‘The shock of discovering that a blazingly original writer has antecedents: the shock of turning from Shakespeare to Marlowe, from Tom Wolfe to Céline. In the zoo of last century’s literature, Muriel Spark has to be classed as one of the Great Cats, a slinking killer, cold and carnivorous, a wise fear in her gait. She was weird in ways her contemporaries only pretended to be; I got the sense that she was genuinely weird, floating almost alone in a sea of feigned weirdness, and also genuinely afraid of existence, in a time when her rivals were only just taking correspondence courses in canned Existentialism. Her concision and style, her grasp of the comedic principle that the characters can’t know they’re funny, and her religious contempt for characters that ended up seeming more compassionate than the cheaper, more earthbound compassion — all this establishes her claim to uniqueness, despite the century of British comic tradition at her back.
‘So it was strange to open Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies, and find the Spark atmosphere hanging there in 1943, more than a decade before Spark began publishing her fiction. Something bizarre and monastic and sexual lurks beneath the unassuming narration. Dread, too, but an amused one. A wry dread, which blooms at the fringes of human activity.
‘No less than musicians, authors have particular sounds, and often these sounds are less a product of their creative effort than of their inculcating milieu. Dostoevsky didn’t invent the way drunken Russians speak; neither Dickens didn’t invent the way pompous lawyers speak; and Charles Portis blowhards are available to speak to you on diverse matters at every rest stop of our republic. What milieu could have produced the sound of both Spark and Jane Bowles? Both had complex links to both Judaism and homosexuality — could that be the recipe?
‘I suspect no. Their books instead concern this subject matter: a woman branching off from regular society, powered by a kind of Ahab madness; or maybe the better image is of a Brothers Grimm child lost in the woods. In The Driver’s Seat, our heroine takes the eros-thanatos link to unprecedented lengths on her unnerving Eurotrip; in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the crème de la crème curdles into a one-woman fascist movement.
‘In Two Serious Ladies, we have two parallel narratives, one of motion and the other of stasis. Mrs. Copperfield and her husband travel to sunny Panama, where the bright colors and sassy sex workers unlock her Anglo heart; what the pendulous fruit of Key West did for the frosty insurance executive Wallace Stevens, the street shouts and impoverished splendor of Central America do for Mrs. Copperfield: they fire her imagination. She’s a napper woken by the crawling sunshine.
‘Meanwhile, stateside, Christina Goering encounters the tubby and childlike Arnold, his more charismatic father, and ends up living with both plus her friend Miss Gamelon, in a house on an island, accessible only by ferry. Why? For no reason, and for every reason. In both narratives, the women form connections and then feel subject to the opposite impulse, to dissolve these connections, to get away, to go live in a strange hotel. Both women enact a fantasy, imbued with large and private significance, of going out to a bar, alone, and meeting new, mysterious people, not exactly for sex (neither of these Serious Ladies seems particularly horny in the physical sense) but in pursuit of some species of emotional commerce, spiritual currents.
‘One of the toughest tasks for a critic is to convey the experience of actually reading a novel. Summarize the themes all you want; talk about the author’s life, but some kernel remains out of reach, and that kernel is the whole point; it’s why the readers keep coming back. After four hundred years, no one has quite managed to say just what the nightmare essence of Hamlet is, its weird rage about sex and cowardice. If anyone had explained that kernel, probably no one would read the play.
‘In Two Serious Ladies, events drift into the fantastic, while maintaining their own hidden logic. Glass perfume bottles get thrown with blood-drawing force; people leave home and move in together with total casualness, almost involuntarily, like sleepwalkers. The novel begins with a Spark feeling and ends up feeling like Luis Buñuel or David Lynch.
