Thursday, March 14, 2013

The irreconcilable conflicts within

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):

[Y]ou’re as good as ever, only really and enviably professional. Ford used to say that you could tell if a writer was any good from the first sentence. . . . Your first two sentences show you know your craft, and the end of the first and the word “downpour” in the second do even more. When I was through reading I could have hugged the gorilla. The whole incident is rather epically dismal. . . . I’m delighted to see that your novel is about to be published; I think it will be something absolute of its kind and want to hail it and promise that we will keep a copy under our pillows so that we can always say “Isn’t it wonderful that life is so awful, and that man’s misery is without grandeur.”[1]They had met three years earlier when both were at Yaddo. Lowell intervened in O’Connor’s literary life, introducing his eight-years-younger friend to Robert Giroux, who was to remain her editor to the end. O’Connor intervened in Lowell’s religious life, serving as a witness to his “reconversion” to Roman Catholicism. In March 1949, on “the day of Flannery O’Connor, whose patron saint is St. Therese of Lisieux,” Lowell baptized himself in a cold bath in his New York apartment, praying “in gasps.” Years later O’Connor tried to “stash & obliterate” the “revolting story” that Lowell believed her to be a saint (he was “about three steps from the asylum” and was “canonizing everybody that had anything to do with his situation then”).[2] Who knows but that her later anger was rooted in her deep humility? Many of Flannery O’Connor’s readers have come to a conclusion not much different from Lowell’s.

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:I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is or does. I think this is because I came to Catholicism late and have felt hesitant to penetrate this mystery. Protestants shove the Holy Spirit to the side—too mystical, too much distraction from the Father and Son. They regard the Holy Spirit with the same suspicion, I think, as they do the saints—it’s a form of idolatry to shift the focus to a third party, whether it be the Holy Spirit or Saint Francis. To appeal to the third party is pagan. Is he grace and wisdom? How do you know?Over the course of the novel, they say other equally interesting things to each other. They quote Augustine and Kierkegaard and William James; they discuss prayer and the liturgy and the “craving for God’s mercy.” But the Holy Spirit is never spoken of again. They quietly drop the subject. Within a few pages, Frances is assuring him that she has “always voted for Democrats,” while Bernard is bragging about the demonstrations he has led, including one “to protest [Harvard]’s hiring of a right-wing ideologue whose work was a tract against welfare.” Thank goodness they’ve established their political fides, even if they must sound like they are writing in 1968 and not 1958.

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:Some of us have a talent for suffering—but I guess I don’t. What is the point of God if he cannot soothe us? What is the point of believing in something all-powerful if he cannot give you the strength to go on at this very moment? What is the point of other people if you cannot keep your hands on them?It is difficult to imagine that Flannery O’Connor would have much patience for all this. In The Habit of Being, which Bauer lists among her favorite books, O’Connor says that “modern liberal Protestantism” encourages us “to turn religion into poetry and therapy,” and if we aren’t getting what we want (“security and emotional release and sense of purpose” and what all) then we might as well reject it:Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this. I believe what the Church teaches—that God has given us reason to use and that it can lead us toward a knowledge of him, through analogy; that he has revealed himself in history and continues to do so through the Church, and that he is present (not just symbolically) in the Eucharist on our altars. To believe all this I don’t take any leap into the absurd. I find it reasonable to believe, even though these beliefs are beyond reason.[3]But then the religiosity of Bauer’s Frances, with her mistrust of “severity” and priests (“I have never gone to a priest about anything in my life”) and parishioners (“Parishioners are not Christians,” she writes. “They are parishioners”), may owe more to modern liberal Protestantism than to Rome.

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.

[1] Robert Lowell, No. 211 (To Flannery O’Connor), The Letters, ed. Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), pp. 187–88.

[2] 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.

[3] O’Connor, To Alfred Corn, June 16, 1962, The Habit of Being, p. 479.


George said...

I find it hard to imagine Flannery O'Connor quoting William James. I also wonder how far Maritain ever was "a text to quote", given how dry and technical most of what I've read of his work is. Certainly he served as an interesting example of the Catholic public intellectual over the middle third of the last century; Czeslaw Milosz has written about the heartening effect Maritain's example had on some in Poland. I imagine that in 2013 a poll of college graduates in my parish would find that something under a third had hear of Maritain.

D. G. Myers said...

In a pleasing howler, the only reference to William James indexed in The Habit of Being is when O’Connor mentions to an old friend that she is eager to read Gabriel Marcel’s William James Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1961–62 and later published as The Existential Background of Human Dignity.

Paul J. Strassfield said...

"The old life in him was exhausted. He awaited the coming of the new. It was then that he found the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold." The Enduring Chill, Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor. I wish I had some grace right now. But really, I've felt that chill other plsces, but also swimming in the ocean and couldn't describe it until now. Flannery O'Connor's the man, no doubt. A very good review. Thanks.

George Sim Johnston said...

I am a huge fan of Jacques Maritain (as I am of O'Connor and Lowell) and am sorry to hear that he is little read today or considered dry and technical. Some of his writings are philosophically dense, but books like "The Angelic Doctor" and "Science and Wisdom" are highly readable and richly rewarding.

R.T. said...

How wonderful that you give attention to Flannery O'Connor. What took you so long? (Just kidding!)

I wonder what O'Connor would have thought of the novel you critique (i.e., the one to which you provide too many "plot spoilers").

And--as another tangent--I wonder what O'Connor would have thought of Philip Roth. (Actually, I have a pretty good idea, and I do not think it would be favorable to Roth.)

In any case, I am overjoyed to again be reading your blog.