The secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber and A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

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Again, a very interesting discussion, sharing serious thoughts and laughter and strong opinions about those two short-stories.

Those of you present will find below the notes you asked for : i.e name of W. Mitty’s illness and F O’Connor’s own opinion of her story.A bit long, I warn you.
I hope it will interest also some who were absent.

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1. Overcompensation Adler or maladaptive day-dreaming or SCT ( sluggish cognitive tempo).

 

drawing by Henry Chamberlain

 

a good man is2[O’Connor delivered the following remarks at areading she gave at Hollins College, Virginia on14 October 1963. In introducing her “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor touches upon the function of violence and the grotesque in her fiction, especially in relation to the characters of the Grandmother and the Misfit in the story.]

Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception. About this I can only say that there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written. Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.
The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death. And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it. She would like to see the event postponed.
Indefinitely.
I’ve talked to a number of teachers who use this story in class and who tell their students that the Grandmother is evil, that in fact, she’s a witch, even down to the cat. One of these teachers told me that his students and particularly his Southern students, resisted this interpretation with a certain bemused vigor, and he didn’t understand why. I had to tell him that they resisted it because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew, from personal experience, that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart. The Southerner is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and he knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.
This same teacher was telling his students that morally the misfit was several cuts about the Grandmother. He had a really sentimental attachment to the Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them.
It is true that the old lady is a hypocritical old soul; her wits are no match for the Misfit’s, nor is her capacity for grace equal to his; yet I think the unprejudiced reader will feel that the Grandmother has a special kind of triumph in this story which instinctively we do not allow to someone altogether bad.
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
There is a point in this story where such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes. even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil, I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfits’ heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.
This story has been called grotesque, but I prefer to call it literal. A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.
We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives. Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven. But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them. In any case, I hope that if you consider these points in connection with the story, you will come to see it as something more than an account of a family murdered on the way to Florida.
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .
For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.
…There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

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Chirst stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi

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christ-stopped-at-eboliJust a short summing up of our meeting yesterday. We were a small group – a pity as Viccie gave us a very interesting overview of the Italian unification and Carlo Levi’s family history, which placed the book into its historical context. Though some of us didn’t find it a page-turner we all agreed the book was sort of universal concerning the problems it raised and very well written. The author’s position not of a judge but of a compassionate observer added to its literary and humanistic qualities.

Thanks to Linda who is always ready to host us in her welcoming apartment and to Viccie for a profound moderation

 

A room of one’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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Virginia_Woolf_1927Alan’s take on V Woolf :