‘”[R]eality was often more frightening to her than her wildest dreams,” writes Bowles about Miss Gamelon. Fear, and the overcoming of fear, seem central to the author’s imagination here. Claire Messud writes in her introduction, “Bowles was famously indecisive, in part because she fretted that each decision, however small, might have lasting moral implications. She was also, in youth, extremely fearful, constrained by an impressive catalogue of anxieties and phobias. But she pushed hard against her nature.” Reading this, and the novel that followed, it was hard not to think about Valeria Ugazio, and her description of a “semantics of freedom,” in which life is divided between those who travel and assert themselves and gain independence and those who cling to a circumscribed home life, so cautious they seem cadaverous. Underneath the dream atmosphere of Two Serious Ladies, we can sense a soul wavering between fear and boldness, but unable to choose either. One character writes a letter stating, “I can only say that there is, in every man’s life, a strong urge to leave his life behind him for a while and seek a new one. If he is living near to the sea, a strong urge to take the next boat and sail away no matter how happy his home or how beloved his wife or mother.”
‘Two Serious Ladies is a rare vision. If I had adapt this story to another medium, I think I’d choose ballet; that would provide the requisite gesture (sometimes jerking, sometimes flowing), the dread, the sense of the primitive, the frail and the fierce combining together in a spectacle that’s nearly human.’ — Nicholas Vajifdar, Bookslut
w/ Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, a.o., 1944
w/ Oliver Smith, Paul Bowles, 1947 (Irving Penn)
w/ Truman Capote, 1949
1951 (Carl Van Vechten)
w/ Tennessee Williams, Lilla Van Saher, early 1950s
w/ Leonore Gershwin, 1964
w/ Cherifa, late 1967
Jane Bowles Official
THE MADNESS OF QUEEN JANE
Les femmes borderline et désaxées de Jane Bowles
A brief survey of the short story part 17: Jane Bowles
“LOCKED IN EACH OTHER’S ARMS”: JANE BOWLES’S FICTION OF PSYCHIC DEPENDENCY
Jane Bowles’ ‘Two Serious Ladies’ Gone Wild
Nothing is Lost or Found: Desperately Seeking Paul and Jane Bowles
2 August (1947): Jane Bowles to Paul Bowles
American Dreams, 1943: ‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles
THE GATHERING SPIRIT OF JANE BOWLES
Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight
Jane Bowles: Inventory of Her Collection at the Harry Ransom Research Center
Un(der)known Writers: Jane Bowles
Lost & Found: Alice Elliott Dark on Jane Bowles
It’s Time to Start Taking Jane Bowles Seriously
Buy ‘Two Serious Ladies’
Documentary – JANE & PAUL BOWLES (English/Spanish)
Paul Bowles y Jane Bowles, su mundo entre Tánger y Málaga
Letter from jane bowles to sarah carpenter
5 Letters from Jane (Bowles); for Voices, Ropes, and Chains
Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane: “A Quarreling Pair”, based on the puppet play by Jane Bowles.
Jane Bowles, último equipaje
with Bowles scholar Millicent Dillion
So let’s talk first about Jane’s life as a writer, because it was not easy. Jane published before Paul did, and it was his work with her on Two Serious Ladies that inspired him to try his hand at fiction. Yet she sank rather quickly into literary obscurity and put her energy into assuring Paul that she didn’t mind if he was the more successful or if people at her publisher [Knopf] pretended not to know whom she was. What do you think her real feelings were about being overshadowed in the world of literature by her (very talented) husband?
The relationship between Jane’s work and Paul’s work was as complex as the relationship between the two of them. In that relationship she looked to him for support (including economic support) as well as early on, as with Two Serious Ladies, with shaping the work in terms of form—so that he suggested taking out the third serious lady, and she readily agreed. In her early letters, when he does start publishing, stories at first, and then getting the novel contract, you can hear the anguish in her voice. She admits to jealousy and then tries to smooth it over, but it’s obviously there. In the same way she suffered from his relationship with [his long-term lover] Ahmed Yacoubi.
As for Paul, he continuously encouraged her to work, and even said once that he would not see her if she did not work. I would guess, though of course, it is only speculation, that it was not his publishing his own work that made her own work so hard for her, it was a whole host of problems that she had to deal with. The rivalry, the jealousy could have been overcome. But the forces within her that she was fighting were never appeased.
Incidentally, Jane’s play was produced several years after Paul had been publishing. He wrote the music for the play. She anguished over that play for years, tried one version, then the next, and could not ultimately make it cohere. There are wonderful things in it, but it too suffers from her anguish about her own decisions.
