x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Book review: Carlene Bauer's novel an ode to the art of letter writing

For those who lament the demise of correspondence, Carlene Bauer's epistolary novel about the relationship between two writers in 1950s Manhattan will restore their faith in the pen, writes Deborah Lindsay Williams

The American novelist Flannery O'Connor in 1952, 12 years before her death at age 39. Flannery and fellow writer Robert Lowell were the inspiration for the characters in Frances and Bernard. APIC / Getty Images
The American novelist Flannery O'Connor in 1952, 12 years before her death at age 39. Flannery and fellow writer Robert Lowell were the inspiration for the characters in Frances and Bernard. APIC / Getty Images

Frances and Bernard
Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

There is a common complaint these days, usually levied against the young by the not-so-young, that "no one writes letters anymore". One wonders if the next generation of biographers and scholars will troll through the archives of email inboxes in order to construct portraits of their subjects, or if auction houses will sell off the contents of, say, Jeannette Winterson's hard drive, in the same way they now auction off batches of letters.

If you are someone who has ever lamented the slow disappearance of written correspondence - or even if you're not - reading Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel set in 1950s Manhattan, will make you want to invest in beautiful notepaper and an elegant pen, and daydream about writing letters that will magically acquire the wit and precision of Bauer's fictional correspondence.

Frances Riordan and Bernard Eliot meet at a writers' colony in the summer of 1957. He is a published, celebrated poet, she an aspiring novelist. They share a passion for writing but their initial bond forms because they are both Catholics, and because when Bernard concludes his first letter by asking bluntly, "Who is the Holy Spirit to you," Frances is not offended but intrigued. Their early letters interweave getting-to-know-you details with long discussions about the nature of faith and belief, which Bernard discusses in wild flights of poetic rhetoric. Frances, who is ultimately firmer in her beliefs, tells Bernard that she wouldn't want to be "gifted spiritually" because it would be "such a burden! Everything would then have to live up to being knocked off a horse by lightning, wouldn't it?" Frances's dry wit punctures Bernard's ecstatic reveries but the letters reveal that these differences in temperament complement rather than clash. Late in the novel, Bernard admits that Catholicism has become "inextricably linked to madness" and he eventually leaves the church. Frances, in response, berates him for starting psychoanalysis and urges him to "come back to the fold".

Frances's pragmatism and humour leaven the letters, which at times read as almost essay-like meditations about religion. These long discussions about God illustrate one of the difficulties of the epistolary form: what might be a dynamic conversation in a conventional narrative here becomes an unbroken interior monologue. The epistolary form, does, however, create intimacy: we become voyeurs, peering into private messages and watching as these characters reveal themselves to one another. They become friends, peeling away the layers of opinion and attitude to examine one another's core beliefs, and then their friendship takes another turn, into something passionate, complicated and physical.

When her novel came out, Bauer said that the inspiration for her characters came from Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor, two of the most celebrated US authors of the mid-20th century. Years earlier, Bauer had discovered in an O'Connor biography that O'Connor once had a crush on Robert Lowell (who was famously good-looking); the novel emerged, Bauer said, when she asked "what would have happened if …" The prose of the novel doesn't quite match the cadence and insights of Lowell and O'Connor's writing, but the letters pulse with the energy of midcentury literary New York: who is publishing (and sleeping) with whom, who has talent and who just has "connections", which new books are wonderful and which are disappointments.

The passionate relationship between Frances and Bernard may be more convincing to readers who don't know about Bauer's source material. If you know anything about Lowell or O'Connor, you won't be surprised by Bernard's alcoholism and his periodic descents into madness (Lowell was manic-depressive), but you will be surprised that Frances escapes the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, like the lupus that killed O'Connor when she was 39. Bernard thus seems much more "Lowell" than Frances seems "O'Connor", a point that might seem like a minor quibble except that Bauer has gone to such lengths to establish the real-life inspirations for her book.

In his mania, Bernard refers to Frances as a saint, which infuriates her, even as she pities the suffering his disease causes him. She writes to Bernard, and to her friend Claire, about her feelings of inadequacy and doubt, impatience and jealousy, but despite these self-professed flaws, Frances does, in fact, come across as a bit saintly (albeit a saint who likes the occasional martini). She never fails to come to Bernard's aid when he needs it; she consistently puts others' needs before her own. Martinis and sarcasm notwithstanding, Frances is less interesting than Bernard, whose reckless self-destruction is both dangerous and attractive. His adoration of Frances seems very much the worship of a man for an icon, and the pleasure he takes in their love affair has to do with how "succulent" she becomes in private and how "starched" and "chaste" she appears in public.

Bernard and Frances discuss everything in their letters - sex, God, drinking, insanity, anger - everything, that is, except their writing. We hear about the details that surround the life of a professional writer - contracts, agents, publishers, deadlines - but very little about what either of them is working on. In one of his early letters to Frances, Bernard says "I want to talk to you [in person] about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue", and the letters honour this initial request. I suppose that, on the one hand, writers don't necessarily talk about their writing with other writers but, on the other hand, the novel is about writers, so mightn't we expect at least a few references to craft? Frances mentions that she "prefers silence" rather than talking about her work, a statement that illuminates one aspect of her character but leaves us in the dark about her vocation, the thing that supposedly matters more to her than anything - or anyone - in the world.

At the end of the novel, Bernard writes to a friend that he "took a look at the first sentence [of Frances's book] and saw that she was still able to tack into the wind with a sure hand." This comment tells us about Bernard - he is someone who thinks in nautical terms - but I'm not quite sure what it tells us about Frances's prose. When either Bernard or Frances mentions publishing a book or winning an award, it always comes as a surprise, as if a friend just had a baby but never mentioned being pregnant. In this regard, then, as the relationship of two writers, the novel does not quite live up to its premise. But as the story of two fascinating intellectuals alive at a pivotal moment in US literature, Frances and Bernard succeeds admirably. Perhaps it's time to revive not only the epistolary novel but also … letter writing itself?


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.