Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Frances and Bernard


HMH: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

HMH: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

HMH: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

HMH: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard

by Carlene Bauer

In Carlene Bauer's debut novel, Frances and Bernard, the intricacies of a relationship are recounted through a years-long correspondence, a device suited to the period in which the novel is set, the 1950s. That time is reflected in many aspects of the book, from Frances's dilemmas as a woman trying to make her way as a writer in New York City, to the epistolary structure itself--far different set in the late 1950s than it would be if it involved email in contemporary times.

A writer's colony in 1957 sets the scene for the fateful meeting of two young writers. Frances Reardon is a devoutly religious Catholic and hard at work on her first novel. Harvard graduate Bernard Eliot is also Catholic, but has a pronounced Dionysian streak and writes poetry reminiscent of the sensuous John Donne. The two strike up a correspondence that is to reverberate down the years, across continents, and will ultimately shape the course of their lives.

When they first meet at the colony, Bernard says to Frances that men "have a tendency to wreck beautiful things." His words may prove prophetic in the years that follow, as their friendship progresses into a complex and tormented sort of love. While a romance between Frances and Bernard is fraught with traps, there can be no doubt how they got into it: sparks fly between them in the form of remarkably erudite, vividly written letters that only artists of equal and impressive calibre could have produced.

At the beginning, the balance of power between the protagonists is uneven at best. Bernard is wealthy, Harvard-educated and well-connected in the New York City literary scene. In contrast, Frances faces a gauntlet of challenges--a father and sister who need her care, the necessity of working in a secretarial position, and the sexism endemic to the period. She begins life in New York City in a home for single women where they are institutionalized and infantilized, denied true independence. Perhaps more significantly, Frances will repeatedly wrestle with the prospect of marrying and how it might affect her ability to keep writing. Frances's struggle to reconcile the demands of love and work becomes even more pronounced when Bernard is diagnosed with debilitating mental illness, which would make caring for him the focus of any relationship, possibly to the exclusion of all else.

Appropriately for a book in which the protagonists are writers, books are as essential in Frances and Bernard as the punctuation. The atmosphere is rich with the scent of books old and new, with rapid-fire literary references exchanged back and forth. But the discussions are by no means limited to literature: The common thread that originally draws the two together is religion. At a time when most artists are beginning to turn away from Christianity, these Catholic writers recognize a kinship with one another. The nature of belief and God is therefore fuel for much lively conversation, which includes the citations of theologians from St. Augustine to Simone Weil. Readers of Carlene Bauer's memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, about her life growing up an Evangelical Christian, will recognize religious turmoil as familiar territory for the author.

While religion seems to be something Bernard dabbles in or flirts with, it defines Frances. How she reconciles this religious devoutness with a subsequent free-wheeling sexual relationship with Bernard is unclear--the conflict is never addressed--but generally Frances's faith lends her a rigidity that tends to shade into judgmentalism. She is, however, no easier on herself in her judgments than she is on anyone else. She is a character at once very much of her time, and very much of ours: while religiously committed in a manner unusual for contemporary artists, Frances is also determinedly ambitious and independent compared to the women surrounding her. Most are content to be wives and mothers, while her highest priority is to become a successful writer.

If not for the brilliance of his poetry, Bernard would be a pleasant rake, a character identifiable in any century. Perhaps there has been less need for men to adapt to the times in which they lived, and thus a character like Bernard could exist in any age. For this reason, while technically he is as equally in the spotlight as Frances, his character sometimes seems like a foil for hers. By bringing chaos to Frances's life, Bernard's role is to spur her development, and ultimately her profound struggles in religion, art and life. --Ilana Teitelbaum

Shelf Talker: An epistolary novel of considerable erudition and wit, chronicling a stormy relationship between two writers beginning in 1957 and exploring diverse questions of art, faith, and love.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23, hardcover, 9780547858241

HMH: Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer


Carlene Bauer: Temperaments in Conflict

photo: Justin Lane

Carlene Bauer is the author of the memoir Not That Kind of Girl, described as "soulful" by Walter Kirn in Elle and "approaching the greatness of Cantwell" in the New York Post. She has written for n +1, Slate, Salon and the New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn. Bauer's debut novel, Frances and Bernard, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 5, 2013.

Can you tell us a bit about the background of Frances and Bernard--how you decided to write an epistolary novel set in the literary scene of New York City in the 1950s and '60s?

About 10 years ago I read Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a biography of four American Catholic writers, Flannery O'Connor being one of them. In the book Elie discusses how O'Connor and Robert Lowell met at Yaddo and became friends, and there is also some suggestion that perhaps O'Connor had a little bit of a crush on Lowell. This surprised me. I didn't know that they were friends, and O'Connor wasn't a writer who turned her love life into an ancillary art project. I wondered--what on earth would it have been like if they actually had some sort of affair? It was hard to imagine them being friends, let alone lovers, their temperaments being so different. 

  photo: David McLane/NY Daily News

In the months before my first book was published, wanting to start another project, I tried to imagine what would happen if two characters inspired by Lowell and O'Connor, sharing those temperaments and some biographical details, did fall in love. It was a classic "What if?" impulse. Setting it in the literary scene of '50s and '60s New York was dictated somewhat by the facts, somewhat by my desire for verisimilitude and somewhat by inclination. That was the milieu known by Lowell and, to a lesser degree, O'Connor, and it seemed to me that the time and the place would make the characters' struggles with religion and love more believable. Setting the book in this period also allowed me to indulge my fantasy that I had a past life as a lady screenwriter of screwball comedies starring Rosalind Russell. 

