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Limitation as a strong point

· The American writer Flannery O’Connor ·

Flannery O'Connor, born 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, to parents of Irish origin, had little time at her disposal and she knew it: a Lupus erythematosus (a serious deficiency of the human immune system), inherited from her father, was to lead to her death in the early hours of 3 August 1964 when she was only thirty nine, leaving a peacock farm and a collection of literary works, small but of unmistakeable and rare talent.

Important biographical elements in her life were scarce, apart from a two-month stay in New York State in 1948 and a trip to Europe where, already seriously ill, she attended a papal audience at the Vatican and went on pilgrimage to Lourdes. When in 1951 she left Atlanta hospital, too weak to go upstairs, Flannery O'Connor moved with her mother to Andalusia, the old family home not far from the town of Milledgeville, a small agricultural centre in Georgia. On the ground floor of the farm she wrote her first novel (Wise Blood, 1952).

Even while she was prey to deep suffering, Flannery O'Connor considered the isolation brought upon her by her illness a blessing – “Lord, I am happy to be a hermit writer” she wrote to a friend – due to the fact that she found herself face to face with what she considered to be the essential experience we must all in some way come to terms with: “the experience of limitation”. Furthermore she viewed her physical condition with a deep sense of humour, defining herself, because of her crutches, a “buttressed structure”, and ending a letter saying “I must go out on my two aluminium legs”.

In spite of her illness and her limited production, success lay in store for Flannery O'Connor. Her 27 short stories and two novels gained her, in her lifetime, two honorary degrees and she won the O. Henry award three times. In 1988, her complete works were included in the prestigious Library of America collection, so far among her contemporaries an honour bestowed only on William Faulkner.

As regards her Italian editions, the current situation is dolefully sad: while her novels and short stories have been published unabridged, the same is not true of her essays and, especially, of her correspondence, only a part of which are translated. If one were to attempt an interpretation of this writer's ever so short and no less arduous fate in Italy, one would come to realize that Flannery O'Connor's narrative is rooted in such a scorching, personal and radical Catholicism that unsurprisingly it unleashed prejudicial and censuring attitudes. But this writing does not target that vaguely secular, rational and enlightened common sense of atheists and agnostics. It aims to provoke – with irony and sarcasm – also and above all the righteous and respectable reader, an expression of a conventional Catholicism that is all too often hypocritical and bigoted.

In a clear, rapid style, she delineates the borders of an extreme territory where characters evolve who are eccentric and odd but uncompromising seekers of the absolute. They are souls that are stubbornly closed in on themselves until a violent and unexpected event occurs to shatter their convictions and their bonds. Breaking the seal costs them tears and blood, but this is the only possible way to come close to the mystery – a mystery which, according to Flannery O'Connor, is the intuitive recognition of a God who transcends and saves man, healing him from his incompleteness and frailty that are synonymous with humanity.

Reading these texts, therefore, means entering an arduous spiritual area. It means looking at reality in the light of a sometimes disconcerting Christian realism that makes human limitation its strong point. So unremitting a look that it leads back to a greater and more unconditional piety.

Elena Buia Rutt

PRINTED EDITION

 

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