Monday, February 18, 2013

Dear fans of epistolary novels,

Dreams, diaries, and letters pose risks for the novelist. It's easy to see why they're tempting: they can break narrative tedium, introduce new voices and new perspectives, and offer new, perhaps more explicit, ways of treating themes and plot points. But those are also the very reasons that they're risky: their status as something from outside the established narrative voice can't help but disrupt the tacit pact we've entered into, that if the writer will maintain a certain level of plausible tone and detail (to say nothing of basic narrative felicity), we'll forego such discussion section questions as, "Who is the narrator telling this to?" or "Why are we being given this information?"

Introduce a letter or a dream, however, and all that goes by the wayside. Our skepticism, long dormant, perks up. And all too often, writers fail to allay that skepticism--because they make use of these interpolations. They want to use these new elements as instruments with which to move their plot or characters, and in doing so they often deform them beyond recognition. We all know dreams, all know letters--and we know that they don't generally do things in as straightforward a manner as novelists would have them do. Dreams are weird, freighted, inexplicable. Letters are rough, heterogeneous, unclear, full of unannotated references to earlier scenes and unfamiliar people, made up as much of the noise of chatter as the signal of intent. In that regard, both are like the novel itself: contraptions made of jumbles of seemingly inessential stuff--but stuff that, if pared away or honed too ruthlessly quickly reveals itself to be integral.

A writer who wants to employ either has to walk a fine line between letting the thing be what it is--or would be, were it real--and forcing it to serve his purpose. And they so often fail. Wallace Stegner'sAngle of Repose features a dream so overweighted with meaning, so unconvincing, that it casts a pall over my memory of that otherwise moving, even breathtaking novel. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, which moves through different minds and locales with an ease and confidence that feels as if it belongs to an earlier century, stumbles only when it comes to reproducing letters.

All of which is by way of getting to Carlene Bauer's wonderful new novel, Frances and Bernard, which consists entirely of letters, the majority of them between the title characters, a female poet and a male novelist. The jacket copy explains that the pair were inspired by Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, but while that information does give the reader some subtle help (establishing, for example, distinct physicalities for both characters and a sense of their never-seen creative work)--and is of course a nice marketing hook--the characters never seem beholden to their origins, which they quickly transcend to become memorable figures in their own right.

The key to the book is that the letters never feel like anything but letters, the interactions they depict anything other than real correspondence. The pair meet at a writers' workshop, and their initial exchanges are essentially pedestrian feelings-out of each other. Bernard's third letter is a good example:
Dear Frances--

Point taken. My enthusiasm over finding someone with whom to talk these things over got the better of me.

My sin is poetizing. Can you tell?

As much as you protest, I think I have a better understanding now of the H.S. [Holy Spirit].

Why do you despair?

Italy has ceased to be musical. It now feels decrepit and entombing, and I'm glad to be leaving next week. I'm not even taking pleasure in the fact that my Italian is now as musical as my German is serviceable. I don't feel indolent anymore either; I feel crushed by effort. I feel that I'm toting slabs of marble around from second guess to second guess.
He goes on to speak a bit of his parents, to talk of where he'll be living when he returns, and to request that she send part of her novel-in-progress--"I command you."

It's that mix of throwaway and thoughtful, quotidian and lasting, direct response and spinning of thoughts that makes a letter, and that Bauer captures so incredibly well. The early letters are simultaneously tentative, calling to mind the deliberately begun epistolary friendship of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davies, and performative, not unlike the exchanges of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. And it's reflected in their language, a mix of simple, declarative statements and casual, but striking metaphors and images. To take but one example: Bernard, describing the women's boarding house in New York where Frances is living, calls it "that aqueduct built to conduct the flow of girls from Westchester straight into Connecticut while keeping them far above the catacombs of dead dreams." These are the letters of two writers, yes, but also of two people jotting thoughts down when they have a moment, building a friendship mostly out of absence, thinking through their days as they write them out. I read collections of writers' letters voraciously, and the astonishing achievement of this novel is that there was never a point where I felt like I was reading anything else. Instead, I enjoyed, again and again, that slightly illicit thrill of peeking behind the curtain, of seeing the private side of a public mind. All writers perform in their letters--some (E. B. White) more than others (Julian Maclaren-Ross)--but no matter the polish and care, intimacy emerges.

Which it does in Frances and Bernard. Within pages, we're caught up with these characters--these minds, which, in alternating letters, always do feel like two separate, different consciousnesses--as we watch them taking modest, tentative, yet undeniably bold steps towards friendship, and eventually love. (And, in Bernard's case, towards, and then away from, Frances's Christian belief; this novel is a relative rarity in taking religious belief seriously, and presenting it with intelligence--it would fit nicely on a shelf with such writers as J. F. Powers, Alice Thomas Ellis, and Rumer Godden.) Bauer's one concession to the need for plot is the interpolation of occasional letters from Frances and Bernard not to each other, but to their best friends, which gives a venue for sharing essential details and perspectives that wouldn't fit in their correspondence, but even those letters are so carefully wrought that they convince us of their truth and, just as important, their necessity--not to the plot, but to their writers.

Reaching the end of a biography or memoir, or collection of letters, brings an ache that is different from what comes when we close a novel, as the frisson created by its basis in reality gives way to the sad realization that it's an actual person on whose life we've just turned the final page. Frances and Bernard manages, while also delivering the pleasures of art--of invention, imagination, surprise--to infuse its fictional characters with that feeling of real loss. We believe these letters, so we believe in these characters, and in their hopes, fears, and pain. It's a stunning book. I was recommending it to friends when I was but 100 pages in, and I'll be continuing to do so for a long time.

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