language, and Russian folklore for thirty years. Toward the end of my academic career I received a Fulbright Scholar grant for an academic year in Russia (1999-2000). I taught in provincial Novgorod, the oldest city in Russia, which claims the year 859 A.D as its founding date. My main course was “Practical Methods of Literary Translation.” I had prepared all the reading materials in advance, aware that there would be no books or ancillary materials available at Novgorod University, where the library facilities are a wasteland.
            Here is a brief listing of the contents of that course:
Introduction. Theory of Translation (Readings from Kornei Chukovsky, A High Art)
The need to study a literary text before translating it
Translation as adaptation: Gogol’s story “The Nose,” Michael Frayn’s adaptation for stage of the Chekhov story “The Sneeze.”
Translating humor: Chekhov’s “The Death of a Petty Clerk, “Precious” (Dushechka) Complications: (1) Into British or American? Note how Constance Garnett (in “Precious,” or “The Darling”) translates a lovable Russian child into a lovable British child (2) Music: translating the music of Chekhov’s prose; counterpoint in “Precious”
Translating a writer with a lavish style: Bunin’s “Light Breathing”
Translating awkwardness of style into awkwardness (but not too awkwardly!): selections from Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Translating dialect and substandard speech: Shukshin, “Bespalyj, Bunin, “Porugannyj Spas,” Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People” [abbreviated below as AGM and GCP]
When a writer translates himself: Nabokov, “Recruiting,” “Cloud, Castle, Lake
The possibilities and impossibilities of translating poetry: (1) Marina Tsvetaeva, “Mne nravitsja, chto Vy bol’ny ne mnoj” (“I’m glad that you’re not sick with love for me”) (2) Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” (3) e.e. cummings, “Buffalo Bills (4) Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Khoroshee otnoshenie k loshasd’jam” (“Treating Horsies Nice”) (5) A.E. Housman, “Others, I am not the first”
What to do with an invented language that has Russian roots? Selections from Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (Zavodnoj apel’sin).
Translating children’s verse: (1) Kornei Chukovsky, “Telefon,” (“The Telephone”) (2) Shel Silverstein, “Boa Constrictor,” “My Beard,” “Chester
Final exercise: translating Russian classics from English back into Russian, then comparing your translations with the original

            My students at Novgorod University were, primarily, females. On the cusp of the new millennium the Soviet Union as a country had recently collapsed, and Russia was in economic crisis. Males were gravitating toward courses in economics, accounting, etc., those fields that (so they hoped) would enable them to get jobs when they graduated. I had to struggle against a few longstanding Russian traditions: (1) Students kept up a steady blather among themselves during the class, like junior high kids in the U.S. For some reason, this is an accepted practice in the Russian classroom (2) Students thought they need not necessarily attend classes, or even keep up with the work assignments, because everything depended on the final (oral) exam, which they are allowed to take over and over, until they have passed it (3) The head of the department was interested, primarily, in how wonderful the grades of her students looked on paper. She was horrified when I told her that I would give them the grades they deserved, and if they did not show up for class they would flunk.
            Of course I, the interloper professor from abroad, lost this struggle against Russian traditional haphazardness, and at the end of the semester the department head informed me that I wouldn’t have to worry about retesting the students: she would have another professor do that for me. In other words, the students, whom I had informed that there would be one and only one final exam (no taking it over if you flunk), got to take it over anyway.

                                                    Teaching Flannery in Russia

            When it came time for the students to read the two O’Connor stories I had selected (AGM and GCP, in English and in Russian translation), I realized that presenting such a writer to a foreign audience would be a stupendous task. Presenting Flannery to any audience is no mean trick, make no mistake about that. But my Russian students had little acquaintance with America, let alone with the American South of the forties and fifties.

