As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book … without pictures or conversations?
Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a novelist and a poet lead me down a winding path.
Bauer, Carlene. Frances and Bernard. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9780547858241. $23.
Frances, a novelist, and Bernard, a poet, meet at a writers’ colony where he observes her being silently, and wonderfully, snide. They strike up a correspondence, first about the Catholic faith, soon about writing, and then later, chronicling their angst-filled romance. Letters to others augment their own as they each write to their closest friends and to their mutual editor. The dust-jacket copy makes clear that the novelist Flannery O’Connor and the poet Robert Lowell were the inspiration for Frances and Bernard. Readers need not be familiar with either of those author’s lives, however, as Bauer crafts two wholly complete characters in their own right (and takes great liberties with the real biographical record of O’Connor and Lowell as well). While the canvas is small—intimately restricted to Frances’s and Bernard’s personal lives—Bauer creates a richly characterized and multi-layered portrait of both artists that deftly unfolds in leisurely, episodic exchanges. Gracefully written, Bauer’s fluid prose is at once solemn, tender, and witty as she ponders the cost and duty of art and love.
Morton, Brian. Starting Out in the Evening. Mariner. 2007. 336p. ISBN 9780156033411. pap. $14.
Matching Bauer’s book for its quiet power, nuanced intimacy, careful construction, and focus on the literary life, Morton’s title may please readers who are interested in novels about writers and the heartfelt repercussions of relationships. Leonard Schiller is an aging novelist, all but lost now to obscurity and facing the end of his days with the dream of writing one last work. Into his life storms the ambitious Heather Wolfe, a young graduate student intent on making Schiller the subject of her thesis and the key to her career—before she even meets him she is dreaming of editing the Portable Schiller. Morton’s novel advances in graceful arcs as he traces how the two relate, and mixes into their relationship Schiller’s adult daughter, Ariel, and her own concerns and ties. A beautifully realized novel, it holds the same kind of elegiac grace as Frances and Bernard.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Picador. 2002. 240p. ISBN 9780312305062. pap. $13.
For readers who want another experience of an author turning a real writer into a fictional character, consider suggesting Cunningham’s multiple-award-winning novel of Virginia Woolf. With astounding skill and grace, Cunningham brings Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway into a new perspective, gifting readers with Woolf’s presence in this shimmering work structured around three women: Clarissa Vaughan who is planning a party in NYC at the end of the 20th century; Woolf herself, in 1923, working on Mrs. Dalloway; and Laura Brown, a 1949 housewife living in Los Angeles who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. With its focus on literature, rich characterizations, beautiful prose, and exquisite management of both plot and pace, Cunningham’s remarkable novel should please Bauer’s fans.
Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Anchor. 2009. 432p. ISBN 9780307456304. pap. $18.
For readers who wish Bauer’s book was more real than imagined, suggest Wineapple’s insightful and accessible nonfiction account of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a leading man of letters and an abolitionist who supported women’s rights. Using Dickinson’s letters to Higginson, the poems she enclosed, and the few extant letters that he wrote to her, Wineapple challenges the image of Dickinson as a slight figure withdrawn in isolation, painting her as far more forceful. Upon meeting the poet in person, Higginson wrote to his wife that he had never met anyone who drained him so—a wonderfully telling statement from a man who was deeply embroiled in the political uprisings of his day. This richly textured work, character focused and graceful in style, offers a revealing portrait of Dickinson and her flinty and penetrating poems, as well as the man who was perhaps her most important correspondent.
O’Connor, Flannery and Sally Fitzgerald. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1988. 624p. ISBN 9780374521042. pap. $24.
Lowell, Robert and Saskia Hamilton. The Letters of Robert Lowell. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1988. 888p. ISBN 9780374185466. $40.
Readers who become enamored with O’Connor and Lowell through their doppelganger correspondents may want to delve into the actual letters of each (some to each other) in these collections. Fans of Bauer can measure how well she did evoking the spirit of both and gain greater perspective on their style, interests, and concerns. O’Connor’s letters sparkle with her personality and focus of mind and reflect greatly on religion and writing. Lowell’s letters are equally rich, full of insightful comments on his times, reverberating in the wake of his illness, and resonant with his concerns about writing. He exchanged letters with a wide circle, including Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound (as well as O’Connor) and the way he sees literature and his place within it makes for fascinating reading.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1971. 576p. ISBN 9780374515362. pap. $18.
Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2007. 1216p. ISBN 9780374530327. pap $28.
It is nearly impossible to read Frances and Bernard and not wonder about the works Bauer is referencing. For those who want to read actual work by O’Connor and Lowell, these two collections are great launch points. The short stories of O’Connor won her the National Book Award and provide a good overview of her potent, brutal, and powerful writing. They are arranged in chronological order so Bauer’s readers can speculate on which stories Frances and Bernard may have been discussing. Robert Lowell’s massive Collected Poems is also structured chronologically and takes readers through his development and interests as a poet. However, for readers who want to jump around, “For the Union Dead,” “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and “Waking Early Sunday Morning” are three of his most iconic poems.
Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. Little Brown. 2010. 464p. ISBN 9780316018999. pap. $16.99.
Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. W.W. Norton. 1996. 560p. ISBN 9780393313741. pap. $29.95.
Reading the biographies of both O’Connor and Lowell might disappoint some of Bauer’s fans as the fictional license she took will be fully revealed. O’Connor and Lowell were friends, but never lovers, and Frances’s life progresses in ways O’Connor herself never had the chance to experience. However, others might enjoy learning more about the lives of these two powerhouse artists. Mariani’s biography of Lowell covers the expected features of his relationships, illness, and life history (including his position as a member of one of the oldest European families in the U.S.), but is most notable for its attention to Lowell’s poetry, work habits, and reading life. Gooch’s biography of O’Connor details her life and illness, her circle of friends, her Southern roots and religious devotions, as well as her profoundly influential and controversial work and its legacy.
Connecting Interests: Epistolary Works
For those that enjoyed the form Bauer used and would like other epistolary works in a range of formats, consider these three titles that are also concerned, in different ways, with writers:
Smith, Lee. Fair and Tender Ladies. Berkley. 2011. 384p. ISBN 9780425230459. pap. $16.
In the remarkable Ivy Rowe, Smith has conjured a character that chronicles 70 years of life centered in the Appalachian region of Virginia through letters written to family and friends. Born on a farm at the turn of the 20th century, Ivy has the heart and eye of a poet even though her life path follows a far more prosaic course. A mother before she wished to become one, she is soon tied to the land as a farmer’s wife, and other dreams are put away. Regardless of her fate, and she is witness to tragedy and great change in her own life and her wider circle, Ivy remains undaunted, writing letters that reflect her daily life, love of the landscape around her, and deep connections to family. By recording her life and those of others in her letters, and by filling those letters with a beautifully realized sense of time and place, Ivy becomes a storyteller and poet after all.
Shaffer, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 7 CDs. library ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Books on Tape. 2008. ISBN 9781415954409. $50.
Set during the aftermath of WWII as Britain begins to recover from the horrors of the war, this epistolary novel involves the letters of London-based author Juliet Ashton and the various members of a book club formed on the island of Guernsey—which had been occupied by the Germans during the war. Juliet receives a letter from one of the club members asking about the author Charles Lamb. A correspondence is launched, which soon includes many of the other club members as well. Both charming and serious, the novel translates well to audio where the voice talents of Paul Boehmer, Susan Duerden, Rosalyn Landor, John Lee, and Juliet Mills are put to grand effect. They each create memorable and authentically inflected voices for their characters, which help involve listeners even more deeply in the engrossing tale.
84 Charing Cross Road. 97 min. David Hugh Jones. dist. by Sony Pictures. 2002. $10.94.
In 1949 Helene Hanff began a correspondence with the London bookstore Marks & Co. that would last for nearly 20 years. Soon her letters were not simply addressed to the “gentlemen” who worked in the store, but to bookseller Frank Doel. Over time their letters expanded past the bibliographic to include their mutual lives—his in post-War ravaged London (she sent food) and hers in Manhattan. The novel was turned into a movie staring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel. The epistolary content translates well to film as viewers are treated to detailed Manhattan and London location shots and quick cuts between the actors. Bancroft well captures the brashness of Hanff and her love of books. Hopkins embodies the quiet Doel, always on the hunt for the perfect copy.