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.
Gooch 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.