On Translation and Interpretation
My students could read English well, and I asked them to read the English originals before reading the Russian translations. Some of them, I’m sure (if they were tired) began with the translations, which are quite well done, given that a writer like F.O. pulls up to the translator’s door with her mule hitched to a  wagon-load of problems.[3] Since most of my readers probably are not interested in a detailed analysis of the translations, a few high points here will suffice. At the time they were working on these stories (the seventies), the Russian translators were unlikely to have travelled anywhere in the U.S., let alone in the rural South. They probably had no idea what a chinaberry tree looks like or why the mud puddles in Georgia are full of orange-red water (for the same reason the river is red in the story “The River”—because of the red clay).
            In translating you must resign yourself, as well, to the fact of in-exactitude. Plenty of words simply do not have perfect equivalents in other languages. For example, “misfit” (see AGM) has no Russian match. A misfit is a person ill-adjusted to his/her environment or one who is disturbingly different from those with whom he associates. The translator came up with izgoj in Russian, which is not bad, but is, nonetheless, inexact. Izgoj is from the verb izgonjat’/izgonit’, which means to banish, expel, drive out. Izgoj is not someone who does not fit in, but someone who has been banished from society—an exile. The difference may be minor, but it is a difference. What else? Well, for example, the translator sometimes gives up on difficult words or phrases, or is forced to give up where there is no equivalent. “Pickanniny,” e.g. (the grandmother’s word for a little black child in AGM), is not translated. Instead the grandmother says (I’m translating the Russian back into English) “Just look at that. How cute!” Since they don’t have barbeque in Russia, the family (at Red Sammy’s) snacks on “fried sandwiches.”
            In AGM we have the following interesting sentence: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” Not knowing exactly what to do with those “mean trees,” the translator writes (I am again translating this back into English from the Russian), “The trees were bathed in silver-white sunshine, and even the ugliest of them sparkled.” Not bad, but not exact. In the Russian the Misfit consistently addresses the grandmother as “mamasha,” a colloquial term that literally is an affectionate word for “mother.” In the English original the word is “lady.” When the Misfit mentions that he was once a gospel singer, the poor translator, having no conception of what that is (and she could not find a suitable Russian translation even if she did) makes him into a Russian pilgrim, “wandering the roads and singing the Psalms.” By way of getting herself shot, the grandmother says her final words (in the Russian), “You’re my son, you know. You’re one of my children.” The original reads, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” At the end of the story the Misfit (or rather, the Exile, Izgoj) says, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. There’s no happiness in life.” The original reads, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. . . .It’s no real pleasure in life.”
            I mention all of this not as criticism of the translation, which, I believe, is quite good. So is the translation of “Good Country People” (titled literally “The Salt of the Earth” in the Russian), but it has some of the same problems I’ve just illustrated from AGM. In both stories, the translators, e.g., do a good job of finding colloquial or dialectical expressions to translate the Southern speech, although they don’t have a cat in Hell’s chance of capturing the exact Southern American tone in Russian, and even if they did they could not win. Why? Because the idea of American hillbillies speaking Russian is incongruous.
            An old old truth: translating, to some extent at least, cannot help traducing. Reading F.O. was hard enough for my students, who had the English original as well as the translations, but most people in Russia cannot read English; they have nothing but the translations. I can only imagine how bewildered they are when encountering the works of F.O. for the first time. The Russian collection I used is in bad need of explanatory notes—not footnotes, which intrude too directly upon the author’s text, but notes at the back of the book. It has none.

            Any translator is, willy-nilly, an interpreter of the literary text. Translation is a kind of interpretation. But so is the very act of reading. Someone who did not grow up in the American South is highly unlikely to understand the cultural baggage that goes with phrases like “good country people,” or “I’m just a country boy.” The cliches of one’s time and one’s society cannot be grasped by someone living in a different language and culture. When I read F.O. I have the advantage of having lived in practically the identical milieu. Like her, my family sewed drapes and dresses out of chicken-feed sacks with flowered patterns. We coped with the summer heat (no air conditioning), with enormous roaches and redbugs (chiggers), we watched the newsreels called “The March of Time,” in a movie theater (“picture show”) where, exactly as in Milledgeville, there was a separate entrance for blacks, who sat in the balcony (see Brad Gooch, p. 89, 241, 244). Above all, we talked the talk. Rather, my parents and their generation recycled, over and over, the same tired opinions, while I myself listened quietly, aghast at the pettiness of this blather—like so many of Flannery’s younger characters, her “intellectual” types, listen as well, gnashing their teeth.


            Even during her lifetime Flannery sometimes despaired of being understood by “stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland” (HB, p.537). In speaking of Poles and Germans, Mr. Shortley (in “The Displaced Person”) opines, “It ain’t a great deal of difference in them two kinds.” Leaving aside Mr. Shortley’s considered opinion, there is, nonetheless, less difference then you might imagine between a Russian reader of F.O. and an American reader living in, say, Detroit or New York City. “Them two kinds” may both be incapable of translating the language of her stories into a language comprehensible to them. This is not to say that intelligent readers of the twenty-first century cannot grasp the fiction of O’Connor. They can, even if they do not comprehend all the background detail. What it takes, above all, intelligent reader, is a willingness not to stereotype people.
            Is it possible, e.g., for a bigot to be a good person? Yes. I grew up with bigots all around me, and so did Flannery, but she did not consign her bigots to eternal perdition. They were people, many of them her close relatives, and a lot of them were pretty good people. This is hard to grasp for those who avert their eyes from life’s grey tones, preferring everything to be either black or white. These are the sanctimonious types, who, to this very day, in American liberal academic circles everywhere, produce that predictable smirk of derision: “Ah, those redneck idiots.”
            What would Flannery say about such hasty judgments? If Flannery were alive to hear the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s recent comment about his former parishioner Barack Obama, would she be quick to condemn the reverend? I don’t think so. He’s saying something not very palatable, but he’s still a human being. He said (June, 2009) that he had not been able to speak with Obama lately “because all them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me.” Judge not.
Humiliation is one of the worst things a person or a people has to bear. It can break the spirit, or it can enrage a person to the point where he/she cannot think rationally. The Reverend Wright is a good example. American blacks were still being openly humiliated in the American South of the fifties and sixties (and not only in the South, by the way). They are somewhat better off now, but they certainly have not forgotten that humiliation. My white grandfather was born in South Carolina in 1876. He was humiliated too, because when he was born his state was still “under Reconstruction,” occupied by federal occupation forces. My father remained “un-reconstructed” all his life. He and my grandfather were little concerned about how blacks were humiliated, since they were festering in their own humiliation. The humiliated do not necessarily sympathize with the humiliated. Often, rather, they humiliate others in their turn.
            Flannery O’Connor may seem, to some modern liberals, all too unconcerned with the problems of the black race in her time, but her ambivalent attitude toward integration makes sense to me. She had the brains to see that the Civil Rights movement had religious truth and common-sense morality behind it, but she still did not like callow outsiders (who took joy in preaching sanctimony) coming into her native state and telling people how to behave. As for literature, she took umbrage at works that oversimplified the situation, painting, say, an oppressed black hero with the brush of rectitude, while smearing tar all over the racist bad guy. Besides that, the fact that she (and we) resisted help from outside is just human nature. F.O. understood human nature. She was certainly no racist. She certainly never would have advocated beating up or murdering freedom riders. Of course, she had one irremediable beef with the grand liberal agnostic/atheistic secular humanist crowd. Them folks simply did not believe. Had she lived, I’d imagine that she would have voted for Obama. She would have also denigrated most of the academic fads that have come out of the “revolutionary” years of the sixties. She would be horrified beyond measure at the excesses of “political correctness.”
            I voted for Obama; I was happy that he was running. I like to imagine that my SC granddaddy (“Col. Bob”) and my SC grandmother (“Bowie Mom”) and my daddy and my Uncle Cecil and Aunt Wren are whispering encouragement to me (as my mother is) from beyond the grave, but if the personality undergoes no essential revamping after death I can imagine them, rather, screaming indignantly, in unison: “You did what?”
A Good Man Is Hard to Find

