O’Connor: The Presence of Grace

April 15, 2019

The Presence of Grace
And Other Book Reviews
Flannery O’Connor
Edited by Carter W. Martin
(University of Georgia, 1983)
189 p.

Flannery O’Connor didn’t leave us many books, and to find another, even if minor, is a joy. This volume gathers together over 100 short book reviews which she did for Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia between 1956-64. I believe the existence of the book is not very well known, even among her admirers.

Many of the books she reviewed were ephemeral; indeed, it is a little dispiriting to think that she invested so much time in reading books which nobody reads anymore. An occupational hazard, perhaps, for book reviewers, but who among us, in all soberness, does much better? Yet part of the attraction of this book is that she does, every so often, write about an enduring book — novels by J.F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh, or François Mauriac, for instance. It is here that one leans forward to hear what she had to say.

Most of the books were non-fiction, and, given the publications for which she was writing, it was natural that they had mostly to do with Catholicism. Among the “big names” whom she reviewed were Louis Bouyer and Romano Guardini; she knew quality when she saw it. I was a little surprised, I admit, at the praise which she lavished on Tielhard de Chardin, whom I know was making waves at the time, but one hardly expects Flannery to be susceptible to hype. Nonetheless, she considered him “a great and saintly man” whose mind “dealt in immensities” and whose books would “probably have the effect of giving a new face to Christian spirituality”. Following his censure by the Holy Office in 1962 she conceded that his books were “incomplete and dangerous,” but her admiration for his person seemed undimmed. I don’t know much about de Chardin, I admit, his star having faded in the meantime, and quite possibly her assessment of his personal merits was just.

A salutary feature of the book is that it can disabuse us of fond imaginings that Catholic life before Vatican II was sunshine and roses. Her general view of American Catholicism in relation to the wider culture was that it was narrow and fearful, and not particularly distinguished, “having compromised with the secular in everything from doctrine to decoration”. One is tempted to say, as a rejoinder, “Miss Flannery, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, but, still, the point she makes is worth hearing.

Much of the fun of the book is in the jibes and barbed praise which she bestowed on books and readers. Of one book she writes that

This book is well worth reading for its virtues and we have its faults to thank for its being read so widely.

And of best-sellers in general she muses that

The best seller list is a standard of mediocrity through which occasionally a work of merit will slip for reasons unconnected with its quality.

A review of a biography of St Catherine of Siena begins in this way:

The signs and wonders that increased the faith of the 14th century will very generally have the opposite effect on that of the 20th, and this biography of St Catherine, written by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, can very well have the effect of inspiring the reader with a genuine repulsion for the saint.

or, commenting on the jargon in a book about education, she writes that

…the reader, unless he is a student of education and thus habituated to such, will quit the book half way through, with the thought: if they do this to the language, what do they do to the child?

*

Most of the reviews are brief; just a paragraph or two, though occasionally we get a page or two. I could learn something from her about the soul of wit. They are arranged chronologically, and are interspersed with letters between Flannery and the diocesan papers’ editors on book-related matters; her personal voice comes through more clearly in the letters, and one can’t help missing her.

***

[On a wordy volume of unadulterated wisdom]
The ideal form for unadulterated wisdom is the aphorism.

[On Catholic imagery]
The images absorbed in childhood are retained by the soul throughout life. In medieval times, the child viewed the same images as his elders, and these were images adequate to the realities they stood for. He formed his images of the Lord from, for example, the stern and majestic Pantacrator [sic], not from the smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart. When childhood was over, the image was still valid and was able to hold up under the assults given to belief. Today the idea of religion of large numbers of Catholics remains trapped at the magical stage by static and superficial images which neither mind nor stomach can any longer take.

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