Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Kurp on Johnson and O'Connor

I could run a pretty good blog by just channeling Patrick Kurp. It's a lazy man's game, of course, and I try to avoid it, but I make an exception today because he has hit upon a couple of particular favorites: Samuel Johnson and Flannery O'Connor (here and here and here).

I first encountered Johnson in Basil Pillard's 18th Century Lit class at Antioch in 1956. Pillard made us keep a journal and I can still remember myself on the greasy couch in the upstairs apartment on West Limestone Street, tapping away at my portable typewriter and experiencing the weird, unfamiliar tingle--hey, I must be, what? thinking? Ever since I've felt a special sort of affinity for Johnson the person, something that I really don't feel for any other writer--not even the ones I like as much, or perhaps better. It's certainly not that I want to be Johnson: who would willingly assume the loneliness and the curse of black depression that dogged him through so much of his life? But how can you not admire the heroism of his vision and the craggy integrity, the devotion to Getting it Right?

O'Connor is a different story. Mrs. Buce introduced me to O'Connor in 1979 when we were first dating--I suppose it was some kind of a test. Mrs. B had a good Catholic background of her own--also, sadly, some health problems tht seemed to track O'Connor's, though luckily for me, they did not prove fatal. Coincidentally, the first item on the test syllabus was "Parker's Back." We went on to read the letters in "The Habit of Being" together, and later to the rest of this jewel-like small corpus. None has ever failed me, but I suppose my favorite is still "Good Country People," the one about the wooden leg, perhaps the saddest piece of scabrous comedy I have ever encountered.

I don't know quite to make of Kurp's entanglement of O'Connor with Vladimir Nabokov. I remember enjoying Pale Fire and Pnin; I guess I was too young to appreciate the seductive horror of Lolita. I haven't read any of these in forty years. Last year I tackled Ada and thought it pretentious and overdone; also Speak, Memory, which I found admirable in its way, I suppose, but almost inhumanly heartless. Come to think of it, perhaps I should go back and tackle Pale Fire. But for something to cherish, I'd rather choose O'Connor or Johnson.

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