The French & Flannery

Over the past sixty years, Flannery’s contributions to literature have intrigued readers drawn to the compelling and provocative quality of her fiction. Although her fiction and its characters center a distinctively American Southern reality and provincialism, her contemporary readership and posthumous notoriety certainly extend beyond the region. Furthermore, translations of Flannery’s work have helped to garner her a distinct international audience in Europe and Japan. Her work has been translated into twenty-nine languages, with newer translations including Swahili, Japanese, Portuguese, Czech, Swedish, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Catalan.[1] However, when it comes to Flannery’s international reputation, the French have long held a fascination with Flannery’s fiction.  

Flannery’s French readership is thriving and well-established today. Her complete works can easily be found on bookstore shelves and purchased electronically.[2] The appreciation the French have for Flannery’s fiction is largely due to the excellent work and dedication of Maurice Edgar Coindreau. A prominent translator and academic who taught French at Princeton, Coindreau was an instrumental figure in introducing the French public to Southern Literature and helped to usher in what is known as “the Age of the American novel” in France. He translated the works of many notable American authors into French, including William Faulkner, an author whose work Flannery admired[3].

When Coindreau discovered Flannery’s work, he deemed her to be “a most brilliant young American writer whom he intended to translate in to French.”[4] Coindreau worked closely with Gallimard, the well-regarded French publishing house, which was to publish the French edition of Wise Blood, Coindreau was a fitting choice. Yet, Flannery was quite concerned about the quality of the translation. She would write in a letter to her American editor Denver Lindley: “I have just read an unpleasant book called The American Novel in France, which says that the translations are usually terrible and that the French think Erskine Caldwell is a great writer. Apparently they (the publishers) get any translator who cares to call himself one . . .”[5] The combination of Coindreau’s impressive credentials and the personal recommendation of her friend and peer Caroline Gordon proved to lessen Flannery’s skepticism.

French translation of Wise Blood, published November 1959.

Coindreau visited Flannery at Andalusia to discuss the French translation in early April of 1959. He would spend several days at the farm, an occasion that Flannery fretted about, wondering what she would do to entertain an “elderly French gentleman.”[6] But, Cointreau was content to busy himself with writing an article to introduce the French edition that would explain American Revivalism and “the role of the evangelist and the itinerant preacher in Southern life and American literature,”[7] and filming the peafowl with a movie camera. Coindreau would also have the honor of taking Flannery and Regina on a tour of Paris during their Europe trip.

Coindreau would visit Flannery several times over the course of their professional partnership. When Flannery received a copy of the French edition, titled La Sagesse dans Le Sang, or “The Wisdom of the Blood,” in early January of 1960, she was quite pleased with the result and the positive reception it received in France.[8] Coindreau would also translate her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, as well as make sure that her short stories, which had been twice badly translated, were done over.[9]

French translation of The Violent Bear it Away, published November 1965.

In his personal writings, Coindreau would praise Flannery’s “courage in adversity” and “her sincere honesty that made her hate imposters, with no illusion about the true nature of humanity that she rightly considered more ridiculous than wicked.”[10] Perhaps it is this authenticity, a quality valued by the French existentialist tradition, that is the foundation of the enduring interest the French have in Flannery O’Connor.

[1] Henry T. Edmondson, Flannery O’Connor, and Gretchen Dobrott. Flannery O’Connor Review 5 (2007): 168. Accessed October 27, 2020.

[2] Gretchen Dobrott, “A Promising Future: Flannery O’Connor in Spain.” Flannery O’Connor Review 3 (2005): 73. Accessed October 27, 2020.

[3] Brad Gooch, Flannery A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 105, 209, 308-309.

[4] Patrick H. Samway, Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux: A Publishing Partnership, (Notre Dame, Indiana : University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 175-176.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), 129.  

[6] Ibid., 317.  

[7] Ibid., 317.  

[8] Patrick H. Samway, Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux, 105.

[9] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 467.

[10] Patrick H. Samway, Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux, 265n22.

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