Flannery O’Connor Reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Here’s a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, at Vanderbilt University in April, 1959—almost exactly fifty-five years ago.

There’s another recording of her reading the same story here.

You can read it for yourself here.

This is the paragraph in the story that delivered its first shock to me on my first reading:

The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

And here’s O’Connor in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” observing how we non-Southerners (and non-Americans) often perceive fiction from the American South:

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

Writers from the Other Europe

Writers from the Other Europe is a book series edited by Philip Roth and published by Penguin between 1974 and 1989 that aimed to introduce western readers to lesser-known writers from eastern Europe.

Here’s a list of titles:

Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Ashes and Diamonds
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Csath, Geza. Opium and Other Stories
Gombrowicz, Witold. Ferdydurke
Hrabal, Bohumil. Closely Watched Trains
Kis, Danilo. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
Konrad, Gyorgy. The Case Worker
Konrad, Gyorgy. The City Builder
Konwicki, Tadeusz. A Dreambook for Our Time
Konwicki, Tadeusz. The Polish Complex
Kundera, Milan. Laughable Loves
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Kundera, Milan. The Farewell Party
Kundera, Milan. The Joke
Schulz, Bruno. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
Schulz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles
Vaculik, Ludvik. The Guinea Pigs

European Classics

Here’s an alphabetical list of all the books in Northwestern University Press’ European Classics series. The website lacks a simple overview, so I made a text file. The series is heavy on Heinrich Boll and Russians, and some of the authors are relatively unknown.

Ageyev, M. Novel with Nocaine
Andrzejewski, Jerzy. Ashes and Diamonds
Balzac, Honore De. The Bureaucrats
Bely, Andrei. Kotik Letaev
Boll, Heinrich. Absent Without Leave
Boll, Heinrich. And Never Said a Word
Boll, Heinrich. And Where Were You, Adam
Boll, Heinrich. A Soldier's Legacy
Boll, Heinrich. End of a Mission
Boll, Heinrich. Irish Journal
Boll, Heinrich. Missing Persons and Other Essays
Boll, Heinrich. The Bread of Those Early Years
Boll, Heinrich. The Safety Net
Boll, Heinrich. The Stories of Heinrich Boll
Boll, Heinrich. The Train Was on Time
Boll, Heinrich. Tomorrow and Yesterday
Boll, Heinrich. What's to Become of the Boy? Or, Something to Do with Books
Boll, Heintich. Women in a River Landscape
Bunin, Ivan. Night of Denial
Capek, Karel. Nine Fairy Tales, and One More Thrown in for Good Measure
Capek, Karel. War with the Newts
Chukovskaya, Lydia. Sofia Petrovna
Deledda, Grazia. After the Divorce
Deledda, Grazia. Elias Portolu
Dobychin, Leonid. Encounters with Lise and Other Stories
Dobychin, Leonid. The Town of N
Druzhinin, Aleksandr. Polinka Saks and The Story of Aleksei
Erofeev, Venedikt. Moscow to the End of the Line
Fedin, Konstantin. Cities and Years
Garborg, Arne. Weary Men
Gazdanov, Gaito. Night Roads: A Novel
Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. The Sylph
Gladkov, Fyodor. Cement
Grekova, I. The Ship of Widows
Heym, Stefan. The Architects
Heym, Stefan. The King David Report
Heym, Stefan. The Wandering Jew
Hlasko, Marek. The Eighth Day of the Week
Hrabal, Bohumil. Closely Watched Trains
Ivanov, Vsevolod. Fertility and Other Stories
Kataev, Valentin. Time, Forward!
Kharms, Daniil & Alexander Vvedensky. The Man with the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd
Kis, Danilo. Encyclopedia of the Dead
Kis, Danilo. Hourglass
Krasicki, Ignacy. The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom
Krieza, Miroslav. The Return of Philip Latinowicz
Mandelstam, Osip. The Noise of Time
Michaelis, Karin. The Dangerous Age
Neera. Teresa
Odoevsky, Vladimir Fedorovich. Russian Nights
Petrov, Ilf. The Twelve Chairs
Platonov, Andrey. The Foundation Pit
Prus, Boleslaw. The Sins of Childhood and Other Stories
Rasputin, Valentin. Farewell to Matyora
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Snapshots
Schnitzler, Arthur. The Road to the Open
Serao, Matilde. Unmarried Women: Stories
Skram, Amalie. Constance Ring
Tolstoy, Leo. Divine and Human and Other Stories
Trifonov, Yuri. Another Life and The House on the Embankment
Trifonov, Yuri. The Disappearance
Trifonov, Yuri. The Exchange and Other Stories
Trifonov, Yuri. The Old Man
Tur, Evgeniya. Antonina
Vaculik, Ludvik. The Axe
Voinovich, Vladimir. Pretender to the Throne: Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
Voinovich, Vladimir. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
Zeromski, Stefan. The Faithful River
Zinovieva-Annibal, Lydia. The Tragic Menagerie
Zweig, Stefan. Beware of Pity

Good fiction isn’t escapist. It sucks.