If Jane had been a man, do you think her fiction would be more widely-known today? Do you think she would have been classed with the more famous male experimental writers, whom she in many ways completely surpassed?
Jane, as you may know, has never been taken up by the feminists. In fact, I don’t think you can strictly speaking regard her as a feminist. If you remember, she thought in very conservative terms about marriage, her marriage to Paul. He was to provide for her, and she was to take care of the house, etcetera. She never seemed to have any objections to that. Here again I am speculating, but I don’t think feminist ideas as such play a large role in her work. She did not think in general terms, in any case.
You ask if a man who wrote as she did would be more famous? A man, of course, could not write as she did.
As for fame, Victoria, think of the many wonderful writers who have fallen into obscurity in this time of no-lasting impact.
How did she do it—how did Jane achieve such economy, insight, and sheer comedy, while simultaneously giving the impression she was an amateur simply playing around with words? Have you ever tried to imitate her work to see how it’s done?
Once Jane got into the writing of Two Serious Ladies, she never thought of herself as an amateur. In some strange way, she knew how good she was, compared herself favorably to Carson McCullers, for example. Yet even though she knew how good she was, the anguish was always there. I was not and am not into literary psychoanalysis, but she opens herself up in the work and in the letters so that you can see all these forces within her. And at the same time, her terrible anguish about any decision.
No, I have never tried to imitate Jane’s style. I am not into imitation. I’ve spent forty years trying to find my own style.
It seems to me the forces within her were based largely upon her relationship with her mother—with her role as Claire’s “million-dollar baby.” Jane’s work appears to be about exploring that relationship from myriad angles: from that of the daughter who retreats in submission and longing; the daughter who rebels and runs wild; the mother with an iron will; and the mother blind to her own extreme dependence. In much of her work these relationships appear as intimate relationships between peers—even sisters—yet the grappling with the power imbalance is always there.
Yes, it does seem clear that was a very powerful force for her in the way you describe it. Yet I also feel that the struggle in her, as in any human being, is more complex than any single issue. This is where literature begins to depart from psychoanalysis, which is after all a therapy intended to bring the patient into a greater adaptation to the world.
I cannot speak of this in very simple straightforward terms because of the complexity of human emotions. That is what I see so strongly in Jane. It is as though multiple forces assail her, and she is continuously buffeted by them from all sides. What makes her different from others, in a certain sense, is that she has no defense against the multiplicity. If she could have said, “My mother did this to me or that to me,” it would have been simpler for her. But instead, I suspect, she would think of herself as assailed one way and then by another.
Jane’s work is replete with insight into paradox. Whenever she finds a fundamental truth, she immediately progresses beyond it to its antithesis. I think the basis of this must have been in the overwhelming duality of her feelings about her mother—the pampering that gave Jane, ultimately, her faith in her abilities, along with the blatant use of Jane for Claire’s emotional well-being.
My immediate response, with respect to Claire, is to recall the strangeness of Claire taking Jane to Switzerland for treatment in the sanatorium [when 13-year-old Jane contracted tuberculosis of the knee shortly after her father died] and then going off and leaving her there while she went to Paris. In Paris, Claire was pursuing her own version of finding a new life, romantic and otherwise. I could bet she didn’t see anything wrong with this, though it is difficult for me to reconcile that choice with Claire’s constant expression of devotion for Jane. No doubt there was something in Claire that could deceive herself easily.
I do think about Jane that her relation to her family of women and its authoritarianism makes her a figure that is in some way incomprehensible to young women now. I remember giving a talk about the book to a group of women, many of whom were irate because she did not break away, they thought, from the constraints upon her, and, in fact, blamed her.
What did they think she was doing in Morocco in the 1940s, making excuses to Moroccan women [as she described in “Everything is Nice”] when they asked, “Why do you not sit in your mother’s house?” I remember Paul saying that they got married partly so Jane could travel, as she could not have traveled alone in that era. She went to enormous lengths to escape, to the extent that she eventually died of her extremist life in Tangier, suffering terrible pyschiatric handicaps due to that stroke and ensuing difficulties, many years before her time.
