If you’re not a lesbian, get the hell out

Lidija Haas

  • Everything 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.

Born in New York City in 1917, Bowles was an only child from a comfortable, non-practising Jewish family. Both parents had been born in the US, but Bowles’s cousin recalled their joint annoyance when ‘the Aunts’ (there were six sisters) ‘constantly made asides to each other in Hungarian’. Her mother was effusive in her love for Jane, who apparently much preferred her father’s reserve: ‘German Jews,’ she said to Paul later, ‘are more civilised.’ Her father died suddenly of hypertension when Jane was 13, leaving her alone with her mother – ‘the worst thing that could have happened’. At the age of 14 she fell from a horse and broke her leg; after several operations she developed tuberculosis of the knee and spent two years in a Swiss sanatorium, where she was in traction a lot of the time. Her knee wouldn’t heal: eventually she had another operation to stiffen the joint, leaving her with a permanent limp. In the clinic she developed various phobias that stayed with her for years, but she also read a great many French writers: Proust, Gide, Céline. On the boat back to America in 1934, Céline himself noticed her reading Voyage au bout de la nuit and started a conversation; back in New York, she told her mother she was going to be a writer.

Her confidence had grown: she went adventuring in Greenwich Village bars, wrote a novel in French – Le Phaéton Hypocrite, a play on the myth of Phaeton, the sun god’s child who loses control of his father’s chariot; all copies have been lost – and was embraced by a prominent Manhattan salon, whose members found everything she said ‘weird and screamingly funny’. Set up on a double date with friends of friends, she sent the other girl home in tears: ‘Now I’m going to count ten,’ she told her in the bathroom, ‘and if you’re not a lesbian, get the hell out of here.’ Not long after that she met and married Paul, a composer a few years older than her: she was twenty. She had short hair and smoked Cuban cigars – she’d sometimes refer to herself as ‘Crippie, the Kike Dyke’. A complicity developed between them: though initially they’d talked about marrying as if it were a prank, and though they stopped sleeping together within the first couple of years, they remained devoted to each other for life. They both briefly joined the Communist Party, though Jane had no particular interest in politics. They fought: Paul told Dillon he hit Jane more than once in that early period, and in his memoir describes feeling hurt when on their honeymoon in Central America she began staying out all night without him. ‘Jane was not one,’ he writes, ‘to change as a result of my suggestions.’ Her love affairs were all with women; Paul’s were often with men. Men, she told him, ‘are all on the outside, not interesting’, whereas women ‘are profound and mysterious – and obscene’.

Their married life was famously nomadic, and though they often lived separately they usually arranged to be near one another. They moved in and out of various scenes: for a while they lived in the Chelsea Hotel, and then in a shared house in Brooklyn with Auden and Benjamin Britten; from the late 1940s on, they spent a number of years in the international zone of Tangier, where other writers – the Beats especially – sought them out. But it was in the first decade of their marriage that Bowles wrote almost all the fiction she ever published, beginning with Two Serious Ladies. Paul said of the early sections she showed him in 1939 that he’d ‘never seen anything like it before. So many things were left out.’ In its published form – on Paul’s advice she radically cut the manuscript, conceived as ‘Three Serious Ladies’ – the novel traces a double quest: Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, acquaintances who meet only incidentally near the beginning and again at the end, each set out on a journey, abandoning the life one might have expected them to lead. Wealthy Christina Goering, with a couple of impoverished companions in tow, leaves her comforts behind and forces herself into ever more awkward and dangerous situations – preferably involving ‘sinister’ men – in her search for ‘my own little idea of salvation’; Mrs Copperfield, on a trip to Panama that’s in the loosest sense a parody of the Bowles honeymoon, leaves her husband for a local prostitute called Pacifica. Though there’s an apparent parallel between the two, Mrs Copperfield’s quest is the opposite of Christina’s. Instead of confronting her fears and trying to force a way through them, she’s looking for reassurance, comfort, to be cocooned in an ‘old dream’. Yet the story is stranger and more disorienting than this suggests, progressing mostly through echoes and variations on certain phrases, ideas and images. ‘To attempt to unravel the plot would be to risk … one’s own sanity,’ Edith Walton said in the New York Times Book Review. Inverted clichés come to seem self-evidently true; rich people, for instance, ‘want to be liked for their money too, and not only for themselves’. Characters give extremely explicit accounts of their own qualities and motives, which then often seem to have no connection with their actual behaviour.

