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,
, 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. Mt. Dora, Florida
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
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. Mt.
“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
and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding
Fiction, the same one Flannery once used. Did I understand fiction? Hell,
no! Cleanth Brooks
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 ,
where the library facilities are a wasteland. Novgorod University
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,
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,” “
Final exercise: translating Russian classics from English back into Russian, then comparing your translations with the original
My students at
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 Novgorod
University 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
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. 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
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
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.” 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.” 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.” 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).
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, 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
. 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. 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 Milledgeville,
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
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. East Town
The funny papers: Nancy, Smiling Jack, Gasoline Alley, Henry, and Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead. Pork barbeque from
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). East
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. 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.”
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
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,  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).
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
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
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
and buying up souls (both dead and living).
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
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. 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.
In June, 2003, in a ceremony conducted in the Kazan Cathedral,
, 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.” St. Petersburg,
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.
Prayerful Suspirations by Parfeny of
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.
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.
Cited in Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (N.Y.: Little, Brown and Co., 2009), p. 298.
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.
 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.
 “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.
 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.
Richard Giannone, Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham University Press, 1999), p. 52.
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.
Martha Stephens, The Question of Flannery O’Connor (L.S.U. Press, 1973).
Cited in Frederick Asals’ introduction to the collection of articles, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” p. 20.
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).
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.
Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, edited by Rosemary M. Magee (University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 94.
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).”
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).
From the prayer book Molitvoslov (
Blagovest, 2002), p. 190-93. Moscow