            I agree with R.V. Cassill that AGM “may not be susceptible to exhaustive rational analysis.”[4] In fact, it is clear to me that the story has been over-analysed now by the vast O’Connor academic critical industry. Someone has even found a source for the cat’s name, “Pitty Sing” and made much of that. Maybe this is worth making much of, but I just assumed, as I told my Russian students, that this was babytalk for “Pretty Thing.” Had she not been, as she wrote, “in a state of shock,” Flannery herself would have been amused by a letter she once received from an English professor, who informed her that he and his students had concluded that the Misfit was a sort of  hallucination in Bailey Boy’s mind, and that the car accident might never have occurred (HB, p. 436-37).
            O’Connor frequently came out “against interpretation.” The look she directed toward “the Academy” often had a wry grin stuck on it. Another expression you see facing down the camera in some of her photos says, “Don’t nobody mess with me.” A student once sent a letter asking “just what enlightenment” she was supposed to derive from the stories. Flannery replied, “I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them.”[5] This is an answer I especially appreciate, since when I taught literature I always told my students that the main thing they should “get” out of reading artistic prose is aesthetic pleasure. Flannery and I also agree that in teaching literature, the high school teachers and the college profs should go easy on the social studies. Hunting for symbols, as well, is a barren and futile exercise. A young teacher at Wesleyan asked F.O. (HB, p. 334) if the Misfit represented Christ, and he was told (in the typically blunt O’Connor style), “He does not.” The same fellow, who was searching diligently for the symbolism of the Misfit’s black hat, was informed that the significance of the hat was “to cover his head.”[6] In “On Her Own Work” (p. 108) she also writes that “A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” Amen, Flannery, and I believe that AGM is precisely such a story.

            Speaking of symbolism, here is another excerpt from Flannery’s conversations with her mother. When F.O. was writing The Violent Bear It Away, Regina O’Connor asked, “Does it have symbolisms in it? You know, when I was coming along, they didn’t have symbolisms” (Gooch, p. 317). Regina was right: we’re all better off without symbolisms. Considering her own stance “against interpretation and symbolisms,” I think that F.O. made a big mistake when she went around to universities reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and then explicating it for her audience. She, of course, was afraid that the story would never be understood as she wished it understood—from the point of view of her religion, her theology—so she had to tell people what it was about. The grandmother, heroine of the story, has (according to this explication) a kind of religious epiphany at the end, when she reaches out to the Misfit and calls him one of her children. She dies happy, smiling, because in her final moments on earth she has been granted the grace of God. Meanwhile, the Misfit, will be somehow inspired by the old lady’s last gesture, which, “like the mustard seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story” (“On Her Own Work,” p.113).
            Yes, ma’m. It certainly is another story. It’s like the story that Fyodor Dostoevsky promised to write at the end of Crime and Punishment (which novel, incidentally, reverberates faintly through the “mean” trees of  AGM). For how many pages, (five hundred?) the protagonist-murderer Raskolnikov has resisted expiating his sin. At the end of the novel he is still resisting, so the author elbows him over into the camp of Christ, then concludes by telling us that Raskolnikov’s redemption, how he will learn to know “a hitherto undreamed-of reality,” is a new tale, “but our present one is ended.” In other words, “Sorry, reader, but it seems I’ll have to write another novel to explain how Raskolnikov gets saved.”
Meanwhile Raskolnikov, he of the incorrigibly split personality, while well aware that “Jesus thown everything off balance,” is glowering at his creator Dostoevsky, snarling, “Yeah, just try writing another novel about me, and see how far you get!” Assuming that the Misfit can somehow go on existing beyond the bounds of the story (as his creator imagines when she explains the story), I figure that he’ll go right on repeating, as well, that he “don’t need no hep” from Christ.
            In recently reading Richard Giannone’s treatment of AGM,[7] which echoes the author’s explication in Mystery and Manners, I wrote “Huh?” all over the pages of the book, in the places where he tells us that the grandmother, “unlike the morose killer, finds a way to pleasure by becoming a child of love. . . .She chooses to love, and her tenderness crushes the gunslinger’s might.” Huh? To me the grandmother at the end of the story remains perfectly in character. She goes on talking, but now she knows that her life depends on how persuasive that talk will be. She is portrayed as a woman trying to save her skin, and whether she finds a moment of grace or not is secondary. Imagine my having to present F.O.’s rather dubious interpretation to a group of Russian students, who were born in the atheistic Soviet Union and have no comprehension of theology in any form. I’m afraid, furthermore, that it cannot be presented convincingly to modern readers anywhere. Without prompting on the part of the author or her acolytes (professors with a religious bent), readers have little more chance of seeing this “moment of grace” and the Misfit’s promising future than unprompted students, say, who read Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” have of finding that acrostic in the final paragraph of the story.