It became an epistolary novel when my third-person omniscient attempt at this story was not as alive as I wanted it to be. The correspondence between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop had been published around the time I'd begun work on the novel, and watching those two navigate a lifelong friendship reminded me that letters could be a vehicle for drama between characters. You could pack scenes, memories, character assessments (or assassinations!)--whatever you needed--into letters. And you would create, hopefully, a powerful sense of intimacy between the reader and the characters, because you would have a more unfettered access to their consciousness. 

Though the book is for the most part a tête-à-tête between Frances and Bernard, God is almost as much a presence in the novel--though not literally, of course. You wrote a memoir about the impact of religion in your life. Do you see this novel as a further exploration of this theme?

Yes. In a talk she gave on Southern fiction and the grotesque, Flannery O'Connor described her native region as "Christ-haunted." I'd like to borrow that phrase and say that I am God-haunted. I was raised evangelical and then very briefly converted to Catholicism before giving up belief at 29, but I think I'll always be asking questions about faith, and will always be interested in narratives about it, especially narratives about losing your religion. What is it like, life after God?  What parts of faith are we reluctant to let go of? How can we create meaning when we don't have religion as a framework? Are we giving up too easily when we set God aside, as Frances suggests (and as I imagine some people have wanted to suggest to me)? I realize it is very American to be asking these questions in the first place, but I think there are more people living these quandaries than get written about in trend pieces on evangelicals--or in novels, as Paul Elie recently pointed out. It can be lonely, asking yourself these questions without the support of a community like a church, knowing, of course, that you forfeited that kind of community the first moment you found yourself thinking skeptically. But I think books can provide some solace for those in the midst of this kind of wrestling. 

One aspect of an epistolary novel is that we only find out what the characters choose to reveal to one another in correspondence. How do you think this subjectivity serves the story?

My hope was that it would allow the reader the frisson of being in the presence of unreliable narrators. I wanted the reader to experience a charge from never being sure whether they're getting the whole truth, and never being sure whether the characters are deluding themselves into, or cheating themselves out of, something. I wanted the reader to be able to listen to Frances and Bernard as if they were jurors hearing testimony. Is she being overly cautious? Is he being overly optimistic, and how much of that optimism can be attributed to his illness?   

How do you think this story would have developed if Frances and Bernard were living in 2013, with email and texts? 

My first impulse is to say it would not have developed! I only half-joke. Well, it might have developed along similar lines if the story took place in 1998, when, it seems to me, people still used email to write long letters. Do people still use email to write long letters now? They're probably Skyping instead. I know this is going to make me sound like a reactionary crank who fears progress, which means that I need to come clean and admit that writing Frances was not a stretch, but I don't think texting is a way to illuminate anything but your own sense of humor and how late you're going to be for brunch. As a human tracking device, texting is without peer. But it's an empty form of communication. 

 photo: James Burke

The "nunnery" where Frances lives in New York City, with all its colorful and disappointed women, sounds like a rich enough subject for a novel on its own. Was it inspired by a real place?

It was inspired by a real place, or real places, to be more accurate. Around the end of the 19th century, when single girls where leaving their homes to come work in cities, benevolent societies or other organizations created women-only residences where, for a reasonable fee, girls could have a room, three hot meals, and the security of knowing that they could keep themselves clean of the literal and figurative dirt of the city. I've had a fascination with them because they're secular nunneries, strange sororities. Frances lives in a place modeled on the Barbizon, which was one of the most famous women-only residences in New York. It was on the Upper East Side. Women like Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath stayed there--Plath called it the Amazon in The Bell Jar. It's now, of course, a luxury apartment building. 

Frances and Bernard are both so fully realized as characters that they evoke a complex response from the reader, as real people often do. Neither is easy to like or to get to know. How did these characters take shape for you?

They took shape first as voices. One passionate, one aloof. With Bernard, I wanted to capture Lowell's blustery, generous confidence and fearlessness, and with Frances I wanted to see if I could approximate the mix of wisdom and an almost juvenile kind of crank found in O'Connor's letters. I tried to play these voices like instruments, always asking myself whether I was about to hit a note that would ring false. 

Then I sketched out a story that would put those temperaments in conflict in a believable but dramatic way, hoping that the voices would be amplified at crucial moments, and as a result you'd see their characters more clearly. To sketch that story I drew on the struggles experienced by Lowell and O'Connor, and then let myself run toward an obsession or fascination I wanted to explore, or question I wanted to answer. --Ilana Teitelbaum


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