Brad Gooch’s new biography of Flannery O’Connor is reviewed for the Atlantic by Joseph O’Neill. It looks like a fascinating book, and one I’m planning to add to my list. I was struck in particular by this:
O’Connor was a fervent Roman Catholic—a “thirteenth century” Catholic, as she described herself. She read deeply into theology, with a special interest in Teilhard de Chardin. She went to Mass every day she could, invariably accompanied by her mother. Flannery and Regina’s claustrophobic, mutually dependent relationship was inevitably vexing for both women—and mortifying for the daughter when the mother revealed to visitors her own less than edified social attitudes. These domestic circumstances, in combination with Flannery’s religiosity and visibly worsening health, hardly form a propitious setup for a gentleman caller. But one did materialize. In 1953, she began to receive visits from Erik Langkjaer, a handsome, thoughtful Dane whose work as a college-textbook salesman regularly brought him to the Milledgeville area. The friendship became, Gooch writes, “at least tinged with romance.” On a drive together, they shared a fateful kiss. Langkjaer, in one of the biography’s most powerful passages, remembers this:
She had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped … I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking experience.
It is very hard, reading this kind of thing, not to feel great sympathy for O’Connor and mix the feeling into one’s evaluation of her work. She herself would have rejected such a mixture. “My lupus has no business in literary considerations,” she maintained. This was true not only for critics but for the writer herself. O’Connor’s fiction gives few signs of her disease. Wise Blood was more or less completed before the diagnosis, and her subsequent writing obviously was cut from the same pre-lupine bolt of obsessions.