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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Flannery O'Connor

Picking up Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, you wonder how he will fill the pages: dead at 39, an adulthood that was confined and constrained by illness, no long list of lovers, no involvement in world-changing events, O’Connor’s fiction is clearly more eventful and sensational than her life -but the book is well worth the reading, and not just because it causes one to brood on O’Connor’s fiction, and her uncompromising vision - how was the one achieved, and the other acquired?

I prefer biographies written by those with a self-reflected interest in the concerns and reputations of their subject – VS Pritchett on Chekhov, say, or Chesterton and Ackroyd (for good and ill) on Dickens - books where one gets a sense of a fretful and engaged musing on the writer as well the 'shilling life' that 'gives you all the facts.'

I like best those little tomes they used to be called ‘Lives’: Weidenfeld and Nicolson resurrect the genre from time to time, matching writers with subjects. The best of these biographies reflect back upon the biographer so that Proust, for example, becomes a proto-Edmund White and James Joyce is feminised by Edna O’Brien’s fond regard.

At first, you expect Gooch's book to be like so many contemporary biographies – the thoroughness of the research stalling the pace, the narrative halted again and again by a roll call of dates, banal events and a labyrinthine account of the many branches of the family tree. Gooch's biography is along these lines, and you don’t get a sense of a strong identification with the subject. You do get a sense of a definite liking, but not any evidence that what pre-occupies O’Connor also engages Gooch in any way that encourages him to explain or investigate his subject deeply - in the way Woolf evidently occupies Hermione Lee or the way Andrew Wilson digs so deeply into Patricia Highsmith's work in Beautiful Shadow - a stunning book that excavates the writer's mind.

only really approaches anything like a dissection of how O'Connor's faith informs and determines her work towards the end when she welcomes the influence of Teilhard de Chardin, at that time a maverick theologian and, in the book, the only instance where she departs from the Church’s teaching.

This is a lack. O’Connor, by her own estimation, is a Catholic writer before she is a female writer or a Southern American writer. Nothing else explains her so fully. She is not a Catholic novelist in the way that Greene or Waugh are. Converts both, they are more playful, more willing to challenge and dispute orthodoxy. Faith in O’Connor is no game - the stake (one’s immortal soul) is too high - nor is her religion a resource for symbolism – ‘If (the Trinity) is a symbol, to hell with it.’ In C20, even for Cradle Catholics, one’s faith is often a wavering, battered thing, half-despised, ingrained in one rather than thoroughly understood. Not so, O’Connor.

In fact, she is much closer to Francois Mauriac, but funnier and far tougher. I’d argue that the one work of hers that does not succeed – The Violent Bear it Away – fails as Mauriac’s work sometimes did: they both kept trying to pull towards redemption characters whose very energy came from their resistance to God.

Of course, this is the subject of Wild Blood, but in the second novel, the melodrama – and melodrama, so in love with suffering, is deeply Catholic – becomes over-punitive and strained.. With Mauriac, I am thinking particularly of La Fin de La Nuit, the needless sequel to Therese Desqueyroux, the novel in which he met a character finally impervious to redemption.

But Gooch's biography persuades one as it goes along that his is the right approach to O'Connor in this instance. As it’s the first biography, he is just laying down the facts and not interpreting them overmuch. Others will follow that, baffled by the faith that explains and complicates them, will more crudely handle issues around O'Connor's sexuality and attitudes towards race, both of which Gooch handles with a temperate insight.

He is most interested in the fiction if and when it exploits or is most clearly occasioned by the life – particularly 'The Enduring Chill' and 'Good Country People' - but this also gives rise to moments of real grace, such as when he outlines and presents her relationship with Karl Langjkaer, and how tenderly he accounts for its effect on O’Connor. Another - not so much a moment as a subdued but still glittering strand - is the subtle and equally tender depiction of Betty Hester - who, as A, was the recipient of so many of O’Connor’s best letters in The Habit of Being.

And in his last page Gooch identifies what made O’Connor a great writer. It was not her faith, her spinsterhood, her geography, her health, her times - although each colour her work, determine its thrust, its effect and range – but her industry. Finally, it is the only sure thing that makes a writer. It is, perhaps, the only thing.

Kafka observed that a writer should never leave his desk, but cling to it with his teeth. O'Connor was this truth exemplified:

full-throated acclaim, and all the interest following, would have been impossible had Flannery not kept her eye...on ‘the pinpoint of light’ that Mrs Flood kept trying to make out at the end of Wise Blood. As O’Connor took pains to correct the galleys of ‘Revelation’ the night before her operation in Baldwin County Hospital; or hid under her pillow, at Piedmont, the notebook in which she was scratching out ‘Parker’s Back’; or worked, back home, making changes to “Judgement Day’ on a bedside desk Maryat Lee remembered as ‘one of those flimsy tables from Woolworth’s’, she was intent on ‘going home,’ closing the circle, making a book, rigging the peacock’ tail to unfurl.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Ingmar Bergman - Persona

Description is explication.


What is description, after all, but encoded desire?

Might, then, explication aim at possessing what one desires?

Take Persona.


A film projector, its bulb molten.

A blinding light. Think of that – a light that blinds: that which should take us out of darkness places us in it.

The film through the projector staggers, pauses, scratched and uncertain – as if it has lost its way.

Inexorably, the ribbon of film rattles through the projector. It travels at considerable speed. 24 frames per second. 27 long meters a minute. The shadows run over the white wall. Magic, of course. But unusually sober and merciless magic. Nothing can be changed, undone. It all thunders forth again and again. Always with the same cold immutable willingness…Load the film upside-down or back-to-front, the result will not be very different.