When I would talk to Paul about Jane in her later years when she was so ill, I would say, with a certain hubris, “But she was still Jane, wasn’t she?” Paul would deny it. Now, so many years later, after going through experiences with friends who suffered from conditions similar to Jane’s, if not exactly the same, and after being torn by grief, anger, etcetera, etcetera, I think I was both wrong and right.
I would like to think some more about Jane’s physical vulnerability, about her relationship to her own body, or at least try to speculate about it. Jane at times seemed almost oblivious to her body. When she called herself “Crippie Kike Dyke,” did she think it was funny? Or was she being more bitter than funny? Think about what it would be for a teenage girl to be in bed in traction for months upon months.
I think she was both fearless and very fearful at the same time, and this would result in her paying no attention to her body at times and at other times being obsessive about it, worrying about it and how it could be damaged.
Why was writing so terribly hard for her? She was pushed to do it and yet pushed not to do it. She is always, I think, subject to opposing forces and cannot choose what side she is on. Decisions of any kind are a torment to her. So in some way, I suspect, despite her anger at her mother, there also existed in her tenderness, if not love, rage, despair, maybe even sympathy.
I suppose what I’m saying is that the multiplicity is there for all of us, but she could not placate it, keep it quiet.
There is also this about Claire. She seems to have been of ordinary—even limited—sensibility, someone interested in clothes, propriety, middle-class values from her family, a family that she never escaped from, maybe never even knew the impulse to escape from them. One of the ways I see it is that Claire was not an equal antagonist, and as a result Jane had to build her up more and more in her mind to create a true antagonist. This she did with her imagination, and by so doing, was more of a prisoner of that imagined Claire than the real one. But how could Jane fight her own imagination? It is in this realm—the realm of her own imagination—that Jane had to fight out her most serious battles. And no one could help her with that.
And yet, despite all that was so dark in her life, it is important to turn again to her work. Reading it, one sees how remarkable and how innovative it is even after all this time, how funny and surprising it is and profound. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing of all, how profound it is.
Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies
‘Two Serious Ladies is the only novel by avant-garde literary star and wife of legendary writer Paul Bowles—a modernist cult-classic, mysterious, profound, anarchic, and funny, that follows two upper-class women as they descend into debauchery—updated with an introduction by Claire Messud, bestselling author of The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs.
‘Two serious ladies who want to live outside of themselves, Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield embark on separate quests of salvation. Mrs. Copperfield visits Panama with her husband, where she finds solace among the women who live and work in its brothels. Miss Goering becomes involved with various men. At the end the two women meet again, each transformed by her experience.’ — Ecco
p.s. Hey. ** Kier, Kier! Holy moly!!!!!! Of course, of course, of course, I would be honored to help you with that in any way I can. And having you here again would be insanely great. So, yes, yes! I’m at your disposal. Also, I’m finally going to be writing to you very soon about that thing I told you I wanted to propose to you a while back. It’s to do with Zac’s and my film. Anyway, you’ll be hearing from me soon about that. Are you enjoying school? Is it being everything you’d hoped and wanted to be? Man, I’m so happy to see you, my pal. I’ve missed you a huge bunch! Big love, me. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. The main character in Zac’s and my new film is obsessed with a guy (fictional) who’d disappeared without a trace in the ’90s. The guy had never even had a single photograph taken of him in his life through a series of weird coincidences and rare mishaps, so he literally vanished. The women’s march in LA looked so amazing and so moving and inspiring even to watch on the news over here. Exactly, Paris has demonstrations, sometimes very large ones, usually more than once a week, but … LA! Incredible! All we can do is hope and fight relentlessly using our given strengths. