In 1967 Jane Bowles was convalescing in a Málaga psychiatric hospital when a friend brought her the reviews of her Collected Works. The book, which carried an introduction by Truman Capote, had finally brought Bowles’s writing to a wider audience than what she called ‘my five hundred goony friends’. Bowles was unable to read the clippings. A stroke had damaged her eyesight so she struggled to read anything but children’s books with large print. She asked her friend to read the reviews aloud. ‘It is to be hoped that she will be recognised for what she is,’ John Ashbery wrote in the New York Times, ‘one of the finest modern writers of fiction, in any language.’ He went on to describe her prose as ‘a constant miracle’ in which ‘it is impossible to deduce the end of a sentence from its beginning, or a paragraph from one that preceded it … and yet the whole flows marvellously and inexorably to its cruel, lucid end.’ Other reviewers remarked on her ‘unquestionable brilliance’, her ‘rare and special talent’. On the dust-jacket, Tennessee Williams described Two Serious Ladies as ‘my favourite book’.
When her friend had finished reading, Bowles spoke bluntly: ‘I know you mean this kindly, darling, but you couldn’t have done anything more cruel … You see, it all makes me realise what I was and what I have become.’ It was almost two decades since she had last completed a piece of fiction. Writing had always been slow and agonising – she called it ‘the most loathsome of all activities’ – but that was before the decline in her health made it all but impossible. Perhaps she also disliked the implied finality of ‘collected works’. She took her friend’s copy of the book, picked up a pencil and added a word to the cover. It was now The Collected Works of Dead Jane Bowles.
She was born Jane Auer in New York City in 1917. Her parents believed that a nurse had dropped her as a baby, injuring her knee, which was why she walked with a limp. She called her bad leg ‘Crippie’ and had no patience with it. At fourteen she had a horse-riding accident and broke the same leg. After a series of operations, she developed tuberculosis of the knee and was taken by her mother to a specialist clinic in Switzerland for treatment and traction. From the age of fifteen to seventeen, she had the leg in a cast while she studied Proust and Céline in French. Her private tutor was, she later remembered, ‘well versed in Greek mythology and venereal diseases’. Separated from her friends and family, speaking in a foreign tongue, Bowles began to develop her own slanted view of the world. By the time she left Switzerland, still in pain, she had a host of phobias: dogs, sharks, mountains, elevators, being burned alive. On the boat back to America – in a turn of events too clunky for one of her stories – she was reading Voyage au bout de la nuit when a man came up to her and said: ‘Céline, c’est moi.’ They began talking and by the time she arrived in America she had decided she wanted to be a writer.
In New York she made herself into what Capote would later call ‘that modern legend named Jane Bowles … the eternal urchin, appealing as the most appealing of non-adults, yet with some substance cooler than blood invading her veins’. Her leg had now been fused (she couldn’t bend it at the knee) and it remained in a cast for seven months, during which time she began wearing boys’ clothes and making herself known in the bars of Greenwich Village. Bowles had various girlfriends, but her possessive mother tried to convince her that she ‘was a grand normal girl and this lesbian business was just an adolescent phase’. When that didn’t work, her mother changed tack and encouraged her to have a coming-out party. As though nothing could be worse than her mother’s approval, she then met and married a polite and reserved young composer, Paul Bowles. He was the anti-Jane: detached, tidy, driven. He would come back from rehearsals to find their apartment full of smoke and drunk strangers, men with names like ‘Dick the Shit’ and, on one occasion, a woman with bright red hair lying in the empty bathtub, wearing Jane’s clothes. Jane and Paul had a sexual relationship to begin with, but eventually settled into an open marriage – he preferred men and she women. ‘He is my enemy,’ Jane told a friend when she first met Paul, and within the internal logic of her life and fiction it seems fitting that they spent the rest of their lives together.
