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book review

Flannery O’Connor felt that her stories were given to her by God.The Associated Press

A Prayer Journal is the slimmest volume imaginable. It runs 38 pages, with a like amount added showing the facsimile pages of Flannery O'Connor's original journal. It is so light that it is could blow away in a high wind, but there is incredible bang for the buck. In it is the seed of all O'Connor's later work, and by reading it, you see how all her writing – more than 1,000 pages in the Library of America edition – is launched by the prayers begun here.

O'Connor was just 21 years old when she started the journal. A Georgian with deep roots in the South and in Roman Catholicism, she had just gone to Iowa City, Iowa, where she would study writing. Surrounded by innerlechuals (as she once spelled the word in her letters), she feared she would lose her faith, or keep it only out of weakness and fear. Her daily prayers, she complains in the first letter, have become dry and rote. In writing to God, she says, she feels the "warmth of love." She prays that her faith rather be intelligent, that it come from a love of heaven, not just from a fear of hell.

While she was keeping the journal, she was also writing Wise Blood, her first novel, in which Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran returning home, starts a church without Christ. ("Jesus is a trick on niggers!" he proclaims from the hood of his decrepit car.) Obsessed with a blind preacher and his lecherous daughter, Hazel learns that the man's blindness is faked, upon which, he blinds himself.

Here is the first of O'Connor's many, many characters who comes to what, for all the world, appears to be an appallingly bad end. They are accidentally shot by a son, impaled on the horns of a neighbour's bull, hit by an angry bus rider and dead of a stroke, attacked with a textbook by a deranged young woman, murdered with their whole family by a criminal, robbed of their wooden leg by a false lover, or drugged and raped by a man just passing through. It is no wonder that many reviewers described her stories and novels as about a world from which God has gone.

But as her journal reveals, that is not how she saw it at all. "I am so weak that God has given me everything," she writes, "all the tools, instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate to others." She felt that God gave her stories as "intellectual and artistic delights," as "visions."

Her characters come from her contemporary South, many of them poor, all of them marginalized. Yet anyone anywhere can find themselves in the characters, just as they have for thousands of years found themselves in the smiters and the smitten of the Bible. Her modern people live and move in an Old Testament world, where acts of appalling violence stand cheek by jowl with mercy and grace.

In these letters, she works out the thought that if we do not escape from ourselves – from our personal world of wants and fears – we live in darkness. The escape requires the grace of God. But what is grace, anyway?

Writing the prayers, she begs for it, demands it in a form that would please her. On the 25th of September, 1947, she asks God to make her a mystic "immediately," to be her divine Lover and to make her surely into whatever He wants her to be.

The very next day, she breaks off the journal, complaining that the "feeling that I egg up writing here" is fake and brief. The entry begins, "My thoughts are so far away from God," and ends, "There is nothing left to say of me."

The frustration is palpable in these last entries, but it is not fruitless. With them, she turns away from inward reflection and towards the grace that her "weak" self had in fact been given. For the rest of her life, she would be working out in her visions – she called her stories romances, not realistic fiction – the shapes and the pain of grace seen in lives too poor to conceal its working under fine clothes, fine foods, fine art and fine thoughts. Her stories and novels are the answer to these prayers and the painful form that grace took for her.

One name appears repeatedly in the journal: Leon Bloy. "He is an iceberg hurled at me to break up my Titanic," she writes, of the terrifying French Catholic writer. She wonders how after reading his work we could just go back to living our daily lives. In her view of Bloy, I think, is the vocation she herself accepted. It is hard not to see O'Connor, as she gives up on this journal, turning to the open sea, to craft her icebergs and set them floating towards us.

William Bryant Logan is the author of Dirt, Oak and, most recently, Air.