Flannery O’Connor stood out amongst 20th-century writers for her ‘spiritual questing.’ Now, a portrait of her inner world has been published, following the discovery of her prayer journal.
Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Prayer Journal’ (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Review by Marilynne Robinson for The New York Times
This slender, charming book must be approached with a special tact. To read it feels a little like an intrusion on inwardness itself. The volume contains, alongside a lightly corrected transcription, a facsimile of the Sterling notebook in which Flannery O’Connor, just 20 years old, began a journal addressed to God.
Written in her neat hand, it is reproduced complete with the empty final pages (her concluding words are “there is nothing left to say of me”) and not omitting a bit of musical notation floating on the inside of the back cover.
The prayers, attempts at prayer and meditations on faith and art contained in it were written in 1946 and 1947, while O’Connor was a student in Iowa. The brilliance that would make her fictions literary classics is fully apparent in them.
The complexity of O’Connor’s thinking, together with the largely flawless pages in her hand, suggest that these entries may be fair copies of earlier drafts. Clearly O’Connor’s virtuosity makes her self-conscious.
Young as she was, new to writing, she could only have been pleased, even awed, at having produced these beautiful sentences. Perhaps nothing written is finally meant to go unread, even if the reader is only a creature of the writer’s mind, an attentive and exacting self that compels refinements of honesty.
After a little joke about the pedestrian uses we would make of a knowledge of heaven if we had been given one, she says, remembering her intended Hearer, But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so.’ Her mind is examined, faith questioned, weakness confessed, powers tried as they might not have been under the eye of any human observer. Youth and loneliness and the unspent energies of a singular mind are testing the possible and must be allowed free play.
It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her ‘with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,’ she begins the next entry: ‘Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.’
Every writer wonders where fictional ideas come from. The best of them often appear very abruptly after a period of imaginative drought. And, mysteriously, they really are good ideas, much superior to the contrivances of conscious invention. Such experiences are by no means exclusive to writers with religious worldviews.
It can seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, Hesiod, Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O’Connor, were naïve, sophistication has made language poorer....
Full review in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/books/review/flannery-oconnors-prayer-journal.html?_r=0
A review by The News Tribune, Missouri: http://www.newstribune.com/news/2013/nov/16/book-review-flannery-oconnor-prayer-journal/
Review from The Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/11/12/i-would-like-to-write-a-beautiful-prayer/
A YouTube clip (part one of three) in which Flannery O’Connor reads her short story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZZgs46t9Z0