Frances and Bernard - By Carlene Bauer

August 15, 1957

Dearest Claire—

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 disembowelment 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 Jesus Christ. 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 very good. 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.