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Yes, I think the only reason Richey Edwards wasn’t in that post was because I had made a whole post about his disappearance not long before. The auditions yesterday went very well. There were three guys that we’re very interested in and whom we’ll bring bak for the second round of auditions soon. That’s a pretty good success. And we’ll see what we find in the auditions today. The big and ongoing problem is finding a guy to play the main character who is handicapped. We would really like to find an actual handicapped guy to play the role, but we’ve had no luck at all so far, and that’s getting tricky. We might have to end up either altering the character or having an abled guy perform the handicap, but we’d really rather not do that. But for the other roles, it’s looking very good. Enjoy that inspiration for as long as it last, for sure. What a great and powerful state! I’m so happy you’re swept up in it! Are you still an inspiration magnet today? Have a great one no matter what happens. ** Steevee, Hi. Yeah, I’m feeling this constant internal war about whether to keep up with every new horrifying Trump move or look as far in the other direction as I can. So far, I seem to end up wanting to watch him like a hawk. I’m quite a fan of Shymalan’s ‘Unbreakable’, and I’m basically pro his early films, even ‘The Village’ to some degree. After that, not so much at all. But I am curious about ‘Split’. I do think he has proven himself capable of doing quite interesting work in the mainstream/genre realm. How was ‘Split’? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Thanks. I’ll check out that review, thank you muchly. ** New Juche, Hi, Joe. Harry Mathews was a great American experimental writer, mostly a novelist and poet. He was the only official American member/practitioner of Oulipo. His novels are extremely good to a one. He had this one fluke best seller in the US with his 1987 novel ‘Cigarettes’, which is up there among the most unlikely popular success novels ever. My personal favorite novels of his are probably ‘The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium’ and ‘Tlooth’. When my first novel ‘Closer’ was published, he gave it glowing blurb, which was such a great honor and encouragement to me. Anyway, his work is highly recommended. No, the French bank account problem is not solved yet. It’s getting pretty stressful, but I’ll figure it out because I have no choice. Yeah, I apologize for my email neglect. It’s been especially very busy these recent days. I’ll be in a bit of a clear this weekend, and I promise I’ll get to it then. ** Jamie, Hi and thank you, sir! When anyone says ‘Super Cooper’, the ABBA song ‘Super Trouper’ starts playing my my head, which is a good thing, mind you. I will leave you to dream and believe blissfully about the fate of Harry Nilsson’s corpse. Like I told Dora, the first day of auditions went very well. Quite exhausting, but with success via having found three great candidates to show for it. If you’re interested, it works like this: Candidate enters a room where Zac and I are poised with script, camera, etc. We explain the film to them and give them basic information about when and where the film will be shot and what time would also be required for rehearsals. Then they sign an agreement that we can film them. Then we have a long conversation with them, basically a q&a about their lives, interests, etc. because we want to watch how they are/look/react/think normally given that we’re looking for people who really interest us and whom we can just focus and shape a little without asking them to ‘act’ in the usual way. Then we have them read some of the dialog from the film, either a random part or, if we ‘re thinking of them for a particular role, from one of their potential character’s scenes. Then we film them standing, walking around, looking in different directions, etc. Then we ask them if they have any questions. Then we say goodbye and tell them that we’ll be in touch with them soon. So that’s basically what we did over and over all day yesterday. Oh, right, you’re in London for the trade show, duh. Any cool free merch or giveaways? Continue to have fun to the max whenever possible while you’re there. Max love, Dennis. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Is that who I am? Wow, that’s cool. I’m going to start working that angle. Sia seems fine, it’s just, you know, not my thing. You know where my things lie. Yay about the post! Just send it to me in the usual form by email — denniscooper72@outlookcom. The formatting here at WordPress is a little different, but not in a way that effects how the posts should be given to me. Excited, George! ** H, Hi. I agree with what you wrote, no surprise. Well, the ‘Die In’ was certainly dramatic, but it was also knuckle-headed and not thought-out, and it had that weird, annoying thing that was happening a lot back then of something deeply conservative and censorious that absurdly self-characterized itself as radical. Weird shit. Thank you about the catalog. I have a copy of the catalog here, so it should be okay, I think. ** Lord_s, Hey, man. Cool. Thank you for triggering it. Bradford’s very cool, and he’s been really kind about my stuff. He used to be regular commenter on my blog in the early days before Deerhunter took off. Have a fine one! ** Okay. The blog focuses on Jane Bowles’ great novel ‘Two Serious Ladies’ today. Have at it, won’t you? See you tomorrow.