Frances and Bernard
Frances, a writer much like Flannery O’Connor, and Bernard, a poet much like Robert Lowell, meet in the late 1950s at a writer’s retreat and become intimate through letters. The two are in love. Or not. They’re certainly passionate about their crafts and about the meaning of life, God (the Catholic variety), and their careers as Writer and Poet. They care deeply about each other—especially the quirky, alone Frances seems to care more about Bernard than any other human being. But she wants a career, not a marriage. Bernard agrees: “You should be looking for a husband with a steady income and a passing interest in books.” A friend finally needs to tell her that he’s in love with her.
Author Carlene Bauer told an interviewer that she first wrote this novel in the usual way but then realized the story might be told better through letters—and it is marvelously, perfectly told through letters. Frances’s voice is prickly, flattered that the famous poet should find her interesting. Bernard, a Boston Brahmin converted to Catholicism, writes with touches of brilliance. Regarding, for instance, a mental hospital: “The people here are all crushed cigarette stubs of people. Bent, white, ashen, diminished.” He finds the tart Catholic writer fascinating. They discuss Simone Weil, Kierkegaard, Heart of Darkness, the Psalms, and Gospels.
I usually avoid novels told through letters. They’re often stilted and frequently drag. Not this one. It’s compulsive reading, as though you’d discovered a stash of O’Connor and Lowell’s intimate letters—or rather Frances and Bernard’s intimate letters. It’s a book to savor rather than to rush through about two tragic, witty geniuses. I kept marking pages to return to. Recommended.