Bowles was 21 when she started work on what would be her only novel, Two Serious Ladies. Dozens of notebooks record her tortuous process: a paragraph crossed out followed by an almost identical paragraph, also crossed out, or notes telling herself to try a scene again and again, in different configurations, until it felt right – which it almost never did. She would distract herself with boozing or cooking or seeing friends or sometimes take Benzedrine to speed up her writing. But there was no getting around it. ‘I must write but I can’t write’ became her mantra. In the end, it’s remarkable that she wrote anything at all.
Two Serious Ladies, first published in 1943 and recently reissued, is the story of Mrs Copperfield and Miss Goering, two wealthy women who decide to dismantle their respectable lives, hide from their good fortune and ignore all instincts for self-preservation in the hope of attaining godliness – even sainthood. Miss Goering lives in a grand and beautiful home but decides that ‘in order to work out my own little idea of salvation … it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.’ She moves to a grim and draughty house on Staten Island into which she invites a selection of drifters and fake friends, including a Miss Gamelon whom she comes to regard ‘as the embodiment of evil’. But when even this new life starts to feel comfortable, she runs away again, embarking on a series of increasingly disastrous relationships, dumping each man the moment she finds someone worse. Meanwhile, in Panama, Mrs Copperfield shakes off her steady husband and falls in love with a teenage prostitute. She remains stubbornly blind to her situation, letting herself be exploited even as the arrangement becomes more and more transactional.
Self-destruction is freedom. They must do what they don’t want to. Although these two rich American women could seem like disaster tourists – taking a holiday in someone else’s unhappiness – it becomes clear that they are, as the title suggests, serious. When they meet in the book’s final pages to weigh up their attempts at transcendence – or rather descendance, since they have both taken the basement route to God – neither woman is convinced by the other. Miss Goering asks Mrs Copperfield if she has ‘gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?’
‘True enough,’ said Mrs Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. ‘I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.’
In Bowles’s dialogue, characters often attain momentary – and sometimes unwanted – self-knowledge before reacting in shock at what they have learned. It’s as though a higher power, or omniscient narrator, speaks through them, letting them see themselves as they truly are, before dropping them back into the mess of their lives. At a party, Miss Goering is asked whether she will spend the night with a man she barely knows and doesn’t particularly like:
‘I probably shall,’ said Miss Goering, ‘although it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.’ Miss Goering looked a little morose after having said this and they drove on in silence until they reached their destination.
Part of what makes Two Serious Ladies feel alive is that every character, no matter how minor, considers themselves the protagonist. They talk over – and through – each other. They forget one another’s existence as soon as they leave the room. After getting into a brawl, a bartender called Frank sits in silence and seems to be ‘thinking of very personal things that had nothing to do with the events of the evening’. Bowles’s characters fail to perceive in each other the depths they admire in themselves. And because they are all genuinely independent, there’s a chaotic momentum to the narrative that has nothing to do with plot.
When Two Serious Ladies came out, reviewers found it ‘goofy’, ‘screwy’ and ‘mad’, the note of condescension made clear by a critic who expressed the hope that, in future, ‘Mrs Bowles … will come up with something just a leetle more to the general taste.’ Her family, meanwhile, were concerned that it was ‘too lesbian’. In her biography of Bowles, Millicent Dillon quotes her mother: ‘There’s only one bit of decent writing in the whole book and that’s the letter from the husband, Mr Copperfield.’ ‘And Paul probably wrote that,’ Jane’s aunt added.
The 2014 edition of Two Serious Ladies introduced the author as ‘the highly influential wife of legendary writer Paul Bowles’. Although Paul was a composer when Jane met him, he soon turned his hand to novels, discovered that he was a natural, and quickly became one of the most celebrated young writers. Bowles denied that her struggles were connected to his success, but anyone who has spent time on a writers’ retreat will know that there is nothing more debilitating than other people’s productivity. You can feel them typing through the walls. Paul and Jane moved to Tangiers, where he established a ruthless daily routine while she drank in the Parade Bar and embarked on a series of erratic and unequal relationships with Moroccan women whom she met in the market.
