If you’re not a lesbian, get the hell out
- BuyEverything Is Nice: Collected Stories, Sketches and Plays by Jane Bowles
Sort Of, 416 pp, £10.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 1 908745 15 6
‘He’s my enemy,’ Jane Auer recalled telling a friend when she first met Paul Bowles. But she immediately followed him to Mexico even so and, though she had been and would always be much more drawn to women, married him less than a year later. The instinct to court an ‘enemy’ rather than an admirer may have been a shrewd one: it seems to have been especially difficult for Bowles’s admirers to do her justice. Once greeted with hostility and bemusement, her writing has now been rescued several times over: Everything Is Nice gathers most of her published work apart from Two Serious Ladies, her only novel, bringing together material – including the few unfinished pieces Paul Bowles took from her many notebooks after her death, and a handful of letters – from several earlier collections. Yet the temptation to romanticise or over-identify with Bowles herself remains. Her biographer, Millicent Dillon, who did much to draw people’s attention to her in the 1980s, names the many Bowles acquaintances she encountered in her research who remarked on ‘how much I looked like Jane’. Bowles’s emotional and physical troubles – anxiety and indecision grew into an insurmountable writer’s block; a stroke at forty attacked her powers of language and imagination – invited people to read her work through her problems, and her reputation was eclipsed early on and steadily by the juggernaut that was her husband’s.
Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013
As Jane Bowles’s biographer, I read Lidija Haas’s review of Jane Bowles’s Everything Is Nice with interest and admiration (LRB, 25 April). Haas quotes Jane’s husband, Paul Bowles, as saying I made my book about Jane a ‘tragedy’, not understanding that ‘the most important thing about Jane was her sense of humour.’
I first went to Tangier in 1977 to interview Paul about Jane’s life. She had died four years earlier in a convent hospital in Malaga, having deteriorated so that she couldn’t speak, or see, or hear. At the time he was still reluctant to talk to anyone about Jane, her last years having been so traumatic for him. However, for the next three years, he was extraordinarily helpful. I could not have asked for a more co-operative informant, devoted to my getting every detail as precisely as possible. When the biography was published in 1981 as A Little Original Sin, he sent me several letters telling me how good the work was and how faithfully I had told her life.
In 1993 I returned to Tangier, this time to write a book about Paul. The man I met now had a very different life from the one I had known in the 1970s. When I first went to see him, not one of his books was in print in the US. By 1993 he was internationally famous and was constantly visited by admirers. He was far more evasive than he had been when I was researching Jane’s biography. At one point in our discussion, I brought up the fact that he had recently been quoted in a magazine interview as criticising my biography of Jane for being too dark and spending too much time on her illness. That is true, he said. But Paul, I responded, the material that I included was a faithful representation of what you said to me. That’s true, he admitted. ‘But who wants to think about the past? Especially when it was so unhappy.’
Palo Alto, California