When I read that the United States Postal Service recently issued a Flannery O’Connor stamp (June 5th), I was reminded of my literary defeat. Since her death, aged thirty nine, in 1964, O’Connor’s fame has steadily risen. People like Joyce Carol Oates, Bruce Springsteen and Donna Tartt love her. A North American university’s English Lit menu would be incomplete without a Flannery O’Connor course. And yet her work is not easy to enjoy.

For readers like me, or those who haven’t yet tasted O’Connor’s dark-roast flavours, I have discovered the next best thing. Debut novel by Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard, is a pitch-perfect love story in letters, based on the much speculated upon relationship between the young Flannery O’Connor and Byronic–both in looks and talent- poet, Robert Lowell.

13429680Epistolary novels–stories told in letters–can quickly stagnate. Obviously nothing actually happens. We only read about it afterwards. Ms Bauer clearly knows and loves her characters too well to let them idle. Frances and Bernard reads like intimate he said/she said voice overs in an indie film (black and white, of course) that artfully cuts looming shots of the heavy-jowled 1950s architecture of New York and martinis with expertly lit close-ups of two luminous faces.

It’s the late 1950s. Frances meets Bernard at a writers’ colony. She is a writer, he a poet. She’s a middle-class Southerner, devoutly Catholic, stubbornly reserved. He is of old New England stock, a recent convert to Catholicism and as befits a handsome poet, wears his heart on his sleeve. A spark is struck and Frances and Bernard begin a friendship based on a shared passion for literature and truth. When they leave the writers’ retreat, they start a correspondence.

The letters of Frances and Bernard describe a private spaciousness in which the artists draw close in a society of two: where they meet, court, love, exchange beliefs, confess and sadly yet inevitably part. In one of Bernard’s unrestrainedly lavish love letters to Frances:

In the afternoon I wonder whether the salt water heated by the sun would stain your skin and leave behind a reticulation–an Irish articulation of Venusian sea foam. Your freckles: I want to down them like oysters, having my fill on a rock that no one can find.

And vinegar-veined Frances’ reply:

The Hudson River says hello. It doesn’t know what you see in New England’s blustering surf. It thinks a body of water earns its majesty by knowing how to keep its own counsel.

The push-pull of alternating ravishing and deflating letters ratchet up the tension as Frances and Bernard test the heady waters of sharing passion, ideologies and life. By the end of the novel I felt that letters were the only way to tell the story; two wordsmiths of the highest order pouring out their souls in pen and ink.

In Frances and Bernard, Ms Bauer captures the heady culture of the late 1950s when seemingly everyone was smart and witty and thought deep thoughts. I was even more impressed by her ability to scribe each voice with its own distinct tone, vocabulary and personality.

As for the real Flannery O’Connor, I am thinking of trying her non-fiction: The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews by Flannery O’Connor. She once wrote to a close friend that Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged)

“makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky”.

That type of writing I can understand.

Image Credit: Cmacauley