Authors: Carlene Bauer
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Copyright © 2012 by Carlene Bauer
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Frances and Bernard / Carlene Bauer.
1. Authors—Fiction. 2. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction. I. Title.
Anna Mae Bauer
So, I have written you a love letter, oh, my God, what have I done!
The Brothers Karamazov
August 15, 1957
How are you?
Here I am in Philadelphia, back from the colony. It was mildly horrific, except for the writing. I finished what I think might be a draft of the novel. If I can just figure out a way to continuously sponge off the rich, the rest of my life should go very well!
I fear, however, that I will have to become a teacher to support this habit. I don’t think the rich found me very grateful, and they probably won’t ask me back to their glen. Oh well.
And now I will tell you the mildly horrific part. You deserved a honeymoon, but the whole time I was there I kept wishing that you could have come with me so that we could have taken long walks together fellowshipping in daily indictment of our fellow guests. Here were my spiritual exercises: I prayed, and then I had conversations with you in my head about the idiotic but apparently talented. I kept silent at meals, mostly, and this silence, as I hoped, kept people from trying to engage with me. I had nothing to say to them, because they were always telling stories about the other writers they knew or the hilarious things they’d gotten up to while drinking. And me, dry as the town of Ocean Grove. Sample colonists: Two poets, boys, our age. Editors at two different literary magazines. Indistinguishable. Their names do not bear repeating. Sample dinner story: These two had been members of a secret society at Yale, with one the head and the other his deputy. The head would sit on a gold-painted throne they’d stolen from the drama department to interview potential candidates. “Sodomy or disembowelment,” he’d ask, “and every man who answered
got in.” And then this, from the cocktail party they threw for us the first night: A novelist (a lady novelist, a writer of historical romances). Your mother has probably read them. I’ve seen them eaten with peanuts on trains. Was introduced to her as a fellow novelist and that was the last she cared to know of me, as she was off on a monologue detailing her busy reading and lecture schedule; the difficulties of balancing this schedule and her writing; the infinite patience of her advertising-executive husband, who never minds using his vacation time to travel to Scotland and Ireland and France for her research; the infinite patience of her dear, dear editor, who always picks up the phone when she needs to be cajoled out of an impasse, which isn’t often. “Thank heavens I’m a visceral writer. It just comes out of me in a flood. I can’t stop it. I usually need about three weeks here for six hundred pages, which I then whittle down to a—” I wanted so badly to tell her what this self-centered harangue was making my viscera do. Sometimes there’s no more satisfactory oath to utter at these times but an exasperated
I’d feel bad about taking the Lord’s name in vain but I like to think he’s much more offended by the arrogance that drives me to offer up such a bitterly desperate beseechment. Well, I guess he’s offended by my bitterness too, but—a visceral writer. Dear God. Claire, please let me never describe myself or my work with such conviction. The self-regard that fuels so many—I will never get over it. It’s like driving drunk, it seems to me. Although these people never kill anybody—they just blindside everyone until they’ve cleared a path to remunerative mediocrity.
On the few occasions I did speak at these gatherings, I was looked at as if I were a child of three who’d toddled up to their elbows, opened her mouth, and started speaking in perfect French. I enjoyed that. Silence, exile, cunning.
There was one young man who did bear scrutiny. Bernard Eliot. Harvard. Descended from Puritans, he claims. Another poet. But very good. Well, I guess I should say more than
Great? I know nothing about poetry, except that I either like it or don’t. And his I liked very much. I hear John Donne in the poems—John Donne prowling around in the boiler room of them, shouting, clanging on pipes with wrenches, trying to get this young man to uncram the lines and cut the poems in half. We had a nice lunch one day—he asked me to lunch, he said, because he’d noticed me reading a book by Etienne Gilson. He converted a few years ago. Here I frown: could be a sign of delusions of grandeur, when a Puritan turns to Rome. He said an astounding thing at lunch. He asked me if I had a suitor—his word—and I said no. I was pretty sure this was just to start conversation. Then, after a pause, while I was shaking some ketchup out over my french fries, he said, chin in hand, as if he were speaking to me from within some dream he was having, “I think men have a tendency to wreck beautiful things.” I wanted to laugh. I couldn’t figure out what kind of response he wanted—was he trying to determine if I was the kind of girl who had experience with that kind of wreckage and who would then be a willing audience for a confession of some of his own, or was he laying a flirtatious trap to see how much of his own wreckage I’d abide? Instead I asked him if he wanted the ketchup. “Actually, yes, thanks,” he said, and then, while shaking it out over his own fries, “Have you ever been to Italy?” He asked if he could write me while he was there. I did like him. Though I think he comes from money, and has read more at twenty-five than I will have read by the time of my death, he seemed blessedly free of pretension. Grandiose statements about romance notwithstanding.
Tell me of Paris. Send my love to Bill. When can I visit you in Chicago?