Carolina Foxx and the Writers’ Group.
Jaccie looked up as Carolina Foxx wafted into the café. Benoît was serving some other customers. Claude was nowhere to be seen. Carolina’s mood was not easy to read at this time of day. It all depended on so many factors.
“Hello Carolina. I was just saying, next month is NaNoWriMo and I’m jolly well going to have a shot at it. The trick is to write. Just make sure you write something every day.”
Beyond the café windows the October light was filtering through the flimsy clouds and perfusing the whole street with a gentle, golden glow. A funeral cortege made its ponderous way past the ethnic music shops, the bearers plodding under the heavy load of sentiment. Small children skipped along holding their mothers’ hands, excited at the thought of new shoes and coats. A man in trainers crossed the street to where a woman was waiting, and when they touched, they kissed.
Carolina’s mind seemed to see the scene from every angle at once. Her inner eye looked at the lid of the coffin and read the name, “Henriette de Bouques”. Simultaneously in that manner that the mind seems to have with its superhuman powers, she mourned with the de Bouques and skipped with the children. Oh the ecstasy of the kiss. Perhaps the world is wrong to divide humanity into two sexes, into different ages and into the living and the dead. Here in the joy of the children, the grief of the mourners, the excitement of the lovers, all were one.
“You can’t expect me to write anything every day”, she sniffed.
Jaccie sighed.
“Why ever not? It will be fun!” enthused Bernadette. “I intend to begin my opus magnum.”
Carolina listened to the sudden still of the city. How mindless and base Bordeaux seemed, mechanically going about its business. Nobody thought of Montesquieu. Never a person gave a second thought to the Spirit of the Laws. How distant Montaigne seemed. The shoppers were unconcerned about Therese Desqueyroux’ innocence or guilt, or the desperation that had pushed her to her utterly rational act.
“You know that ever since we downsized I haven’t been able to compose a sonnet, construct an ode or even devise a three act play.”
“We all have the same problem.” said Jaccie. “None of us lives in a mansion you know.”
Carolina felt that the day seemed spring-like. She imagined the daffodils blooming in the Town Hall gardens. Soon the Miroir d’Eau would be turned on again and people would play in the cooling, soothing waters. But no, this was October and winter would be upon us soon, driving non-smokers off the terraces.
“Well I think that I have plenty of space” said Bernadette.
Carolina gazed with horror at the luncheon menu. Velouté de courgettes à la crème de coriandre. Millefeuille de saumon sur son lit de julienne de legumes de saison. It was no wonder she got her seasons confused. With a luncheon menu like that it was remarkable that she remembered her name.
“and these luncheons!”
“What’s the matter with them?”, Jaccie snapped, her patience seriously stretched.
“I had the millefeuille today and it was good! Good value, too! And it was copious!” chimed Bernadette.
“The average woman could never have written the works of Mauriac! Certainly not without a partridge or two.” Carolina’s feathers ruffled with pleasure at the thought of a really good lunch, beginning with a thick, hearty soup, then a fish course, some chops and a partridge before a solid, jam roly-poly pudding.
“Millefeuille de saumon! What do they think we are? Miners?”
If only she could get a really good lunch she knew that her mind would be indwelt by the poetic muses. Wordsworth’s lakeland would flash upon her inward eye, Tennyson’s Lancelot would sing “Tirrah Lirrah” along the towpaths of her heart, she could conceive stately pleasure domes to rival any of Coleridge’s. But on millefeuille de saumon she’d be lucky to be able to write a shopping list.
“That’s really not very helpful, is it?” protested Jaccie, trying to summon up her last reserves of patience. “The food at Tea and Tomes is certainly light, but it’s all freshly made and everything I’ve ever had here has been delicious. Not only that, but the lads work jolly hard.”
Benoît was passing by bringing hot chocolate with whipped cream for Bernadette, a fruity tisane for Jaccie and “a really good cup of tea, India, not China, with lemon rather than milk and please bring me some proper granulated sugar” for Carolina.
“So moving on, what have we written this week?” Jaccie asked. “You remember the assignment. 300 words on a figure of your choice from Welsh history.”
Carolina shuddered extravagantly.
“Well I’ve written a piece about my family’s connectons with Owain Glyndwr. I didn’t realise, but before my grandparents came to live in Northern France we were Welsh nobles and had our own castle. We still have Glyndwr’s crest carved into our chest of drawers.”
“How marvellous!” Jaccie allowed herself to start to feel that at last the writer’s group might begin to get going.
Bernadette cleared her throat and began to read: “It was on a cold and wet Wednesday in the 13th century that my ancestor, François de Galles, began the long and arduous flight from Deganwy Castle that would bring him to Perpète-les-Oies and my family to a new nation and heritage.”
Claude moved ominously to the coffee grinder. Our three writers braced themselves. The noise was deafening. Bernadette waited patiently. The arch of Carolina’s eyebrows seemed to reach ever more vertiginous heights as Claude ground on.
“Goodness, this really is intolerable!” exclaimed Jaccie, “We are simply going to have to find some other café to meet in unless Benoit and Claude can give us A Room of One’s Own.
“Well isn’t that just what I’ve been saying all along!” triumphed Carolina Foxx.

HOW TO BE BOTH by ALI SMITH

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alibook51uMGW4OB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It was rather strange to see Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy on the cover of a recent English book and I wondered if it meant anything for British readers today… You’ll get some answer reading the book.

If anything, discussing a book in two parts and only discovering who had read first the part about the Renaissance painter or that about the contemporary young English girl was rather difficult. Each of us was reacting depending on what we had read first , adamant we had been luckier than the others to have our version rather than the other! That was quite a novelty for our reading group!

Nevertheless, we all agreed it was an ambitious and very, very clever book, in theme and construction.

It was useful and beautiful to have the paintings by Francesco Del Cossa on the inside covers so we could refer to them easily while reading rather than go on to Internet (where there is hardly anything).

There were reservations about the treatment of the language especially in the Francescho part; reservations that for all it’s cleverness, all its layers,it finally dealt with duality only.

but we all loved the way Ali Smith writes so precisely and exactly about a teenager, about creating a work of art . We all loved the humour of the book.Most of us agreed the book would become a classic.