I had to take the school bus to school. Every weekday I’d get up, eat, get dressed and go out to the bus stop, which was just a fancy name for a particular street corner. The area around the corner was a small hill and there was no side walk, so in the winter we’d often struggle to stay on the slick, snow covered slope because when you’re little and your parent tells you never to play on the road, you never play on the road, even if the road is safer than the icy patch of grass above it. The older kids didn’t have that problem. They stood on the level. They were a bad influence. But that’s beside the point. The point comes when I was an older kid myself, had started reading for fun and would spend my forty minutes on the bus by cracking open a library book and entering another world. This is the point: absorbing books are often labelled escapist fiction even when they’re not.

Any book can be an escape as long as it’s better than your present reality. Escape means fleeing. If my childhood was horrible I would have chosen to flee to almost any other world rather than face reality. That happens. However, it also tends to negate the draw—the suction—of amazing literary worlds. Sitting on my school bus, I wasn’t escaping my life. My life was good. I wanted to read, and then to keep reading even when the bus arrived at school, not because I wanted to get away from what was awaiting me but because the world within the words was too good to leave. Whether it was Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (still my favourite Conrad novel) or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (borrowed from a friend, devoured and dutifully returned), reading was a positive experience rather than the avoidance of a negative one. The books were vacuums cleaners for my mind. Turn on by opening, turn page and hold on. When the bus stops, turn off by closing covers and go to class. At school, I was neither bored nor bullied. On the bus on the way home, I leaned against the bus wall and opened the book again.

Maybe there’s a general suspicion of introverts, a category into which readers are often lumped wholesale, because there’s a general suspicion of spending time alone, imagination and privacy. All that goes on behind closed doors must be nefarious. That’s the extreme view. A less fanatical one is that people who read fiction are impractical but harmless. They spend their time in make-believe. Sprouting from that is the belief that becoming absorbed in a fiction is a symptom of a sick reality from which one wishes to escape. Denying such a situation is difficult because, after all, you may be fleeing a reality so bad you don’t even know it’s bad. Only others, being educated in these things, know better for you. I admit I’m being dramatic, because nothing like that has ever happened to me, but forgive me for I’m defending good books! Having your nose stuck in one doesn’t mean real life is pushing the back of your head into it. Sometimes the book is just so good that it’s pulling you inside by the nostrils.

It’s similar to immigration. When you’re living in a war torn country led by a dictator, you want to escape. Anywhere better than your present country will do. You become a refugee. When you’re living in Germany and decide to move to the Netherlands, your goal isn’t to escape. You don’t say, “I’m fleeing from Berlin to Rotterdam.” You say, “I’m moving.” You’re an immigrant, not a refugee. You still may be searching for a better place, but you’re motivated by the hope that you’ll smell more tulips (positive) rather than by a fear of death (negative). And, as the refugee example suggests, escapism isn’t about a destination anyway. Immigration is about destinations. It therefore makes little sense to label one book escapist and another not. All books can be escaped into. It’s the person who escapes into them who is the escapist, which is a word that’s much more useful as a noun than an adjective.

Now, if you’ll excuse, I’ve a made-up world to immigrate to.

Charcoal Sketches

sienkiewicz-charcoal-sketches-szkice-weglem

The novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz is, alongside the poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz, the best known Polish author. His most important works are his trilogy of historical novels—With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Sir Wołodyjowski—set in the seventeenth century, and Quo Vadis, about the persecution of Christians in Nero’s Rome. He also wrote The Teutonic Knights, a long book about the Teutonic Order that is more popular in Poland than abroad, and a children’s novel, In Desert and Wilderness, about the adventures of a Polish boy and English girl in Sudan during the Mahdist War.

Charcoal Sketches isn’t any of those, which makes it a minor Sienkiewicz. It’s also a novella and quite funny, which makes it unlike Sienkiewicz’s mostly serious, long works. The story takes place in the Russian partition of Poland, where the bureaucracy is corrupt, the newly freed peasants are inept and lacking initiative, and the aloof nobility has decided to stay out of local affairs to the detriment of everyone, including itself. Indeed, Sienkiewicz intended Charcoal Sketches to be a criticism of Poland, one that was sparked by a trip to America, where instead of disorder, disorganization and malaise, he noticed instead a self-motivated citizenry, action and a hardy progress.

The novella starts on a light-hearted note. We enter a municipal building in a small village and meet the chief bureaucrat, an arrogant writer and a swarm of flies in various states of animation. The first wants to prevent the army from taking his son. The second wants to sleep with a peasant woman. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the flies want. The chief bureaucrat and the writer plot. They decide that if they manage to get the peasant woman’s husband, Rzepa, to go off to war, both their problems will be solved. There’s a memorable scene—representative of Sienkiewicz’s humour—of the writer attempting to force himself on the peasant woman, only to end up having his ass bitten by her dog. It’s the type of scene that’s funny only until you stop laughing and realize someone almost got raped.

