Monday, May 13, 2013

Frances and Bernard: A 20th Century Epistolary Novel

Frances and BernardFrances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished Frances and Bernard last night, staying up past midnight to read it. Although not fond of epistolary novels, Bauer is such a great writer that the letters just flew by and were a delight to read. I should also say, there was much to slow down for and savor. I have always loved the stories of Flannery O'Connor (the model for Frances) but have never read any Robert Lowell ("Bernard") poetry (I will now). This short book was a wonderful journey into the minds of two exquisitely intelligent people. Bauer captured great depth and nuance in the correspondence between them, and with a few select friends as well. It made me long for those halcyon days of pre-computerized communications known as written letters - I wrote many myself, and have a collection of letters from friends and family from the 1960's and early 70's. This is a stunning, memorable book, and should be read by everyone who is or intends to be a fiction writer.

The other completely fascinating element of this book is the discussion of religion, mainly being Catholic. Bernard is a recent convert from nominal Protestantism, Frances an Irish cradle-Catholic. They debate the existence and meaning of God, sin, faith, the Holy Spirit and "spirituality". Frances is adamant in her practical, unsentimental approach to the spiritual, frequently deflating Bernard's flights of religious fancy. As a Catholic myself, I found it intriguing and thought-provoking.

One amazing sentence from the book remains in my mind, written by Bernard in dire circumstances in a mental institution: "I sleep the way some people commit suicide."

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