Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). 193 pages.
In late May or early June of 1952, Robert Lowell wrote to Flannery O’Connor after reading her story “Enoch and the Gorilla” in New World Writing (it was later revised for a chapter of Wise Blood):
Out of these materials, Carlene Bauer has constructed a first novel that is remarkable for its ambition (in such a short novel) and for the sureness of its historical grasp (in a novelist so young). Born nine years after the death of O’Connor and four years before the death of Lowell, Bauer comes out of a strikingly different milieu, as she made clear in Not That Kind of Girl, the coming-of-age memoir that was her first book. The daughter of a born-again evangelical Christian mother and a lapsed Catholic father, she was harried by rock music as much as questions of faith, and she had nothing like Lowell’s family tradition nor O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South (and the theological conception of man that came with it) to give her a place to start. She grew up in cul-de-sac suburban New Jersey.
In Frances and Bernard, Bauer imagines literary life and religious life under different circumstances. Frances Reardon is a Philadelphia-born fiction writer who has “just escaped from the workshop at Iowa.” (Her first novel, about a nun who receives stigmata, sounds suspiciously like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy.) Bernard Eliot is a Harvard-educated poet with Puritan ancestors and sounds of John Donne “prowling around in the boiler room” of his poems. In the summer of 1957 they meet while in residence at “the colony” (it’s never called anything more than that). Both are Catholics. Frances is a cradle Catholic, and “a little Mother Superiorish,” according to Bernard. He is a convert. As a senior at Harvard, he met a theologian who urged him to read Jacques Maritain. (Reading Maritain became a convention of American literary intellectuals’ postwar Catholic conversion narratives, although by now Maritain is more a name to be mentioned than a text to be quoted.) After reading Maritain, Bernard decided to become a Catholic. He glimpsed in Catholicism “a way to make a sustained and coherent statement about what I believed.” Although Frances worries that it “could be a sign of delusions of grandeur, when a Puritan turns to Rome,” within a month of leaving the colony they commence an eleven-year correspondence.
Frances and Bernard is a return to the English-language novel’s oldest kind. It is an episolary novel. And it puts out for the taking all the pleasures of the best epistolary novels—the shifts in point of view, the divergent accounts of the same event, the necessary inferences, the coy white spaces between the letters, the mysterious silences. Bauer has fun with the genre without making genre-fun the point of her novel. “To accept the fact that [other people] are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God,” Bernard significantly quotes Simone Weil at one point. “I am also other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.” The back-and-forth of letters between them demonstrates the truth of both these propositions—perhaps no other form of fiction is so effective at preserving the intransmutable otherness of fictional characters. As Patrick Kurp said in his recent review of Anthony Hecht’s letters, “Perhaps the most important ingredient [in a good letter] is revelation of character, the writer’s willingness to reveal, inadvertently or otherwise, some truth about himself.” And if the writer is not aware of the full truth about himself, so much the better!
Because they are rambles, because they have no other form than the movement of the writer’s mind, letters also permit the unsystematic discussion of pressing ideas. Bauer takes full advantage of letters’ capacity to include thought, which would otherwise have to be disguised as monologue. Bernard begins their correspondence by asking Frances, “Who is the Holy Spirit to you?” The resulting dialectic is promising. “I believe he is grace and wisdom,” Frances replies. To which Bernard says:
The sad fact is that, with all its squibs and chatter about Catholicism and the thirst for God, Frances and Bernard advances religion as merely a complex series of steps in the dance of courtship. Bauer’s novel is not a religious novel at all; it is a love story—a marriage plot, as we’ve been taught to say—dressed up to look like something else.
Bernard first raises the question of love eight months into their correspondence—in his eleventh letter—at which point they begin to discuss their friends’ marriages. Frances takes a job in New York and a room at the Barbizon. Two months later Bernard comes to town for a visit. Thus ends the first chapter of their courtship.