August 20, 1957
I’m packing for Italy, and sorry that I won’t get a chance to see you before I leave and you come back from Maine. Say hello to your mother and father for me. Will you finally make a conquest of that lobsterman’s daughter? I think you’re making this effort only to weave a line about it into the final ballad of Ted McCoy, just so your sons and grandsons have something to which they might aspire. Which I applaud. It’s as good as catching a mermaid.
It’s a damn shame that you didn’t get accepted to the colony. I’ve said it before and there, I said it again. They decided to give all the fiction spots to women this round. Everyone there was a thoroughgoing hack. There was a pert, kimono-wearing Katherine Mansfield type to flirt with, but she wasn’t smart enough to consider doing anything serious about. Which was all for the best. She couldn’t remember my name until the second week of our stay. She insisted on calling me Anton. “I’m sorry, you remind me of—” but she would never say who this Anton was. I wanted to know! She meant to give off an air of mystery—instead she gave off an air of distracted imbecility.
I met a girl I quite liked—but not in that way. I think you’d like her too. She looks untouched, as if she grew up on a dairy farm, but she’s dry, quick, and quick to skewer, so there’s no mistaking that she was raised in a city. Philadelphia. Her name is Frances Reardon. Was a little Mother Superiorish. She’s just escaped from the workshop at Iowa. She was the only other real writer there. Her novel is about a hard-hearted nun who finds herself receiving stigmata. It sounds juvenile, but it’s very funny. (I stole a look at some pages in her bag at lunch when she’d gone to get us some coffee.) Clearly someone educated by bovine-minded Catholics taking her revenge—but for God. A curious mix of feminine and unfeminine—wore a very conventional white dress covered in the smallest of brown flowers and laid her napkin down on her lap with something approaching fussiness, but then thumped the bottom of a ketchup bottle as if she were pile driving. At one point said that “reading the verse of Miss Emily Dickinson makes me feel like I’m being suffocated by a powder puff full of talc” but avowed that she did like Whitman. “Does that give me the soul of a tramp?” she said, smiling. Very charming, and without meaning to be. A rare thing. Also a very, very good writer. She made me laugh quite a bit. And yet she is religious. Also very rare. I think I might try to make her a friend.
I know you’re not a letter writer, but drop me a postcard or two.
September 20, 1957
I hope this letter finds you well and still pleasurably hard at work.
I write to you from outside Florence, Italy, where an old professor of mine has a family house that he has very kindly allowed me to come and stay in. I’m finishing my book here.
I very much enjoyed talking with you this summer, and I would like to talk to you some more. But I’m in Italy. And you’re in Philadelphia. So will you talk to me in letters?
Have you ever been to Italy? In Italy, I feel musical and indolent. All speech is arpeggio.
I wanted to ask you this question when we had lunch: Who is the Holy Spirit to you?
September 30, 1957
I was so very pleased to receive your note. Thank you for writing me. It would be a pleasure to talk to you in letters.
I have not been to Italy, but I have been to London, where I remember seeing young Italian tourists thronging about major landmarks and chattering in a way that made me think of pigeons. I know that must be unfair, but that is my only impression of Italy, refracted as it is through the prism of stodgy old England.
Have you ever been to Philadelphia? Right now, as summer winds down, it is fuzzy with heat and humidity, and the scent of the sun baking the bricks of the houses in this neighborhood. I feel indolent, but not musical. I am waitressing while I try to find a job in New York. One that allows me to pay the rent without taxing my brain. I can be a night owl and wouldn’t mind writing until the wee hours after work.
The Holy Spirit! Bernard, you waste no time. I believe he is grace and wisdom.
I hope your work is going well.
October 30, 1957
There are pigeons here too. These Italian boys hoot and coo at the young foreign women wandering through the piazzas. Both sides are intractable—the boys with their intense conviction that they can catch something this way, the girls in their perturbation, their furrowed brows. It gives me great pleasure to sit and watch this. I keep hoping that one of these days a girl will whirl around and take one up on his invitation.
I’ve never been to Philadelphia.
I don’t believe in wasting time when I’ve met someone I want to know more of.
I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is or does. I think this is because I came to Catholicism late and have felt hesitant to penetrate this mystery. Protestants shove the Holy Spirit to the side—too mystical, too much a distraction from the Father and Son. They regard the Holy Spirit with the same suspicion, I think, as they do the saints—it’s a form of idolatry to shift the focus to a third party, whether it be the Holy Spirit or Saint Francis. To appeal to the third party is pagan. Is he grace and wisdom? How do you know?
Let’s not ever talk of work in these letters. When I see you again I want to talk to you about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue.
November 20, 1957
Deal. No discussion of work. I don’t like to write about the writing either. I can talk about it, if pressed, but I prefer silence. I don’t want to be responsible for any pronouncements on which I might fail to follow through.
I have to tell you—I am wary of projects that are described as spiritual. I fear—this is related to my aversion to artistic empty threats—that the more consciously spiritual a person appears to be, the less truly spiritual that person is. I know what you’re after isn’t that at all. Perhaps what I am also wary of is the notion that enough dogged inquiry will induce enlightenment. It may be a mistake to think that it can.