            So, if I knew that the theological approach was impossible (even had I accepted it, and had I had the theological background to do it justice), just how did I go about teaching “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” in Russia? I started out by trying to provide my students with certain cultural markers. I told them some of the things I have mentioned above, about growing up in a town much like Milledgeville, Georgia. I told them that my town was, in fact, only five miles from Eustis, Florida, where my father worked as a “policy man,” selling “nickel and dime” life insurance, and from where Flannery ordered her first “hen and rooster peafowl” in 1952.[8] I was there. I could have driven past that peafowl farm with my daddy, could have seen the birds being packed up in crates for shipment to Georgia. Maybe I did see that. I certainly can hear their yowls (“Help! Help!”) in my imagination today.
            I tried to explain the place names (real and invented) and the rather skewed itinerary of the family (they headed north from Atlanta first, then somehow ended up just off Highway 441 near Milledgeville—in Toomsboro, that ominous town, with the spelling changed slightly—after spending time at Red Sammy’s place in the fictional “Timothy.” We discussed the names of the characters: John Wesley (the religious connection), June Star (the Shirley Temple connection). I told the students that I was well equipped to deal with characters named “June” and “Bobby Lee,” since I have a sister named June, and I myself am a Bobby Lee. I talked about the television program “Queen for a Day,” sang the song “Tennessee Waltz” for them. I explained to them what red clay is and what a chinaberry tree looks like.
I told my students stories. I told them the way it was in the segregated South of the forties and fifties. Searing moist heat, black mammies in East Town, sitting out in brassieres on the porches of their shanties, fanning themselves with cardboard church fans, mumbling  “Lord, I mean to tell you. Ain’t it hot, though?” Rural white families giving their sons feminine names (Hazel, June), poisonous snakes, voracious mosquitoes, ringworm on children’s legs; bamboo groves, Spanish moss hanging from live oaks and water oaks, horse flies, deer flies, “separate but equal,” camphor trees, crape myrtles, folks riding boats on Lake Gertrude (in Sylvan Shores, the rich whites’ section of our little town), the tentative social interactions between blacks and whites (beautifully illustrated in so many of O’Connor’s stories), the way they talk to each other, about each other, “I ain’t got nothing against no colored folks, ‘long as they know their place,” the games of conversational song and dance, “Yassuh, yassuh, huh, huh, huh,” (which feigns stupidity, but is, among other things, a way of not agreeing with what the white man just said), the bob and weave of the integrated conversation, the love-hate feelings blacks and whites share for each other. Still do. I know. I live in the rural South today.
The funny papers: Nancy, Smiling Jack, Gasoline Alley, Henry, and Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead. Pork barbeque from East Town with hot hot sauce, General Sherman, Southern mores (how a “lady” should behave, the difference between “poor white trash” and “good country people”). I assured my students that, believe it or not, I, as a child, ran across characters like Red Sammy Butts on a daily basis. In fact, one thing that so fascinates me about O’Connor’s writings is how perfectly she captures the essence of the country people living in her milieu. To me L.C. Durden—part of that huge Durden clan from over in Pistolville—L.C. with his stump on one arm, out in his airboat hunting gators for a living, was not “grotesque” at all; like everybody else all around me back then, L.C. was just folks (well, okay, I never met anybody like the Misfit).                                                       