In 1954, flush from the success of his books, Paul bought a Jaguar and an island off the coast of Sri Lanka, ‘the southern-most inhabited spot in the Indian Ocean … with every conceivable flower and exotic plant from the East’. The island had one, octagonal, house with no electricity or running water and everyone slept together in a large communal room. Each morning without fail Paul would wake before dawn, walk the length of his dominion in a sarong, greet the sunrise and then settle down to work. Each day without fail Jane would drink large quantities of gin and procrastinate and hate herself for procrastinating. At night she couldn’t sleep and spent hours watching the sharp-toothed fruit bats hanging in the trees.
By this time, Bowles was taking Serpasil for high blood pressure and, though she didn’t know it, the drug combined disastrously with the booze, bringing on severe depression and reducing mental capacity. Her hair started to fall out and she feared she would be bald within a year. She had always thought herself ‘as indestructible as an armoured truck’ but she was reaching the limits of her endurance. While living in paradise – or Paul’s idea of paradise – she had a nervous breakdown.
Bowles carried on trying to write but never finished another piece of fiction. She seems to have taken the early reviews to heart, declaring that ‘Two Serious Ladies never was a novel’ – it was ‘ridiculous, a joke, too light’ – and that she wanted her new book to be ‘entirely different’. I wonder if this is partly the curse of being a funny writer. ‘Bowles probably had more fun writing her book than those who read it,’ one early critic said, but the opposite was true. It must have been tempting to try to write a joke-less book – at least then people might believe that she was wracked by pain and therefore a real artist. No matter how much we know about Bowles’s struggles, Two Serious Ladies still feels effortless. And she never did write that ‘entirely different’ novel. The surviving fragments of her unfinished book – Going to Massachusetts – are not at all different and are, for that reason, a joy.
Ageing was always going to be difficult for an ‘eternal urchin’. ‘If you were to devise how best to undermine the mind of a writer,’ a London doctor told Paul after Jane’s stroke left her with aphasia, ‘you couldn’t think of a more effective means than this.’ She had been fluent in Arabic, French and Spanish, and famous for mimicry, but now she got her words mixed up, confusing ‘high’ for ‘low’, ‘she’ for ‘he’. When trying to summon the term ‘aphasia’, she wrote: ‘There was a special word for that but I can’t remember what it was we used it all the time.’ She said that she was staying alive ‘on the hope that someday I will be able to write again’. Even here, at her lowest, her sentences were distinctive: ‘But I am not crazy and was never crazy and only fear will drive me crazy.’
The last years of her life were punctuated by hectic stints in Tangiers and periods of recovery in various psychiatric hospitals in southern Spain. Before her death in 1973, she converted to Catholicism and was baptised. Paul suspected that the nuns in her convent hospital had manipulated her but, in a way, it makes sense. She had always rejected organised religion – including that of her own Jewish family – and yet she kept coming back to it, even if in mockery. ‘Most of all I would like to be a religious leader,’ she often joked. Her characters are obsessed with sin and salvation, though they often confuse them. She was drawn towards things she found incomprehensible and, particularly, towards things she feared. She once came home shoeless, having been walking around the docks at four in the morning. Paul asked her why she had gone there. ‘Because that was the one place I didn’t want to be,’ she said. ‘I had to or I couldn’t face myself in the mirror tomorrow’. What could be scarier for a godless person than submitting to a God she didn’t believe in?
For a long time, Bowles’s grave in Málaga was unmarked, strewn with rubbish, and virtually undiscoverable in a Catholic cemetery that, in the mid-1990s, was due to be cleared to make room for a motorway. Since nobody, including Paul, would claim the grave (he didn’t ‘believe in graves’), it took a Spanish teenager who had read about her life to campaign for its preservation – and to pay for it with her own money. In 1999, Bowles finally got a headstone. The grave was tended by Padre José, a fan of her work. He had read all her writing in translation and even had a shrine – which included photographs and a lock of her hair – on a table next to his bed. How had the padre got hold of what Capote once called her ‘dahlia-head of cropped curly hair’? When they moved the bones from the old plot to the new one, he transferred them himself, cradling her skull in his arms.
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