In 1948, Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell met at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She was 23, a provincial Southerner working on her first novel. He was eight years her senior, a worldly Boston Brahmin with a failed marriage, a Pulitzer Prize and a roster of friends and acquaintances that included just about everyone who was doing anything interesting in the world of arts and literature. Larger-than-life Lowell was intrigued by odd duck O’Connor’s uncompromising Catholicism, wit and talent. They became friends. In Manhattan, O’Connor tagged along with Lowell and his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, accompanying them to parties and bars, schmoozing with the glitterati of the day. At 39, O’Connor died of lupus, by all accounts a virgin. Lowell died 13 years later, interspersing marriages, children and dramatic nervous breakdowns with a decorated career.
Although nothing Lowell said, wrote or did implies any romantic interest in O’Connor, it is possible to infer — from correspondence, speculation and gossip — that she had at least a passing crush on him. Years later, she wrote to a friend: “I feel almost too much about him to be able to get to the heart of it. . . . He is one of the people I love.”
This interlude has taken root in the imagination of first-time novelist Carlene Bauer and flowered into a love story of her own design. “Frances and Bernard” portrays two writers drawn into a friendship sparked by mutual admiration. They elegantly convey their reflections, encouragements and chastisements in letters written over a span of 11 years.
Bernard sets the tone early by asking who the Holy Spirit is to Frances. In her careful, authoritative replies, she reveals a brilliantly disciplined spirituality. Bernard regards her as a Delphic source for his own restless spiritual wanderings, and she is delighted to chide, enlighten and clarify.
Bauer captures the style and language of the period with gleeful dexterity. Here is Bernard, in an early letter: “Have you been reading anything you like? Anything you loathe? What is your confirmation name, and why? The gospels or Paul? Or is that the wrong question entirely? Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy? Or neither, and instead the whole of Shakespeare?”
From this rush of curiosity and attraction, the tone deepens as they share their preoccupations with literature, art, theology and philosophy. They offer confessional anecdotes, as nascent lovers do, but it becomes increasingly evident that their natures are radically different. The friendship crescendos into an affair in which Frances serves as muse, saint, sex goddess and critic to Bernard’s insatiable, robust appetite for truth, beauty and affirmation of his genius.
Bauer is masterful in whipping up the frenzy of Bernard’s unstable certainty that she is the answer to his Olympian quest. Not many women, even one as austere and self-contained as Frances, could resist the seductiveness of his determined adoration. Although committed to live as an unmarried writer, she is stirred by him in ways she never expected to experience.
The only problem is that, having set up O’Connor and Lowell as the characters’ models, the reader finds it hard to elbow them aside. Much of Bernard’s story is vintage Lowell, including the hospitalizations, dalliances and push-pull with Catholicism. But too much is known about O’Connor’s legendary eccentricities and truncated, virginal life not to feel a confused prurience as the affair unfolds. When Bernard writes of masturbating while thinking of her, an image comes to mind of O’Connor on her crutches feeding her peahens, confident that no biography will be written because of her unexciting life spent between the house and the chicken yard.
Bauer, who has published a memoir about her evangelical childhood and subsequent conversion to Catholicism, writes with authority and gusto about issues of faith. The prose here is exquisite, winding between narrative momentum and lofty introspection. And she employs the epistolary form nimbly, providing an intimate, uncluttered space for her characters to develop. The most unexpected pleasure of this period love story is spending time in the company of people who are engaged in the edifying pursuit of living as Christians — a good reminder that, regardless of the current upheaval in the church, the big questions are still worth asking.
Toward the end of her story, however, Frances reflects, “If I were a different kind of writer I would find a way to channel this into a novel.” Bauer would do well to ponder those words in her heart so that in her next effort she can leave the dead in peace and create characters from her own clay.
Link is the author of “Denting the Bosch.”
FRANCES AND BERNARD
By Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
195 pp. $23