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‘Frances and Bernard’ distills essence of writers’ unlikely friendship

“My mind’s not right” — so wrote the aristocratic, manic-depressive American poet Robert Lowell, a towering (in all senses – 6 feet 4 inches tall) figure in American letters, in his famous “Skunk Hour.” A Boston Brahmin with anger management issues and genes from Cotton Mather, Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and was an avatar of the intensely personal so-called “confessional” poem.

In contrast, “a good man is hard to find,” according to the title of National Book Award-winning fiction writer Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, an emblem of a writer whose spirit was rooted unshakably in her reserved, private persona and in her Catholicism, and in a flinty Gothic realism originating in the red clay and culture of Georgia and her lifelong struggle with chronic disease.

She quietly raised peacocks on a Georgia farm and died at 39 of lupus: he was a multiply married World War II conscientious objector who died in a Manhattan cab of a heart attack, at 60.

In spite of their worlds’ matter versus antimatter polarity, the two were at least epistolary friends for the rest of their lives after meeting at the Yaddo writers colony.

First-time novelist Carlene Bauer has made a surprising and insightful novel from the literary sidebar of their acquaintance in “Frances and Bernard,” a book blooming with richness and intelligence far beyond the facts of O’Connor and Lowell.

In interviews Bauer says the novel’s spark came partly from the correspondence between Lowell and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, along with “repeated viewings of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and ‘His Girl Friday.’ They don’t make erotically charged banter like that anymore … and, I guess I wanted to fill the void.”

In a meticulous and measured but imaginative way, Bauer does fill that void, using the endangered-species vehicle of the epistolary novel.

“So, I have written you a love letter, oh, my God, what have I done!” — this epigram from “The Brothers Karamazov” precedes the novel’s first letter, dated Aug. 15, 1957: from Frances to her best friend Claire. “Dearest Claire: How are you? Here I am back from the colony. It was mildly horrific, except for the writing.”

However, among the “idiotic but apparently talented” other writers at the colony was “one young man who did bear scrutiny. Bernard Eliot. Harvard. Descended from Puritans, he claims. Another poet. But very good. Well, I guess I should say more than ‘very good.’ Great?”

The two had “a nice lunch one day … He [Bernard] said an astounding thing, chin in hand, as if he were speaking to me from within some dream he was having, ‘I think men have a tendency to wreck beautiful things.’ I wanted to laugh. I couldn’t figure out what kind of response he wanted — instead I asked if he wanted the ketchup. ‘Actually, yes, thanks,’ he said.”

Bernard, in his own response to the colony experience in a letter to his best friend Ted, writes “I met a girl I quite liked — but not in that way … she looks untouched, as if she grew up on a dairy farm, but she’s dry, quick, and quick to skewer, so there’s no mistaking that she was raised in a city. Philadelphia. Her name is Frances Reardon.”

It is Bernard who takes the initiative to follow up on that “nice lunch” with a quick Sept. 20 note to Frances from Italy: “I very much enjoyed talking to you this summer, and I would like to talk to you some more. But I’m in Italy and you’re in Philadelphia. So will you talk to me in letters?”

So it begins, an acquaintance that deepens into friendship and moves from the epistolary world to the actual world — “I would like to come and see you very much,” Bernard writes to Frances, living in New York, on July 16, 1958. After the visit, a postcard from Bernard — “Thank you for letting me visit. Here is a postcard I bought at the Cloisters for you. This is Clare of Assisi as a girl receiving a Palm on Palm Sunday from her bishop. They say that after this moment she disappeared from the world and gave herself over to Saint Francis and his men. Please do not ever disappear from me.”

Things deepen and expand. The two share and joust and tease and advise and explore and analyze and admire each others’ increasingly accomplished literary work and burgeoning careers. Bernard is a natural force, arguing, pronouncing, confessing, self-analyzing, awash in oceanic swings of emotion that govern his life.

Frances, religious, reserved, private, more decorous, uncomfortable with romantic emotion, careful, is conflicted, even fearful; suspicious of him and of her feelings, not sure what to trust in either of them. But through the letters, the careful trajectory of their intertwining and deepening relation becomes “a beautiful thing” — these two voices in Bauer’s fine rendering sing counterpoint that is exhilarating, and heartbreaking.

They don’t kiss until 1959. Just after that happens, Bernard shows up unannounced in the New York church Frances attends, manic and raving, and ends up “in a hospital outside of Boston. When I think about all I have known of Bernard, I see how his illness has been lying in wait for him. It will come for him again and again.”

Following the logic of the heart, not the head, as Bernard recovers, their relation stirs into the love, for each, of a lifetime. However, it remains a doomed beauty, and one that is indeed destroyed. The fractured do too move on, but with hearts aching in ways that won’t heal.

Bauer’s marvelous tracing of these lives ends with a 1968 exchange of notes: Frances tells Bernard how she admires his new book and in particular the poem “For Bess.” Three months later, Bernard responds, “The poem was for Bess, but it was also for you. I had been wanting to write you a letter but couldn’t. It turned into a poem. Keep me in your prayers, won’t you? Yours, Bernard.”


Frances and Bernard

By Carlene Bauer

Houghton Mifflin

192 pages, $23

Ed Taylor is a local freelance writer and critic.