More Backgrounding

            Our town had a population of five thousand and one. That one was the man we all called “The Walking Jesus.” He was the local rambler, traipsing the streets and byways, muttering the word of the Lord, shouting out prophecies. He had shoulder-length white hair and a long white beard. He dressed in white satin trousers and silk shirts. Sometimes he had chartreuse handkerchiefs tied around his neck. No matter how cold the weather, no matter how hot, he always went barefooted.
            One scorching day we were riding the back roads in our blue forty-eight Chevy (my Daddy, my sister June and I, Bobby Lee), drinking ice-cold Coca-Colas, and there he was, ambling along the roadside.
            “Hey, there goes the Walking Jesus!” said June. She had a little package of salted peanuts, and she was transferring its contents into the top of her Coke bottle.
            “It’s him, all right,” said Daddy. “You reckon he’d like a ride?”
            We didn’t really believe he’d get in the car. The Walking Jesus didn’t ride in cars; he walked. But mirabile dictu! When we stopped and opened the door, he crawled in the back seat, where June was sitting.
            We drove on down the road, wrapped in a sense of wonder. Nobody spoke. We drank our Cokes, out of those original classic bottles, which were all steamed up and sweating in the heat. We drove past the old clay pit, those brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple, crowned by sharp scrub pines sparkling in silver-white sunlight.
            Finally Daddy said, “It’s a hot one today, I mean to tell you.”
            The Walking Jesus said, “Sho nuff is.”
            “Would you like a Co-Cola?” asked Daddy.
            The Walking Jesus blanched.
            “I ain’t about to take the spawn of Satan into my body,” he replied with a scowl.
            Nobody said anything else. We tooled on down that hot asphalt, on the Old Sorrento Road. I sat there still feeling wonderstruck. Just imagine: it was Daddy and June and me, ten-year-old Bobby Lee, and we were riding along in our car, past the citrus groves, past the live oaks strewn with Spanish moss, past the clay pits, chinaberries, the mundane realities of our lives. We were imbibing the devil’s spawn as we went, and riding along with us in the back seat that day was none other than The Walking Jesus. I just wish Flannery O’Connor could have been there to see that.

            But what about the “meaning” of AGM? As I’ve made clear above, I think that it has all kinds of meanings for all different people. Most of my Russian students were shocked and chagrined by the change of tone, when a light-hearted story about a silly family on a trip to Florida suddenly turns into a tale of mass murder. This bothers Martha Stephens too, a critic who has written an intelligent book about F.O.[9] Others have insisted that the tonal change makes for a “failure” of the story as fiction. As for me, I agree with the writer T.C. Boyle, who has remarked that “It’s very powerful when the safety net drops away from the comic universe where nothing can go wrong, and there’s this overpowering, terrible violence.”[10]
I, personally, think that a central theme in a lot of O’Connor’s stories is palaver, what I call good ole Southern b.s. People blather their way through their lives like the grandmother does, saying, essentially, nothing, and finally they persiflage their way on out of this life. Such talk is so absolutely familiar to me that I could put myself, say, on the bus with Julian and his mother (“Everything that Rises Must Converge”) and I would already know by heart everything everyone would say. Southern people of my time (the fifties) could have been playing roles in a play: they knew their lines perfectly. A literary scholar could write an article (probably already has): “Slouching Loquaciously Toward Valdosta: Phatic Southern Speech in the Works of  Flannery O’Connor.” Of course AGM, as any great work of fiction, is about a whole lot of other things too.


Good Country People and the “Interlekshuls”
One of the funniest short stories in American literature, GCP takes a joke about a travelling salesman and turns it into art. It is another story about idle badinage, but, in her scorn of the palaver, the “intellectual” Joy-Hulga ends up propagating twaddle of her own. According to the biographer Brad Gooch (p. 256), the passage from Hulga’s philosophy book, about how “science wishes to know nothing of nothing,” is taken from Heidegger’s Existence and Being. This passage “worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish,” and, truth be told, it makes Hulga look rather silly. Of course, quoting Heidegger out of context is unfair. Any abstract thinker can be made to look bad out of context. Take the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who exerted such an influence on O’Connor late in her life. He writes that “In itself, death is an incurable weakness of corporeal beings, complicated, in our world, by the influence of an original fall” (cited in Martha Stephens, p. 7). I assume that you have to be thoroughly immersed in Teilhard de Chardin’s theology  before that makes any sense to you!
The Paradoxical Truth about the Modern-Day “Interlekchual”

            While frustrated by the failure of her relatives (or practically anyone else in Milledgeville) to understand her works, F.O., simultaneously, was scornful of the academics who weighed in on her fiction. As Giannone so wonderfully puts it (in reference to Joy-Hulga), “graduate study exposes how systematic thinking can be a form of infantilism” (63). My Uncle Talmadge would second that in his Georgia voice (“Ain’t it the truth!”), and I, who, unlike Talmadge or Flannery’s Milledgeville kinfolks, inhabited the world of Academe for thirty years, would add that university teaching sometimes manifests a spirit of infantilism. In fact, some of the most puerile people I’ve met in my whole life are college teachers with Ph.D.s. I speak, primarily, of the ones who have found themselves a CAUSE and who spend every class moment beating it like a drum (as if nothing else in life existed). Students too much under the influence of these ideologues would walk into my classes with thoroughly closed minds, and I had a hell of a time trying to open those minds back up. Unfortunately, the “sand box revolution” of the American sixties (the great E.O. Wilson’s term), or, to be more charitable, perversions of the worthwhile ideas of the sixties still have resonance in college classrooms everywhere. In fact, since Wilson first coined that term things have become much worse. Today the spirit of political correctness has instigated THOUGHT CONTROL all over the world of academe.
            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all academics are idiots. In reading literary criticism on F.O., I have discovered a lot of intelligent things. Of course, I have not had the time even to make a dent in the huge volume of materials that are out there, but I might mention here that I particularly appreciate the criticism of Martha Stephens, Frederick Asals, and Richard Giannone. On the other hand, I can imagine F.O. chuckling and shaking her head over certain “interleckchul” lucubrations. I am thinking of one article that appears to have been written by a latter-day twin sister of Hulga Hopewell, Ph.D. We will leave the writer of this article mercifully anonymous. It is roiling with sentences something like this: “Let us now concentrate on the recalcitrant interstices in the bodies of Southern women, who denigrate the conservatism of a racist ideology and who perpetuate in the subjects of their discourse the illusion of incoherence.” After finishing it, I took a look at the list of contributors in the back of the book and discovered that this woman had published several articles on a variety of famous writers. She was teaching at a prestigious American university and her new book (titled something like Battling Against Tobacco Road: the Perambulations of Billingsgate in the Works of Liberated Southern Women), was soon to appear. It would be published by some big-name university press. Why was I not surprised? The formula for success is not that hard: you start with a fashionable cause, and you propagate your cause in language that is highfalutin and abstract. If  Flannery were still alive I can imagine her, with her hard intelligence and keen wit, verbally “grabbing aholt of that there lit critter and turning her ever’ way but loose.”