“I did not come to New York intending to kiss you,” Bernard writes to close the second chapter and open the third. (I am supplying the old-fashioned numbers Bauer withholds.) What he describes as a kiss, however, Frances describes as a “manic episode,” an outbreak of the mental illness that has been “lying in wait for him.” He surprises her by showing up unannounced at church. “It’s your birthday,” he begins to rave, “your feast day, and this is why I have come. Today is the day of Frances Reardon . . . patron saint of frigid knees. Of unmet wishes, of idées fixes, of withering eyes, of docile guise.” He gets up and starts walking up and down the central aisle, shouting, “This place is a place where the people come to drink. . . . They drink to forget, to die to what is real, they slump over in prayer, drinking and drinking in remembrance of me.” He begins throwing missals. An ambulance arrives, and it takes four attendants to wrestle him down and bear him away. Bernard is committed to a mental hospital outside Boston. The whole experience has turned her “into a crazy person too,” as Frances writes to her friend Claire (an old married friend who is to her as Sally Fitzgerald was to Flannery O’Connor)—she has entered “into the realm of what if and who’s there?”
Bernard loses his faith, and Frances tries to comfort him as best she can. After six months, he moves to New York and the fourth chapter of their romance begins. “See,” he says, “We can keep up a conversation without God at the center. . . .” Living in the same city, though, they do not write to each other—their conversations are kept up with others, to whom they confide the romantic details. Bernard kisses her again; her friend Claire reassures Frances that Bernard is in love with her; his friend Ted writes to reassure her that she is not just another of the “many infatuations” Bernard has had “when he is not in his right mind.” Frances takes him home to meet the family, who demonstratively approve. “I bet you keep each other good company,” her father says.
Then a fight—and Frances and Bernard become unreliable narrators, offering irreconcilable versions of what happened in letters to friends. By this point in the novel, fifty pages from the end, you are more likely to credit Frances. She has become a fascinating woman by this point, worrying that she has “vinegar where [her] blood should be.” “No man should give himself the way [Bernard] does to me,” she complains to Claire, “and receive mere acquiescence in return.” The conflicts within her are irreconcilable too. She is not sure that she can be a mother and also the writer she has set herself to be. (Bernard agrees: “[A]ll the women writers I know are libertines,” he says.) She dismisses herself as “lukewarm,” but the truth is otherwise. “[T]he more consciously spiritual a person appears to be,” she writes to Bernard in an early letter, “the less truly spiritual that person is.” The truth is that Frances is afraid, really, of only one thing—that she will be accused of exhibitionism, the pride of self-display, in either religion or romance. But the truth is also that, for all her complaints about the Church, she is a Christian—she is sane—and Bernard is neither.
Thus the inevitable breakup. Bauer’s resolution is disappointing—Frances marries a French professor, Bernard marries the girl who interviewed him for the Paris Review—but the disappointment of the ending is as nothing compared to what Bauer leaves unfinished and unexplored. In what might have been the novel’s climax, Frances bares her soul on a dark night in a letter to a nun she has befriended. She ends up not sending the letter (a nice touch), but only perhaps because her quarrel with God, as she herself says, is adolescent:
At a time when the novel of belief is said to have disappeared, it is gratifying to see a young writer of Carlene Bauer’s seriousness and talent equip her characters with religious experience and a religious vocabulary, even if she falls victim in the end to what Denis de Rougemont calls the universal propaganda on behalf of romantic passion. It’s also gratifying to see such a gifted first novelist return to the riches of the novel’s tradition, although you turn the last page and turn from Bernard’s plea to be kept in Frances’s prayers to Bauer’s own acknowledgments of her own friends and mentors—in the same typeface but a different tone of voice, as if these acknowledgments were not another document to be included in this epistolary novel. For next time, a word of advice. Send a letter.
 Robert Lowell, No. 211 (To Flannery O’Connor), The Letters, ed. Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), pp. 187–88.
 Flannery O’Connor, To “A” [Betty Hester], May 14, 1960, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 395.
 O’Connor, To Alfred Corn, June 16, 1962, The Habit of Being, p. 479.