Eventually, the chief bureaucrat and the writer get Rzepa drunk and he signs what he thinks is a favourable property agreement about his land but that is actually a document by which he has agreed to join the army. All the proper legalities are observed. He signs of his free will and in front of a witness. In the morning, poor Rzepa has a nasty surprise to go with his headache.

Rzepa’s wife desperately tries to find a solution to this problem. She doesn’t want to be left alone. They have a child. She even visits a priest, who tells her most unhelpfully that God’s will is God’s will. Rzepa no doubt deserves what he’s getting. Eventually, she sets off to visit a nearby town, hoping to convince an important official to help her. Unfortunately, she succeeds merely in spending a day in the municipal building, waiting on the wrong benches, watching the wrong doors, and then making a fool of herself when finally she gets the brief chance to state her case to the official. He and his cronies laugh her out of town. On the way home, she’s almost raped by a drunk peasant who tells her to be a good woman and go into the wheat with her, then bonks her on the head with a rock after she refuses; gets caught in a thunderstorm; and becomes the butt of a nobleman’s signature joke: seeing her walking down the road, he slows his carriage and calls out to her—only to then speed off without a word.

She makes it home nevertheless because she’s a tough little woman. But she’s defeated. She follows questionable advice and meets with the writer, who, as we remember, wants to sleep with her and who helped dupe her husband. She lets him do what he wants. Nothing comes of it. She crawls back home, where Rzepa has been drinking and is feeling increasingly suicidal. This is where Sienkiewicz absolutely turns the screw, and the plot, and shocked at least this reader into blunt submission. Rzepa wants to die, but upon learning of his wife’s infidelity he decides he wants to kill her first. He picks up his axe and swings. Although my translation doesn’t do it justice, Sienkiewicz ends the chapter like this:

There sounded a hollow blow, followed by a moan and the knock of a head against the floor; then a second blow, a weaker moan; then a third blow, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. A stream of blood poured onto the floor, the coal in the fireplace grew dimmer. A vibration swept through Rzepa’s wife, from her head to her toes, and then her corpse stiffened and remained unmoving.

Shortly after, a wide, bloody glow tore apart the darkness: the farmhouses were burning.

As if that wasn’t horrible enough, Rzepa isn’t actually able to murder the writer. He’s stopped by the locals. And, in a short epilogue, the novella’s narrator proceeds to kick us further in the gut by telling us that the document Rzepa signed—you see, it was never going to be enough to get him into the army anyway…

All was for nothing. How’s that for a joke?

And so life continues. In its disorganized, corrupt and stupid manner, selfish bureaucrats take advantage of doltish peasants under the disinterested eye of the nobility, who stroll in blissful wonder under the afternoon sun, holding hands, avoiding puddles and discussing poetry.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that although the writer wanted to sleep with Rzepa’s wife, his true feelings were for a noblewoman, a goal beyond the reach of even the most cunning psychopath. The writer will have to keep dreaming about his advances, playing footsies under the table and holding hands with his most-powdered of adorations, who is melding slowly in his mind with characters in a cheesy novel he’s obsessed with, a melodrama set in noble Spain. There’s an irony here, because in Spain, they used to hand out titles like candy. Our writer, too, hurts because he’s not important enough. His skills will only get him so high. The rest is unattainable. The fruits of hard work have their limits. As they say, apples and oranges.

The Language Wars

hitchings-language-wars-cover

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Although some of the reviews I read mentioned that the middle chapters were tedious, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Hitchings may go off argument but he never goes off topic, and The Language Wars isn’t just a history of the fight for “proper English”. It’s also a personal essay in which Hitchings shares his opinions about our bastard tongue and comes down on the side of the language liberals rather than the conservatives. That amounts to a lot of words about words, some of which are objective, others delightfully not (although if you disagree with him, perhaps less delightful). Like English, it’s a mishmash: of history, grammar, fun trivia, science and observation. Of course it’s bloody well written, too. And researched. Indeed, one of the book’s great surprises is how many other books and authors I now want to read because Hitchings mentioned them. Is there such a thing as a “gateway read”? All in all, I recommend The Language Wars to anyone who’s ever wondered where to place a comma, whether spelling it “colour” or “color” makes more sense, or if using a semi-colon will make you seem like a totally pompous ass. You won’t find answers to those problems, but you will gain a greater understanding of why such answers are hard to give and why the grammar pedants are, therefore, very often wrong…

Sins of the Arih Book Cover

Sins of the Arih Book Cover

Here’s a book cover I designed for Ali Nowac, for his upcoming science fiction novel Sins of the Arih. It’s made entirely from public domain and Creative Commons parts:

Even self-publishers on a budget can make pretty covers for themselves if they know where to look, but do follow each artist’s Terms of Use or license conditions. Just because something doesn’t cost money doesn’t mean you can use it unconditionally. When an artist asks for attribution, give them proper attribution. If they ask for a link back, give a link back. There’s a wonderful community of artists out there and it’s fantastic when people can help each other out. But that’s the key word: community. Don’t pillage. Be polite and respectful of what you’re getting. Smile, say thanks.