Loving portrait shows great faith in turbulent friendship
Frances and Bernard
By Carlene Bauer Chatto & Windus, 224pp, $34.95 (HB)
TWO patron saints of American letters rise from the dead in Carlene Bauer’s audacious first novel. With great skill and profound understanding, Bauer distils the wicked humour of Flannery O’Connor and the genius-madness of Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Lowell to explore their friendship through the doppelgangers Frances Reardon and Bernard Eliot.
Frances and Bernard, a slim epistolary novel that reads like a meaty saga, will find its ideal readers in fans of O’Connor and Lowell, who will appreciate the loving portraits of the pair and the striking incarnations of their voices.
No previous knowledge is required, however, to enjoy Bauer’s fluid, rich writing and her vivid characterisations. She is particularly suited to creating a character such as Frances, as evidenced by her 2009 memoir, Not that Kind of Girl, which chronicles her marathon spar with religion and writing.
The devout Catholic O’Connor, at the time a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Lowell, a lauded poet and recent zealous convert, met at the Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1949. From this real friendship Bauer creates two young writers drawn to and repelled by each other. Cautious admiration transforms into a warm but often confronting affection in which the two discuss their religion, their challenges and successes.
Bauer respects the confining form she’s chosen, never forcing the letters to provide unnatural exposition. The novel’s ponderous quality is a poignant reminder of how much contemporary relationships may lose in instant communication. Frances and Bernard sometimes pause months between responding to serious or painful missives, taking real time to consider their thoughts and feelings instead of pouncing on instinct.
Readers interested in checking the invented against the real will enjoy realising the ‘‘ true’’ identity of the other players in the story and the distinctions among the characters and their forebears. For instance, Frances becomes much more worldly than Flannery, working as a waitress and for an editor, and making her home in New York, far from family (without a chicken or peacock in sight) and without O’Connor’s devastating lupus.
In transforming Frances and Bernard into distant cousins of their progenitors, Bauer is free to move them into situations without exploiting or tainting the historical figures.
Frances is the clear protagonist in this novel, and Bauer has transplanted O’Connor’s best, most delicious and shocking attributes to her. Bernard is decidedly more learned and passionate than Frances. Despite his mental illness and unpredictable behaviour, he serves as a wonderful straight man to prompt and respond to her perfectly timed quips.
Frances has a solid faith that is unshakeable but never naive. Because of its unflappability, she can breathe more deeply the horrors of the world without mortal fear.
She is not precious with her faith, and her solidity in it makes it possible to question and dissect it. After using ‘‘ Jesus Christ’’ as an expletive, she writes to a friend: ‘‘ I’d feel bad about taking the Lord’s name in vain but I like to think he’s much more offended by the arrogance that drives me to offer up such a bitterly desperate beseechment.’’
Would O’Connor appreciate this fictional portrait? Decidedly not, as she hated having her life written about, even to promote her books. She assumed she was free from the interest of biographers because, as she once wrote, ‘‘ lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy’’. Even so, Bauer seems to follow O’Connor’s own rules: any life, any anecdote, properly concealed, is fair game — if it makes good copy.
I may have read better or more inventive novels than Frances and Bernard, but I’m hardpressed to recall one in recent years that’s given me such joy, that’s made me smile all the way through as though a beloved friend has been resurrected to entertain, instruct and beguile me. Filled with the kind of snappy dialogue found in classic films of the 1930s and 40s, this slim story of love and faith could have gone on for chapters more.
Through Bauer’s enviable restraint, it remains a small, lingering object of art. Unadorned with far-fetched plots or clever devices, Frances and Bernard touches deeply the painful, glorious sparks of human and divine love, of gifted, troubled men and women who want to find a higher meaning and fail and try again and fail better.
Flannery O’Connor seated beneath her self-portrait in the early 1960s