Russian Literature and Flannery O’Connor

            Another way that I presented GCP to my Russian audience was to emphasize the obvious influence of Russian literature on it. O’Connor read bits and pieces of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Turgenev, Chekhov, Nabokov, [11] but only two Russian writers indubitably have hitched a ride on her sentences and paragraphs: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). The Misfit, e.g., is a Dostoevskian character with a Southern American accent, and in GCP there are two typically Dostoevskian perverts: Mrs. Freeman, who is enthralled by stories about people with crippling diseases, and Manley Pointer, whose sexuality is imbued with fetishism. While engaged in his childlike seductions, he takes special pleasure in collecting women’s glass eyes or prostheses. He, as Giannone writes (p. 64) “savors Hulga’s limp.” Dostoevsky’s works are crammed with pedophiles, as well as with characters who savor the limps of others, even to the point that his enemies accused the writer himself of harboring such perversions. One prominent example is Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, with his tainted attraction to his landlady’s daughter, whom he, ostensibly, wants to marry. She is a sickly girl, and, says Raskolnikov, “If she had been lame or a hunchback, I might very well have loved her even more” (Part Three, Ch. III).
To me Dostoevsky’s influence on O’Connor is most obvious in The Violent Bear It Away and in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” These works, with their doubling of characters and split personalities, with their emphasis on perversity amidst a Christian quest, are quite “Dostoevskian.” I am reminded most directly of The Brothers Karamazov. F.O. may not have ever read bleak (“sick”) stories such as “The Meek One” (“Krotkaja”) and “A Sleazy Little Business” (“Skvernyj anekdot”), but, in writing some of her later works, she certainly has affinities with the “cruel talent” of Dostoevsky (the critic N. K. Mikhailovsky’s term).[12]
            Although he is not often looked upon as a humorist, Dostoevsky has a wicked dark sense of humor. See, for example, his Notes from the Underground, one of the most profound short novels in world literature, a work in which the narrator wallows in perversity but can be, simultaneously, extremely funny. O’Connor’s laughter, however, is usually more “Gogolian” (light, ironic, genuinely funny) than “Dostoevskian” (dark, depraved).
            Nikolai Gogol has a special place in Flannery’s heart. Brad Gooch mentions how Jean Williams once ran into F.O. as the writer was on her way to the library to check out Dead Souls. Robie Macauley, who taught Russian literature at Iowa, had told her to read it since this “was a must-read for every writer.” She told Williams, “So I reckon I better do it” (Gooch, p.143). Later, in a letter to Betty Boyd Love (9/20/52), F.O.  writes, “Do you like the novel Dead Souls? I like Tolstoy too but Gogol is necessary along with the light” (HB, p.44). In an interview from July, 1962, F.O. comes right out and says it: “I’m sure Gogol influenced me.”[13]
            This “necessity” and the influence are obvious in GCP. One way of reading Dead Souls is to see the protagonist-swindler Chichikov as an agent of the devil, “a travelling salesman from Hades,” journeying around Russia and buying up souls (both dead and living).[14] In GCP the devil has two obvious agents in the story, Mrs. Freeman and Manley Pointer. Before the action of the story begins, Satan has already insinuated Mrs. Freeman onto the Hopewell farm. Manley is innocent of his calling, unaware that he is in the employ of the devil. He is presented as a naive character, and in many respects both he and Hulga are innocent children. Manley works (unconsciously) at his job, collecting souls, in the form of glass eyes and artificial legs, for the forces of evil. There are, however, hints of his provenance. For example, he has no address. He is, as he says, “not even from a place, just from near a place.” The devil keeps him busy travelling, so he has no fixed abode.
            Hulga is described as having a special solicitude for her artificial leg. “She took care of it as someone else would his soul...” At the end of the story Manley filches her soul and runs off with it, and Hulga sits in the hayloft, bereft of leg and soul. Critics have enjoyed playing with this situation, talking about how Hulga loses her footing and even her foot, or ends up sitting down, without a leg to stand on. A salient fact about GCP is this: you can’t help enjoying it; it’s hilarious. You don’t get that queasy feeling at the end, the way you get at the end of “The Lame Shall Enter First,” or at the end of Dostoevsky’s “A Sleazy Little Business.” GCP makes me laugh in a Gogolian way. I’m thinking, in particular, of the humor of Dead Souls, not of Gogol’s well-known tendency to veer, sometimes, over into sloughs of despond. One of his “funny” stories ends, famously: “Skuchno na etom svete, gospoda (Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a dreary world we live in).” 
            Flannery herself admits in her letters to reading her own stories as comedy long after she has written them: “I read them over and over and laugh and laugh” (HB, p. 80-81). Here she is making an important statement about herself, as human being and as writer. In her public appearances she emphasized that she wrote grotesque scenes because her readers were blind (she had to use hyperbole to reach them) and deaf (she had to talk loud for them to hear). Maybe so, but I think she took great pleasure in describing the hilarious grotesqueries of life. For me her wonderful sense of humor is what most draws me to her. Does the fact of her being a comic writer detract from her merit? Not in the least. Some critics seem to assume that comic writing cannot be dead serious simultaneously. They are wrong. The greatest comic writing is always dead serious simultaneously, and such are the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Nikolai Gogol.
            In terms of her personal situation Flannery O’Connor resembles Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), who, himself a doctor, knew he was dying of tuberculosis but pretended to himself that he was not, while writing stories and plays full of wry humor. Even more, however, she resembles Nikolai Gogol, the comic genius who was never known to have had any sexual relationships, who was steeped in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, who believed thoroughly in the existence of the devil, who read the Lives of the Saints and the Desert Ascetics. 
            The differences between Gogol and O’Connor, however, are immense. Gogol’s comic genius battled perpetually inside him with his Eastern Orthodox religious beliefs. He somehow thought that the laughter he generated was sinful. Awash in delusions of grandeur, he travelled incessantly around Europe, attempting to write a second volume to Dead Souls, a book that he thought would “solve the riddle of his existence” and, in effect, explain the meaning of life. When he finally came to understand that he was attempting the impossible, Gogol effectively committed suicide, burning the manuscript of Vol. II of his novel and starving himself to death in a religious frenzy (Feb., 1852). He was almost forty-three years old. Flannery O’Connor was sick physically, but not emotionally. Gogol was just the opposite. He was afflicted with a terrible soul sickness.
            Fyodor Dostoevsky was also a devoted Eastern Orthodox Christian (especially after his years as a convict in the labor camps), but his Christianity is constantly called into question—in his fiction, not in his life or his journalistic writings—by powerful voices that deny the message of Christ. Both Gogol and Dostoevsky were thoroughly conflicted personally. Each of them teetered on the rim of insanity at various times in his life, and both had serious sexual complexes. As far as I can gather, however, Flannery O’Connor was never anything if not eminently rational and sane, and her religious beliefs never clashed with her artistic genius. In reading her fiction I do not hear other voices (as in Dostoevsky), contradicting the essence of her theology.[15]  Certain perceptive critics, such as Bloom and Asals, have suggested, however, that a “creative inner dialogue” (Asals’ term) is at work inside O’Connor, and her editor, Robert Giroux, once contended that she did not allow herself to understand the full implications of her writings (Gooch, p. 347). There is food for thought here. In speaking of her favorite story, “The Artificial Nigger,” F.O. herself once wrote that “there is a good deal more in it than I understand myself” (HB, p.140). I believe that this statement pertains to almost everything she wrote.