A second – no more – of an erect penis – whose? A flash! (See its sons in Mullholland Dr. and Fight Club - films similarly obsessed by doubling identities, death and how a tale is told and by whom).

Two hands gesture frantically – or speak to us in sign language – which?

A white screen.

In the right hand corner, a silent movie, a slapstick comedy: a Ben Turpin figure in a white nightgown is surprised by death, a man in black from head to toe, a skeleton painted on his body. A nightmare chase around the room until he tumbles into bed.

A spider.

A sheep’s head held in an old man’s hands. Its throat is cut. Black blood floods from the slit.

The sheep’s eye: it gaze holds us.

The murderous hands, filled with the sheep’s offal, its heart.

A nail driven into the palm of a hand: the hand winces and curls towards the nails.

Church bells. Winter trees. Railings, sharply pointed. Snow, in heaps, dirtied.

An old woman’s chin, her lips. Her face. She is sleeping – or dead.

A young boy lies on a gurney, another corpse?

More old and dead, their wrinkled faces, their curled hands, their patient feet. Water drips and a phone rings and rings, unanswered.

The young boy again. He is not a corpse. The gurney is a bed. Restless and unsleeping, he twists the sheet about his body as he turns. He puts on round, thick-lensed spectacles, and begins to read: Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

The water continues to drip, but the music rises, a sinister creep of sound. The boy looks up, around.

He stares - at us? He raises his hand.

He reaches out to strokes a woman’s face, giant-sized on a screen, a blur of a face that sharpens into another woman’s face and then back again to the first woman. Back and forth, back and forth, this blurred exchange of faces. The boy caresses each one, lovingly and without discrimination.

The Title and Credits on a white screen, intercut, a rapid exchange, with the boy’s face, the two women’s faces, a lake, the sea, a burning monk, a Keystone cop chasing a criminal.

Prologue over – dream over - whose? - the story begins.

A white door in a white wall opens and a nurse steps into the room.

An unseen doctor tells the nurse is to look after a young woman, an actress who, in the middle of a performance as Electra, has become an elective mute.

The nurse, recognising the strength of character the patient’s dedicated silence indicates, wonders if she herself will cope with the challenge – ‘mentally,’ she adds.

The nurse is dedicated to the ordinary and to the known. Her future - marriage, children - is all decided ‘within her.’

Elsewhere, Vietnam, a war is occurring. On TV, a monk burns in the street. The patient watches, unblinking.

The doctor tells the patient that she is lost in the hopeless dream of being.

The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being, in every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war... what you are with others and who you really are. A feeling of vertigo and a constant hunger to be finally exposed. To be seen through, cut down...even obliterated. Every tone of voice a lie. Every gesture false. Every smile a grimace. Commit suicide? That's unthinkable. You don't do things like that. But you can refuse to move and be silent. Then, at least, you're not lying. You can shut yourself in, shut out the world. Then you don't have to play any roles, show any faces, make false gestures. You'd think so... ...but reality is diabolical. Your hiding-place isn't watertight. Life trickles in everywhere. You're forced to react. Nobody asks if it's real or not, if you're honest or a liar. That’s only important at the theatre, perhaps not even there. Elisabet, I understand why you're silent, why you don't move. Your lifelessness has become a fantastic part. I understand and I admire you. I think you should play this part until it's done...until it's no longer interesting. Then you can leave it, as you leave all your roles.

I first saw Bergman’s Persona when I couldn’t have been more than barely adolescent. I saw it on TV – it must have been BBC 2 – in those days when there were only three channels, and that seemed sufficient; not only that, the narrow choice meant that mostly we all watched the same programmes, and, so, the next morning, we could talk about it from shared experience. There was less to choose from, but the diet seemed richer.

I still remember watching Donskoi’s Childhood, which I have never seen since, and Truffaut’s La Sirene de Mississippi and Citizen Kane – and my sister explaining the sled was called Rosebud: I’d not noticed the sled at all.

And these weren’t watched out of any precocious desire, but part of watching TV. The experiences were mixed up and no different in impact than Emergency Ward 10, Coronation Street, Blue Peter and Magpie. Truly, in those days of elitist broadcasting, our consumption was a more post-modern mix than the many ghetto channels afford us now.

The age of the cineaste is gone and these films struggle to earn attention. In 1952, Donskoi's film was listed as one of Sight and Sound’s Top Ten. Donskoi’s Childhood is not available on DVD in the UK. There is a Region 1 copy on Amazon 2 : new from £48.94 and 1 used from £69.54. But this, more cheaply, is a glimpse of it:

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Due Inward Applause

And, unknowingly, last month's theme was detail - things as they are, put down in prose or on screen, faithfully so or changed as if upon a blue guitar - whether I was looking at Olt, Flaubert's masterclasses with Maupassant, Ophuls visualising Maupassant's prose, Bertolucci's black and white in colour, Nabokov vs Trilling, Ps22 singing Coldplay, The Simpson's parodying Madmen, 0r my long meanderings on Joseph O'Neill and Mandelstam.

As a punctuation point, then - and because it is what I have been trying to do and what each of the above accomplish in their own way - this from Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights

I smelt the rich scent of the heating spices," Mrs. Dean reports, "and admired the shining kitchen utensils, the polished clock, decked in holly, the silver mugs ranged on a tray ready to be filled with mule ale for supper; and, above all, the speckless purity of my particular care—the scoured and well-swept floor. I gave due inward applause to every object....

And this is the Joyce Carol Oates essay that reminded me of it.