In the opening pages, 13-year-old Christina – she has ‘the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being’ – ropes a schoolfriend into a game called ‘I forgive you for all your sins’, in which she has to take her dress off and be baptised in mud, then water. ‘It’s not for fun that we play it,’ Christina says, ‘but because it’s necessary to play it.’ This first scene is re-enacted in small ways through the rest of the story: in the links between sexual excitement and degradation, mud and salvation; in unlikely things done not for fun but out of necessity; in a kind of consummation in which Pacifica carries Mrs Copperfield into the sea. At times the narrative voice comes close to free indirect style, but more often the characters observe and discuss themselves and one another with a detachment caricaturing that of a third-person narrator: one of her threatening men reminds Christina ‘of certain comedians who are at last given a secondary tragic role and execute it rather well’; ‘you’ll forgive me,’ he says to her, ‘if I sound morose to a gay woman like yourself, but I have a habit of never paying attention to whoever I am talking to.’ There is a similarity of tone in much of Bowles’s dialogue, but each character’s speech even so remains distinct. One of Christina’s hangers-on, Arnold, works in real estate but longs to be doing ‘something, naturally, in the book line, or in the painting line’; the morose man she picks up describes his ex-fiancée: ‘Her legs were something to take pictures of … She was a plain girl with an ordinary mind and she used to get a tremendous kick out of life’; Pacifica observes that men ‘don’t like to see women cry … Women have got to laugh all night. You watch some pretty girl one time. When she laughs she is ten years older. That is because she does it so much.’

The novel has a playful attitude to its own narrative responsibilities: ‘How amusing,’ Mrs Copperfield says of an anecdote, ‘or perhaps it was depressing’; going off with someone she’s just met in the street, ‘she had a feeling that this girl would be all right. Like most people, she never really believed that one terrible thing would happen after another.’ There’s also a thread of absurdist, puppet-show violence: someone unexpectedly conks someone else on the head or gives her a bloody nose; Mrs Copperfield lets in the angry man banging on Pacifica’s bedroom door because ‘nothing could be worse than this suspense’; as he beats up Pacifica, the owner of the place reassures Mrs Copperfield that people ‘do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering’.

Bowles dedicated the novel, published in 1943, to Paul, her mother, and Helvetia Perkins, her live-in lover at the time, but though Paul admired it very much, the others disapproved – it was too peculiar, too overtly lesbian – and most reviewers agreed with them. She always had a small circle of devotees – the producer Oliver Smith commissioned her to write a play that year, and kept giving her money over the decade it took her to finish it. But the general incomprehension and dismissal discouraged her, and when asked for a new story for an anthology she claimed she had nothing to give. It was Paul who, several times, coaxed her back into print, insisting that some of the discarded sections of ‘Three Serious Ladies’ would work as stories in their own right: this didn’t meet her standards – work once found wanting should stay scrapped – but he was a professional, who apparently told friends he never wrote music that wasn’t commissioned (‘he would only compose what he was paid for’). ‘A Guatemalan Idyll’ and ‘A Day in the Open’, published in 1944 and 1945 respectively, do work as stories – Paul was right – and it’s strange to read them in a different context in Everything Is Nice, where they are placed side by side with a third chunk of the original manuscript (edited by Paul and Millicent Dillon after Jane’s death) in a section headed ‘The Third Serious Lady’. The new volume offers brief notes explaining the publication history of the pieces, including one identifying ‘A Guatemalan Idyll’ as the original beginning of ‘Three Serious Ladies’. This conjures up a very different kind of book, much looser in its framing, with more room to explore its minor characters – the third lady, Señorita Córdoba, appears only sporadically in the first story – and with its darker currents closer to the surface.

