Review: ‘The Complete Stories,’ by Flannery O’Connor

This collection — which appeared seven years after the Southern Gothic writer’s death in 1964 — was reviewed by Alfred Kazin.

Credit…Leanne Shapton

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THE COMPLETE STORIES by Flannery O’Connor | Review first published Nov. 28, 1971

The title sums up author, book and life: “Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.” She died in 1964 at the age of 39; she published 31 stories, of which 12 have been uncollected until now. Now they are all in one book, arranged in chronological order from the stories she wrote for her master’s thesis at the University of Iowa to “Judgment Day,” a harrowing version of her brilliant early story about an elderly Southerner’s exile in New York, “The Geranium.” Since the stories here include the original openings and other chapters of her two novels, “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away,” and since stories were more natural to her than novels, we do have almost all of Flannery O’Connor “complete” here. Especially when you reflect that the driving characteristic of her style, her mind, her particular faith, was to find people “complete” in the smallest gesture, or in a moment’s involuntary action that could decide a life forever.

She could put everything about a character into a single look, everything she had and knew into a single story. She knew people with the finality with which she claimed to know the distance from hell to heaven. For her, people were complete in their radical weakness, their necessarily human incompleteness. Each story was complete, sentence by sentence. And each sentence was a hard, straight, altogether complete version of her subject: human deficiency, sin, error — ugliness taking a physical form.

I met her during the McCarthy period, under circumstances that persuaded me that she — or her friends — would have considered Jefferson Davis a Communist. I later visited her and her famous peacocks at her home in Milledgeville, Ga., in the company of her parish priest, who found her formidable in her fierce disapproval of his literary tastes. To tell the truth, what I liked most about her was her stories. She was not just the best “woman writer” of this time and place; she expressed something secret about America, called “the South,” with that transcendent gift for expressing the real spirit of a culture that is conveyed by those writers (they are not necessarily the greatest, but neither do they ever die out of our minds) who become nothing but what they see.

Completeness is one word for it; relentlessness, unsparingness would be others. She was a genius. A mark of nongenius in storytelling is to be distracted, to hint there are things to say that the author will get down to someday. Nongenius is nonconcentrating, and no matter how nasty it may be to people in the story, it is genial to itself. There is laxness in the air, self-conscious charm, a pensive mood of: What should come next?

O’Connor, as I must call her, was in story after story all there, occupying the mind and the whole life of a character who was as solidly on the page as if impaled on it. Her people were wholly what they were, which wasn’t much in “humane” terms. But they were all intact of themselves, in their stupidity, their meanness, their puzzlement, their Southern “ruralness.” The South was her great metaphor, not for place but for the Fall of Man. Life for O’Connor was made up of absolutes; people were absolute, sharp, knives without handles. Hazel Motes all too believably blinds himself in “Wise Blood.” Old Mr. Fortune, in “A View of the Woods,” loves his granddaughter so deeply and identifies her with himself so wildly that of course he kills her without meaning to when she amazes him by balking his wishes. The young son of the dissolute city couple in “The River” is taken by his babysitter to see a country baptism, goes back by himself and drowns trying to find his new friend Jesus in the river.

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    No one ever wrote narrative with more secret cunning.

    The people were complete because the reader, not they, know all about them. They were nothing but their natures, and since there was nothing to life but people’s natures, this made life moral. O’Connor’s sentences, as ruthless as Stephen Crane’s but less literary, always more objective than Hemingway’s at his would-be toughest, measured like a rule, and came down flat. People in her stories are always at the end of their strength. They are at the synapse between what they are (unknown to themselves) and what they do. And these synapses, these flashes of connection, are so “complete,” immediate, right, irreversible, that a particular feature of O’Connor’s style is that a sentence is exact — not showily, as is the nature of rhetoric, but physically, the way different parts of a body fit each other. No one ever wrote narrative with more secret cunning, coming up with the minute differences that excite us in reading and cause us to respond. Yet no one ever wrote less “beautifully” in the contemplative, lyric Hemingway fashion. She was more devoted to the synonym than to the metaphor, for what she saw was the nonhuman that people always reminded her of:

    “He seemed mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out.” “The rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from … ” “On the porch there were three little boys of different sizes with identical speckled faces and one tall girl who had her hair up in so many aluminum curlers that it glared like the roof.” “When he finished, he was like something washed ashore on her, and she had made obscene comments about him, which he remembered gradually during the day.”

    Then there was the deadliness of observation without cruelty, funny because the different items “fit.” “Mrs. Watts’s grin was as curved and sharp as the blade of a sickle. It was plain that she was so well-adjusted that she didn’t have to think any more.” “He was chewing gum slowly, as if to music.” “‘He has a ulcer,’ the woman said proudly. ‘He ain’t give me a minute’s peace since he was born.’” Her sentences are more often disturbing in their laconic rightness than smart. She was not looking around her as she wrote. She was herself impaled on what her people were doing. There was nothing but that: one small circle.

    Her short career was a progress by dying.

    Though she would have been only 46 by now, her stories already seem noncontemporary in their passion for the art of fiction. One realizes how diffuse and subjective the practice of fiction has become since O’Connor wrote the first stories in this book for her master’s thesis at Iowa, which read as if she were going to be examined by Willa Cather and Stephen Crane. We live in such an age of commentary now! She had the dread circulatory disease of lupus from the time she began to write — her short career was a progress by dying — and I wonder if the sourness, the unsparingness, the breathtaking perspective on all human weakness in her work need as many translations into theology as they get in contemporary American criticism. As Josephine Hendin pointed out in “The World of Flannery O’Connor,” there was an unreal and even comic gentility to her upbringing in Milledgeville that must have given O’Connor a wry sense of her aloneness as a woman, artist and Southerner who happened to be Irish Catholic.

    She touched the bone of truth that was sunk in her own flesh.

    On the other hand, she was so locked up in her body that one can understand why life as well as her faith made her think of “this is my body, this is my blood.” She touched the bone of truth that was sunk in her own flesh. Thus she lost herself in a story. And this was grace. Reading her, one is aware above all of a gift blessedly made objective, a giftedness reading the world. Words became true in her dramatic world, in action, gesture, death. That too was completeness of a kind, resting its weight perfectly in story after story. But fiction depended for her on an unyielding sense of our limits, and the limits could be raised only by death.

    In “Greenleaf,” the great story of a woman killed by the bull that her impossibly inefficient farmhand, Greenleaf, is always letting out, the woman stares at the “violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. … She had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.” — Alfred Kazin

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