Flannery O’Connor, Reviewer

One of the items I retrieved on the recent trek northward was my box of Flannery O’Connor books. Included was The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Published in 1983 by the UGA press, it is a collection of the book reviews O’Connor wrote for the Georgia Bulletin (now from the Archdiocese of Atlanta) and the Southern Cross (Diocese of Savannah) from 1956 to just a couple of months before her death in 1964.

Now ask yourselves.

What diocesan newspaper is seeking out Catholic writers of literary fiction (and there are some out there) to pen book reviews for them? To pen anything?

The reviews are all very short — around 200 words. The collection is invaluable, not just for the further insight we gain into O’Connor’s mental and spiritual landscape and priorities, but also what we can glimpse about the American Church before the Council.

Most of what O’Connor reviewed was non-fiction, and she did not like most of the fiction she did review — J.F. Powers, Paul Horgan and Julien Green being the unsurprising exceptions in the otherwise flowerly garden of pietistic fiction she endured.

The non-fiction choices are fascinating, although not a surprise to anyone familiar with the contents of O’Connor’s personal library and the scope of her reading we can discern from her letters. She was very concerned with the intellectual life of American Catholics and indeed saw what she was doing for the papers as in some way an act of charity in which readers might be encouraged to read beyond the pieties.

She was especially interested in Scripture, dismayed that Catholics did not read more of it, and quite interested in the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Again, perhaps not a surprise? She was, as is well-known, quite interested in Teilhard de Chardin, and reviewed a few books by Karl Barth, as well.

I’m going to pull some passages and lines from the book — some for their wit, others for their insight, most for both. And some that are simply of personal interest to me, which I am posting here as a sort of file.

Those of us who have been repulsed by popular portraits of the life of St. Therese of Lisieux and at the same time attracted by her iron will and heroism, which appear even through the most treacly portraits, will be cheered to learn from Father Robo’s study that this reaction is not entirely perverse. (18 — Two Portraits of St. Therese of Lisieux)

Catholics who are not articulate about their love of the Bible are generally those who do not love it, since they read it as seldom as possible, and those who don’t read the Bible do not read it because of laziness or indifference or the fear that reading it will endanger their faith, not the Catholic faith, but faith itself. (25 — The Catholic Companion to the Bible.)

Reading the works of Baron von Hugel, the reader always has the sense that the question had been experienced and that it has made its mark on the man. (42 — Essays and Adresses on the Philosophy of Religion.)

Mr. John Delaney of Doubleday & Company said on a recent Catholic Hour broadcast that the “heavier” Image Books, such as the Summa Contra Gentiles have been equal in sales and demand with the “lighter” types such as Father Malachy’s Miracle. ‘Surprisingly,’ he said, ‘St. Thomas has outsold Bruce Marshall.’ this is cheering news and indicates that Catholic books can find a market with the non-Catholic reader when they are good books. (52. A review of several small books in a new series put out by Sheed & Ward.)

The novel is written with great deftness and delicacy and with a moral awareness that comes only with long contemplation on the nature of charity. It presents the kind of situation which emphasizes the mystery of evil in its starkest aspects nor does it offer the solutions of faith for those who do not believe. It is completely lacking in false piety and is in every sense a book which has derived from the best type of Catholic imagination. (56 — The Transgressor by Julian Green)

The jacket informs us that Mr. Smith attended parochial schools; this is a blinking light to caution the Catholic reader. True to our expectations, the only ‘good” characters are Catholics, innocent and with hearts of gold. The heel-hero is basically innocent and with a heart of gold and though he is not Catholic, he feels a strong attraction to good Catholic living. All this makes a painful book more painful. (70 — Harry Vernon at Prep)

He is depthless and the author doesn’t seem to be aware of it. the result, fictionalized apologetics, introduces a depressing new category: light Catholic summer reading. ( 73 — Tell Me, Stranger)

The translator informs us that there were many barbarians in St. Augustine’s audience and that his Latin was surprisingly conversational. He must therefore have concluded that present day barbarians would delight to hear the great rhetorician say, ‘Got it?’ ‘off the rails’ ‘inside information,’ and other such expressions. He apologizes in advance to those readers who find the translation altogether too colloquial. An apology is in order. (74 — Nine Sermons of St. Augustine on the Psalms)

In genuine tragedy and comedy, the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight. Much modern so-called tragedy avoids this penetration and makes a leap toward transcendence, resulting in an unearned and spacious resolution of the work. The principle of this thorough penetration of the limited is best exemplified in medieval scriptural exegesis, in which three kinds of meaning were found in the literal level of the sacred text: the moral, the allegorical,and the anagogical. This is the Catholic way of reading nature as well as scfripture, and it is a way which leaves open the most possibilities to be found in the actual. (94- C hrist and Apollo)

He proposes in the place of that anguish that Gide called the Catholic’s ‘cramp of salvation’ — obsession with personal salvation — an anguish transmuted into charity, anguish for another. Thus for Sartre, ‘hell is other people,’ but for the Christian with Mauriac’s anguish others are Christ. We realize that this way of looking at life was so completely left out of Mauriac’s youthful Catholic education that it has had to come to him as a discovery of later life. (96 — The Son of Man, Mauriac)

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are hints thrown off in passing which show that attention to the study of archetypes could benefit the Church in some of the acute pastoral problems she faces today. In discussing the prevalent lapse of Catholics brought up in Catholic homes and educated in Catholic schools, Fr. White observes that this is very likely a failure of our sacred images to sustain an adequate idea of what they are supposed to represent. The images absorbed in childhood are retained by the soul throughout life. In medieval times, the child viewed the same images as his elders, and these were images adequate to the realities they stood for. He formed his images of the Lord from, for example, the stern and majestic Pantacrator, not from a smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart. When childhood was over, the image was still valid and was able to hold up under the assaults to belief. Today the idea of religion of large numbers of Catholics remains trapped at the magical stage by static and superficial images which neither mind nor stomach can any longer take. (100 Soul and Psyche)

Here are two mediocre biographies of two great men. (165 — The Cardinal Stritch Story and Leo XIII: A Light from Heaven)

It is doubtful if the illustrations in this text will appeal to children. In every face depicted, the sign for spirituality is emaciation. (176 — The Kingdom of God)

In some circles this novel will be read as if it were an essay entitled ‘The Priest in America.’ Some reviewers will point out that Father Urban is not typical of the American priest, some will imply that he is. This reviewer would like to point out that Mr. Powers is a novelist; moreover a comic novelist, moreover the best one we have, and that Father Urban represents Father Urban. If you must look for anyone in him, Reader, look for yourself. (168, Morte D’Urban)


Originally published at amywelborn.wordpress.com on December 29, 2008.