A Benediction

            In June, 2003, in a ceremony conducted in the Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia, I was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. I made this move (1) at the urging of my Russian wife, and (2) in a last desperate attempt to reconcile my parents (now long dead) within myself. I felt as if my mother and father were standing there beside me as I was conducted through that ceremony, with the priest stumbling over the Old Church Slavonic words (the text of this rite was unfamiliar to him), and with me trying to repeat them after him. I was saying, “Okay, Mommy, okay, Daddy; this is the best that I can do for you. I’m not a Protestant and I’m not a Catholic, but at least I’m officially part of some Christian religion.”
            Of course, if the Orthodox priests find out what I think about some of their dogma, they could boot me posthaste out of their church! Maybe, like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, Bobby Lee is a “Christian malgré lui”! The best I can do is to say, along with Flannery and St. Peter (HB, p. 92), “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
            For all that, I find consolation in a lot of the Orthodox prayers. I run through them every morning, invoking various wonderworking icons, in an attempt to help lots of people, living and dead, who have their problems. I also repeat a lot of the prayers of praise (mostly the Psalms), thanking whomever put me on this earth for the experience of life. Don’t know if I’m doing anybody, or myself, any good, but, for some reason, this daily concourse with the deities makes me feel better.
            Here’s a prayer that I wish I could have sent to Flannery O’Connor in the summer of 1964, back when I was living in that wheat field next to the East German border and she was dying in Georgia. I know that it’s awfully late to be sending this to her, but Time, in the grand scheme of things, is irrelevant. After all, I, unfortunately, did not know Flannery in 1964. I had not read her coruscating works. I didn’t know that she was born on Annunciation Day, or that she died on the saint’s day of the Prophet Ezekiel (Eastern Orthodox), and I didn’t know this prayer either. But here it is, for what it’s worth, in my translation from the Russian.[16]

                                                Prayerful Suspirations by Parfeny of Kiev

When, in a state of sickness and depression, I sense the approach of the end of my earthly existence: Lord, have mercy on me.