Still, the three pieces operate with a slanting internal logic similar to that of the published novel, patterns of words or images recurring in different guises, as in a nightmare or a joke. ‘A Guatemalan Idyll’ follows an unnamed American ‘traveller’ taking a few days’ holiday at a pension after a business trip. Also at the pension are two young sisters, Consuelo and Lilina – the latter described by a local boy as someone ‘who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first’ – and their dissatisfied mother, Señora Ramirez, who seduces first the American and then a young local in the grounds of a convent. After unenthusiastically sleeping with Señora Ramirez the traveller feels ‘as though he had somehow slipped from the real world into the other world, the world that he had always imagined as a little boy to be inhabited by assassins and orphans, and children whose mothers went to work’; he’s relieved to be heading home, where things make sense. There is a Señor Ramirez, who appears in both the other pieces. In ‘A Day in the Open’, he and a friend take two prostitutes, Inez and the ailing Julia, on a picnic. He insists on carrying Julia into a river near a waterfall – ‘he liked nothing better than performing little feats that were assured of success from the beginning’ – and enjoys telling her that if he let go, ‘the current would carry you along like a leaf over the falls, and then one of those big rocks would make a hole in your head.’ Then, as the current eases, he gets careless and trips, hitting Julia’s head on a stone: ‘It started to bleed profusely,’ and Ramirez wastes no time in dumping the women back where they came from. In the third piece, Ramirez replays in miniature his escapade with Julia: insisting he can catch a chicken that has got loose inside his friend’s bar, he slips and crushes it underneath him. Handing its corpse to a servant, the two men ‘had another brandy together and did not bother to clean up the blood and the feathers which stuck both to one side of Señor Ramirez’s coat and to the floor’.

Bowles’s strongest story is ‘Camp Cataract’, in which one sister, Sadie, follows another, Harriet, to a holiday resort. Harriet has taken refuge from their claustrophobic apartment, where the dining room is so narrow guests have to sit down on one side of the table and pull it in ‘until its edge pressed painfully into their diaphragms’ to make room for the others. A third, married sister, Evelyn, lives with them and is always announcing her own normality, examining the other two for further signs of instability: ‘At a picture show,’ she says, ‘I feel like the norm’; ‘I’m wide open, I’m frank, there’s nothing on my mind besides what I say.’ Like Mrs Copperfield’s, Harriet’s isn’t a real voyage out: she thinks of Camp Cataract as a ‘tree house’, a safe place where she can build up habits and roots as she would at home. Sadie is zealous in her devotion to domesticity and desperate to bring Harriet back, but Bowles makes it clear that her true, submerged feelings are utterly different, and all the more potent for being entirely divorced from the real life she leads; Sadie is the story’s true escape artist.

*

Though she wrote a couple of other stories in the late 1940s, it was in this period, just as Paul began to publish his own fiction to immediate and ongoing acclaim, that Bowles developed a serious block. Seeing the attention that came his way may not have helped; she was told that at Knopf, publisher of Two Serious Ladies, ‘they pretend never to have heard of me.’ Yet the crucial difference between them was in their working methods, and in what they understood writing to be: Paul told Dillon that Jane couldn’t bring herself to ‘use the hammer and the nails that were there. She had to manufacture her own hammer and all the nails.’ When she read him bits of ‘Out in the World’, the novel she began to write, or to try to write, in 1949 and never completed, she felt that what he liked were the parts that sounded most like Two Serious Ladies, and she had no interest in repeating herself – hence the notebooks crammed with false starts, rewritings, crossings out. Reading her manuscripts had spurred him to become a writer himself, but he seems to have known that the work she produced was less conventional than his – the problem was that ‘what she wanted to do was more than she could do, more than perhaps anyone could do.’

