There is a common complaint these days, usually levied against the young by the not-so-young, that "no one writes letters anymore". One wonders if the next generation of biographers and scholars will troll through the archives of email inboxes in order to construct portraits of their subjects, or if auction houses will sell off the contents of, say, Jeannette Winterson's hard drive, in the same way they now auction off batches of letters.
If you are someone who has ever lamented the slow disappearance of written correspondence - or even if you're not - reading Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard, an epistolary novel set in 1950s Manhattan, will make you want to invest in beautiful notepaper and an elegant pen, and daydream about writing letters that will magically acquire the wit and precision of Bauer's fictional correspondence.
Frances Riordan and Bernard Eliot meet at a writers' colony in the summer of 1957. He is a published, celebrated poet, she an aspiring novelist. They share a passion for writing but their initial bond forms because they are both Catholics, and because when Bernard concludes his first letter by asking bluntly, "Who is the Holy Spirit to you," Frances is not offended but intrigued. Their early letters interweave getting-to-know-you details with long discussions about the nature of faith and belief, which Bernard discusses in wild flights of poetic rhetoric. Frances, who is ultimately firmer in her beliefs, tells Bernard that she wouldn't want to be "gifted spiritually" because it would be "such a burden! Everything would then have to live up to being knocked off a horse by lightning, wouldn't it?" Frances's dry wit punctures Bernard's ecstatic reveries but the letters reveal that these differences in temperament complement rather than clash. Late in the novel, Bernard admits that Catholicism has become "inextricably linked to madness" and he eventually leaves the church. Frances, in response, berates him for starting psychoanalysis and urges him to "come back to the fold".
Frances's pragmatism and humour leaven the letters, which at times read as almost essay-like meditations about religion. These long discussions about God illustrate one of the difficulties of the epistolary form: what might be a dynamic conversation in a conventional narrative here becomes an unbroken interior monologue. The epistolary form, does, however, create intimacy: we become voyeurs, peering into private messages and watching as these characters reveal themselves to one another. They become friends, peeling away the layers of opinion and attitude to examine one another's core beliefs, and then their friendship takes another turn, into something passionate, complicated and physical.
When her novel came out, Bauer said that the inspiration for her characters came from Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor, two of the most celebrated US authors of the mid-20th century. Years earlier, Bauer had discovered in an O'Connor biography that O'Connor once had a crush on Robert Lowell (who was famously good-looking); the novel emerged, Bauer said, when she asked "what would have happened if …" The prose of the novel doesn't quite match the cadence and insights of Lowell and O'Connor's writing, but the letters pulse with the energy of midcentury literary New York: who is publishing (and sleeping) with whom, who has talent and who just has "connections", which new books are wonderful and which are disappointments.
From : The National