When my poor heart is beating its last, when it mourns and pines with the anguish of death: Lord, have mercy on me.

When, for the last time, my eyes brim with tears, as I think that over the course of my life I have offended thee, O God, with my sins: Lord, have mercy on me.

When the rapid heartbeat signifies the imminent departure of my soul: Lord, have mercy on me.

When the deathly pallor of my face, when my body growing ever colder strikes fear into the hearts of my dear ones: Lord, have mercy on me.

When my eyesight grows dim and murky, when my voice falters and my tongue turns to stone: Lord, have mercy on me.

When hideous phantoms and spectres lead me to despair of Thy beneficence: Lord, have mercy on me.

When my soul, affrighted by recollections of my transgressions and dread of Thy judgment, languishes in its battle with the foes of my salvation, those fiends who strive to draw me away into the realm of pitch-dark torment: Lord, have mercy on me.

When I am drenched in deathly sweat, when, in the throes of horrible sufferings, my soul begins separating itself from my body: Lord, have mercy on me.

When death’s shadow hides from my eyes, glazed over in mist, all the objects of this earth: Lord, have mercy on me.

When within my body all sensations cease, when my veins are petrified and my muscles become as rock: Lord, have mercy on me.

When human speech and all the sounds of the world no longer reach my ears: Lord, have mercy on me.

When my soul stands before thy Visage, O God, awaiting thy decision: Lord, have mercy on me.

When I harken unto the just sentence pronounced by thy Holy Court, which decides my eternal fate: Lord, have mercy on me.

When my body, separated from the soul, becomes the prey of worms and of rot, and when, finally, all of my substance is transformed into a handful of dust: Lord, have mercy on me.

When the clarion call sounds to awaken all upon thy Second Coming, and when the book of my deeds is opened wide, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon thy sinful servant, Mary Flannery. Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my soul. Amen.


[1]Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, in The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 55-56. Hereinafter noted in the text as HB.
[2]Cited in Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (N.Y.: Little, Brown and Co., 2009), p. 298.
[3]For the stories in Russian see Flannery O’Connor, Khoroshego cheloveka najti ne legko [A Good Man Is Hard to Find], various translators (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974). The title story is translated by L. Bespalova, and GCP is translated by V. Murav’yov.
[4] Cassill cited in A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Flannery O’Connor (collection of articles on the story, edited by Frederick Asals, Rutgers University Press, 1993), p. 119.
[5] “On Her Own Work,” in Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1957) p. 107.
[6] You can’t help noticing, for all that, F.O.’s preoccupation with hats (from Wise Blood through The Violent Bear It Away), and I believe that a good scholar would be justified in writing an article called “Hats and Their Uses (Besides Being to Hold Down Heads) in the Works of Flannery O’Connor.” I once read (no joke) an excellent article about the significance of Raskolnikov’s hat in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
[7]Richard Giannone, Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham University Press, 1999), p. 52.
[8]For more detail on my childhood and youth in a small Southern town (with one football game wrapped around the whole thing), see my memoir, A Roast for Coach Dan Spear (Hamilton, Ohio: Ogee Zakamora Press, 1998). On the purchase of the peafowl, see HB, p.45.
[9]Martha Stephens, The Question of Flannery O’Connor (L.S.U. Press, 1973).
[10]Cited in Frederick Asals’ introduction to the collection of articles, A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” p. 20.
[11]In her letters she mentions reading, liking Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. She also enjoyed Nabokov’s Pnin, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and Bend Sinister. During the hoopla over Lolita she defended the novel (see HB, p. 98-99, 304-05, 339,343-44, 491).
[12]The most profound influence of Dostoevsky came late in her career. Only about a year before her death (April 27, 1963), as if dissatisfied with her comprehension of the great Russian, she was promising in a letter, “I intend to read Dostoievski this summer.” See F.O., Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (The Library of America, 1988), p.1181.
[13]Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, edited by Rosemary M. Magee (University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 94.
[14]Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (N.Y.: New Directions, 1944; corrected edition, 1961), p. 73. On Gogol as split and tormented, see the article I posted (June 3, 2009—in honor of the bicentennial of his birth) on the Internet compendium called Johnson’s Russia List (#103, Item No. 37). The article is titled, “Man Discovers He’s Afflicted with Comic Genius; Man Dies of It (The Case of Nikolai Gogol, 1809-1852).”
[15]Secondary literature on Dostoevsky, just in English, is monumental. A good place to begin is with Joseph Frank’s brilliant five-volume critical biography (Princeton University Press, 1979-2002). The best criticism on Gogol is still in Russian (not translated into English). On Dead Souls see, e.g., Yu. Mann, V poiskakh zhivoj dushi: “Mertvye Dushi [In Search of a Living Soul: “Dead Souls”](Moscow: Kniga Publishers, 1984). In English see the Norton Critical Edition of Dead Souls, edited by George Gibian, translated by George Reavey (W.W. Norton and Co., 1985). See also Donald Fanger, The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (Harvard University Press, 1979).
[16]From the prayer book Molitvoslov (Moscow: Blagovest, 2002), p. 190-93.