It was also great meeting again after the holidays and discussing such a rich work.

AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

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to be read after or before reading Americanah: 2 brilliant funny writers:

http://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/08/25/podcast-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-zadie-smith?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=referral

Dear ladies and gentleman,

Just a few words to express my total happiness to see you again after the summer holidays and my constantly renewed admiration of your warmth, intelligence, avidity of good reads, enthusiasm and culinary talents! As Linda said today, Best group ever!

Immense thanks to Linda for a brilliant moderation that evoked so many interesting subjects: comparing situation of black people in France and the USA and back in Africa, whether racism will ever be eradicated or is it an inherent part of our nature, comparing our own experience as a foreigner in another country, speaking about the literary style, the plot and the characters of the book, about the author’s power of observation and her caustic humor and even about cats, dogs and horses who tend to prefer animals of the same color )))

Alicia, thank you so much for having this idea of goodbye in your home (you make it your home by just being there!) And we are so happy to know you’ll come back again soon! April is not that far after all.

It was also very nice to have new members at our discussion. I hope they liked it and will keep in touch.

Travel with my Aunt by Graham Greene

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travel withMy, my, what a wonderful discussion we had today: everybody was so active and enthusiastic about the book and had her word to say! We spoke about the authors’ complicated personality and how it could be reflected in the book, whether it was really written purely for fun or was it a provocation aimed at reformulating his lifelong Catholic believes. The discussion also touched on the principal theme of the book: which is the best way to live your life – fully, here and now, without any regard for the imminent death, or be a law-abiding citizen looking at his compatriots from behind the hygienic screen of the bank counter and cultivating dahlias in his free hours.

Between two main characters the majority unanimously preferred aunt Augusta though we did feel somewhat awkward concerning her latest lover’s morality or rather amorality, which was also true of aunt Augusta herself. On the whole the book WAS fun and a pleasant read though it could hardly be considered as a major work by Graham Greene.

And our dear Jacqueline who rarely breaks the silence came out with a most amazing comparison of Wordsworth and the chorus in a Greek tragedy!

Viccie shared with us a few very helpful insights into the life and work of Graham Greene – as far as I understood, her grandfather lived in the same area and personally knew Green’s school friends!

And believe me, the luncheon was on par with the discussion! We had delicious vegetarias entrées, terrific cheese and four (!) cakes, all of them very tasty but Brigitte’s creation was also stunningly spectacular!

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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excellent womenQuartet in Autumn intrigued us so much that we were all keen on reading another book by Barbara Pym. We were not disappointed! Such fun! Described from the point of via of the spinster daughter of a vicar, the book made us smile or laugh at every single page. Here again, hardly anything important happens apart from ordinary life in an English parish; and yet the humor, the lightness of touch associated with the precisely worded feelings of the main character gave us sheer reading pleasure .

We tried to think of similar writing such as Jane Austen, of course, but also A Brookner, E Bowen ( minus the humour),Catherine Fox – Angels and men-, E. M. Delafield – Diary of a Provincial Lady.

So thank you , Viccie, for providing us now with other Barbara Pym books  to read.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

mockingbird51grMGCKivL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Before reading the sequel – Go Set a Watchman-soon or attending the play at the Barbican in London this summer, everyone enjoyed re-reading this masterpiece.

These are Viccie’s words :

I read this when I was 15 and would probably have never read it again if it wasn’t for my book group. It’s a shining example of why I belong to one: yes I have to read a whole lot of books that aren’t to my taste but every so often we have something like To Kill a Mockingbird which makes ploughing through al the dross worthwhile – the literary equivalent of kissing a lot of frogs I suppose.

No, we haven’t had any literary frogs with this group recently! But I wouldn’t have been prompted to re-read this again, now, if it hadn’t been for the group I’m so pleased I did.

And these are Alla’s:

the book is just exceptional!

We praised the language, the education component (the best book for parents ever!), the profound moral and ethical problems raised up without any pretension or moralizing, the cleverly constructed plot, the admirable humor and the engaging characters of Atticus, Scout and Jem. We also spoke about Dill inspired by Truman Capote and even decided to read one of his books next year (see below). Thus one book leads to another.

It goes without saying that for the American members of our circle the book is even more rich and meaningful as it speaks with a voice of their childhood.