Loving por­trait shows great faith in tur­bu­lent friend­ship

Frances and Bernard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jennifer Levasseur Jennifer Levasseur

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

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