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21 April 2010

This is the book club thread More precisely, the one week late book club thread.


We were reading Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, and we were supposed to discuss it last week. I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies, and I hope someone else read the novel too. I got sick and busy and didnt get a chance to listen to the lectures and frankly didnt quite know what to make of it.

About 50 pages into the novel I just kept thinking: who would want to write about these people. That feeling grew stronger as I went on. My only exposure to O'Conner had been to the short stories from a good man is hard to find and they read the same way to me, but over 20 pages it seems more like a beautiful sketch of something repellent. At length as was the case here, I found it challenging.

My edition has a collection of her letters in the back. As I was leafing through not writing anything about Wise Blood I noticed that the first letters (some of which were written on my block in New York, which is fun) are about the sale, or lack of sale of this novel. In writing to a potential publisher she says "The finished book, though I hope less angular, will be just as odd if not odder then the nine chapters you have now." To a friend she writes "I learned that nobody at [the publishing firm] liked the 108 pages but the ladies there particular had thought it unpleasant (which pleased me)."

I find myself in the place of the none-too-bright publishers, not sure what to make of this novel
I didnít read Hungerfords lectures until after I had read the book, and now slightly regret it. Hungerford is proposing, in a slightly maddening professorial way of just offering, three ways of getting a handle on this novel, O'Connor's own preferred religious interpretation, the novel as an artistic expression of southern culture (on the cusp of its critical examination and challenge) and as a product of a novelist raised in the New Criticism.

The idea of the writer whose work is shaped by and for the New Criticism rings true to me. With persistent prodding I can see the formal beauty, of the work. But I still think, what was O'Connor's point in writing about these creations. If I understand correctly, she labored constantly for five years on this book, writing and rewriting.

So if we think that each and every word counts, what is she trying to do here. In her authors note O'Connor says "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes's integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to do so. " If I thought all day I would not come up with "Integrity" to describe Hazel Motes. But is O'Connor saying that once infected with the Christ idea, no amount of sin will erase it?

I have one very specific question to my fellow readers: what was the point of the chapter on the train and the confrontations with the porter? On posing the question it occurs to me that Hazel is calling the porter home? Another of the images of being drawn home?

I am eager to hear what everyone (anyone) else thought of it.

O'Connor is my second favorite author ever (after J.G. Ballard), and a native of my partner's hometown. She's one of the few authors to ever write about the south in a way that I (as a Georgian) recognize. I love Wise Blood but I haven't read it recently enough to participate in a discussion of it; I look forward to seeing this thread, though, if other folks do indeed jump in.
posted by BoringPostcards 21 April | 22:26
BP you should take a quick look through Hungerford's lectures, here. There are two on Wise Blood, tell us what you think.
posted by shothotbot 21 April | 22:58
My apologies shothotbot, but things got busy at work so I did not complete this months assignment.
posted by Edward_L 21 April | 23:00
O'Connor's interpretation, on the face of it, makes perfect sense to me. This book was written in the 1940s and starts with Hazel coming home from WW2, disillusioned -- the ultimate outsider. He was raised in a very religious household, and is rebelling against that with the full force of his being, preaching "The only that matters is that Jesus is a liar!!"

But the same integrity that forces him to preach his doubts out loud, drives him to acknowledge his later recognition that his rebellion was wrong and foolish, and to mortify himself.

Ultimately, though, my love for this novel -- and the great John Huston film of it, often cited as a near-perfectly faithful adaption of a novel(la) -- is existential. I think it has a beautiful, terrifying and strange internal logic that is compelling. I learned of O'Connor's second layer of symbolic meaning only later, and decided myself that Motes is, bizzarely enough, her parody of Sartre and other existentialists (who were, remember, the hippest of the hip at the time she wrote it) filtered heavily though her experience of the rural wartime South.

But I think it works beautifully standing alone. BTW, REM gave it a shout out early in their career (circa Murmur).
posted by msalt 22 April | 13:23
OMG. Seriously. This is the SECOND TIME I've been in the middle of reading something that is by the same author as the book club title, but not the right book.
I suck.

Oh well, maybe this summer I'll have time to read something not school assigned. I'll only be doing prelim. work on my undergrad thesis then.
posted by kellydamnit 22 April | 17:10
I read this book as hilariously grotesque but also, primarily, as religious. Mote tries to go home (to Christ) throughout, but is sidetracked, lost, seduced, drawn into sin and ultimate dead because of his resistance to belief, his path to Christ. The book cares not at all, I think, about ethics or good behavior except as an indicator of whether someone really believes or not. The violence Hungerford talks about is, I think, part of the imagery of Catholicism, starting with the crucifixion and the Catholic tendency to view Christ as a collection of parts, not least his Sacred Heart, and is also in my view informed by the fact that in 1946 the South was indeed a violent and ugly place.

I've always loved O'Connor too though I've never been in the least Christian or for that matter (except for a two year period in childhood) Southern. I love her unsparing view of people and her ability to convey the humor of physical ugliness, stupidity, and evil. Not many people see the funny side of these horrid aspects of life and humanity.
posted by bearwife 22 April | 17:43
3-point Wednesday update || Bunny! OMG!