A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
I had six books with me when I arrived in Lyon, France, where I’ve lived for the last eight months. That initial supply ran out in November, just when I was starting to miss the coat that I had left out of my suitcase to make room for the books. You might wonder if I have developed a discerning palate for wines and cheeses during my time here, and I’m sorry to say that they’re pretty much all still red or white, hard or soft. Instead, in the months since I turned the last page on the last volume I had stuffed into my luggage, I’ve become an expert in sourcing English-language books in a city whose libraries and bookstores are uniformly Francophone.
Big chains like Decitre and Gibert Joseph usually host a decent collection of greatest hits and are good for a browse, but I’ll rarely find anything there that I wasn’t assigned in high school. Independent bookstores don’t have anything in English besides what other customers might have ordered and abandoned. To wit, I once found a place whose entire Anglophone section consisted of a handful of deepcut fantasy novels and an imposing stack of Churchill biographies. My apartment conveniently shares an entrance with the book storage depot for a second-hand shop called Emmaus, and I have permission from Maurice to rummage through the donations as they come in, an activity like panning for gold. It was during this prospecting, for instance, that I found the enormous illustrated edition of Heloise and Abelard which has subsequently set a very high standard for all coffee table books I might later possess. I also acquired many decent English-language novels that I absolutely would not have thought to read had they not landed quite literally on my doorstep.
All of this textual sluicing and wading has forced on my reading habits a degree of serendipity that I’d never allow myself in the United States. At home, there are so many books availing themselves on the daily that I must be choosy about the pile that inevitably accumulates. Here in the Guillotière I’ll take in whatever stray looks at me long enough with pleading eyes—as long as there are no more than five words on a randomly selected page that I’d have to look up in a dictionary. Naturally, this rule applies more often to books in French than books in English, but it’s a good one to use across the board.
And so it was I came across a bilingual copy of Flannery O’Connor’s celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in a bookstore filled with textbooks and the high-schoolers who buy them. Between grammaire en anglais and anglais ludique is a placard announcing romans bilingues, placing fiction somewhere along a vector from the drudgery of conjugating irregular verbs to the infinite fun of completing crossword puzzles. Open to a double spread in this edition and you’ll find the original English on the left and its corresponding French translation on the right. On the evennumbered pages lives A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Short Stories; on the oddnumbered ones, Les braves gens ne courent pas les rues et autres nouvelles.
This book, sadly, perhaps fittingly, is the last one I’ll read in France, before I donate it and the rest of my makeshift library to the folks at Emmaus next door and head home to California. The experience of reading Flannery O’Connor these past few days has epitomized the weird and unexpected thrills of reading abroad. To see a familiar book outside of its usual context is like running into an elementary school teacher at the grocery store. The text is transformed, even multiplied, when I imagine the life it leads elsewhere. In this case, I fixated on how O’Connor’s similes translated into another language, how a language learner might understand her written vernacular, and how the Southern Gothic reads as an export. Certainly, this collection has its place in classrooms, on syllabi, within a certain American canon; it dazzles, too, as part of the strange constellation I’ve assembled on my bookshelf these past several months.
Wikipedia tells me that this collection usually has ten stories. My version only has four, I guess because writing in two languages takes up space. I’ll find the other six stories when I get home. Hopefully I’ll remember where to look for them.—Louise McCune