What do bloggers do best?
I’ve been thinking about this since my favorite English blogger, Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader, decided to discontinue his book blog.
He is an excellent writer, his book reviews are thoughtful and reliable, and he did not allow publicists to define what he read.
Still, I understand how difficult these reviews are.
Even writing a book journal can be work. Alas, I have fallen behind in writing about books.
So this is a catch-up blog on a few books I’ve been meaning to write about: a remarkable literary novel, Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard, and a middlebrow classic reissued by Melville Press, Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars.
1. Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard. This short, pitch-perfect epistolary novel is based on the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. It is a lovely, intense book, and though I have not read biographies of O’Connor or Lowell, it would be fascinating to be able to compare the writers with the characters.
Bernard/Robert and Frances/Flannery meet at a writer’s colony. Bernard writes to a friend,
I met a girl I quite liked–but not in that way…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.
Frances, who is from Philadelphia (why Philadelphia rather than O’Connor’s Georgia I don’t know), gradually falls in love with Bernard; but she does not want to marry; she wants to write.
Writing can be a burden, though. She says,
I get the existential shakes–I’m like one of those small metal wind-up toys that chatter in circles until they peter out, exhausted and finally keel over.
Bernard is also an intense writer. He suffers from bipolar disorder, which Bauer does not romanticize, though it is often associated with creativity. She does show that it does not adversely affect his brilliant poetry,
The disease makes his life very hard, and his relationship with Frances is rocky. In one scene, Frances calls the police when she finds him camped out on her doorstep after a fight. He punches a cop, and babbles that Frances is his “bride”and that he is “a dragon with his foot on the saint.” They realize he is an altered state and take him to a mental hospital. Frances is a loyal friend and visits him during his hospitalizations. But eventually she says she cannot be involved with him anymore.
Bauer fascinatingly describes their intellectual discussions of Catholicism, teaching, reading, madness, and friendship.
A fascinating, sad novel about a romance/friendship between two writers.
2. Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, reissued in the Neversink series by Melville House, reminded me a bit of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. Dekobra, a popular French writer, published this best-selling novel in 1925. Not only is it an entertaining portrait of rebellious New Woman who loses her fortune, but it also features Russian spies. Through the eyes of the narrator, Prince Gerard Séliman, we study the impulsive behavior of Lady Diana.
When she hires him as her secretary, she says,
If I add that my banker cheats me, that each year I have seven hundred and thirty invitations to dinner, all of which I couldn’t accept unless I cut myself in half at eight o’clock every evening; if I go on to say that I have, on the average, six admirers a year, without counting casual acquaintances and some exploded gasoline which sticks to the carburetor; that I keep an exact account of my poker debts, that I always help every charitable undertaking, that I am the honorary captain of a squad of police women and I was a candidate in the elections for North Croyden; if I finally admit that I have a very poor memory, that I love champagne and that I have never known how to add, then, perhaps, you will understand why I need a private secretary.
The writing goes on and on like this–isn’t it charming?
After losing all her money, she and Gerard travel on the Orient Express to find a powerful Communist official, Varichkine, and inquire about the oil fields her late husband owned in Georgia. Diana stops at nothing; she even gets engaged to Varichkine, and sends Gerard on to Russia to investigate the wealth of the oil wells. He meets Varichkine’s sadistic mistress, who wants to stop Varichkine’s marraige to Lady Diana, and he has many adventures. This is an entertaining, often comical little book, perfect for a summer’s beach read.