Her much revised play about mothers and daughters, In the Summer House, made it to Broadway at the end of 1953, but closed within weeks, and was met with the familiar hostile puzzlement among critics. She hadn’t intended to be obscure; she said to Paul that for the theatre, ‘you had to make everything so clear that nobody would miss it.’ It seems unsurprising that her interest in passionate (but also ambivalent) attachments between women, and in the inner lives of women generally, wasn’t shared by an especially wide audience at the time, but she didn’t want to be a minor cult: she told a Vogue interviewer there was ‘no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends’. She began another play at once, but again finished nothing. A few years later, she had the stroke that took out part of her field of vision and caused aphasia: its cognitive effects were drastic. The neurologist who supervised her case told Dillon that ‘if you were to devise how best to undermine the mind of a writer, you couldn’t think of a more effective means than this.’

There were rumours that Cherifa, the Moroccan lover she was then living with, had poisoned her and caused the stroke, but they seem just to have been part of the witchy mystique. Bowles had problems with her blood pressure, and took medications that were dangerous when combined with alcohol – and she had been drinking heavily for years. After the stroke, though there were still many brighter periods before her death in 1973, there were also fits, palpitations, trouble with reading and visualising, hospitalisations, ECT. Her fears – always intense; even small decisions could cause her crippling anxiety – worsened as she faced the possibility that her mind and body would keep deteriorating. Acquaintances who had previously taken her for a charming oddity were alarmed, and stayed away. Some of the stroke’s effects could seem a cruel literalisation of the traps she’d felt lying in wait for her long before. ‘I must write, but I can’t write,’ she used to say, and spoke of reaching a point ‘when there is no possibility of escape, as if the spirit were a box hitting at the walls of the head’. Now she struggled to produce short compositions for her language therapist and told him: ‘Every word is like chiselling in granite.’

Even before she stopped finishing things, her work suggested an ambivalence about endings: the final pages of ‘Camp Cataract’ contain several endings, one inside another; In the Summer House was rewritten to finish in three different ways, and none seems definitive. The temptation to weave Bowles’s life and work into a single arc, to read some prophetic pattern into her writings, is strong – and she herself didn’t always resist it. ‘God is punishing me for not writing,’ she told a friend after the stroke. ‘Of all the diseases I could have picked for myself this is the worst, not to see, not to be able to write.’ ‘A Stick of Green Candy’, which describes a young girl’s loss of mastery over her imaginary world as the adult world erodes it, reads all the more bleakly in the knowledge that it was the last story she ever finished, in 1949.

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In Heroines, her manifesto cum memoir, Kate Zambreno identifies with Bowles as one of the ‘erased’ or neglected ‘mad wives of modernism’, all forced into a similar ‘rhythm’: ‘a long scream followed by absolute silence’. It’s true that the second half of Dillon’s biography traces a long and distressing decline, with no new published work to alleviate it. There are only the notebooks, now held by the University of Texas. Everything Is Nice contains most of the short extracts that have been published before and it isn’t clear whether there is more that could one day be salvaged. Dillon revisited the notebooks a few years after her biography was published and wrote an essay suggesting that the proliferation and fragmentation of storylines and characters in them may have been the beginning of a new and experimental form, rather than the failure Bowles herself took them for. Yet Bowles had a rather clear picture of the book she’d wanted ‘Out in the World’ to be: like a 19th-century novel, she told Paul, but with each character representing an abstraction – a cross between Balzac and a medieval morality play.

In the mid-1960s there was a revival of interest in her work: Two Serious Ladies was reprinted by a London publisher, followed by Plain Pleasures, a collection of stories Paul put together more or less against her will (she said she’d lost all the copies, but he’d kept them; when she said there weren’t enough stories for a book, he put a non-fiction piece she’d written for Mademoiselle into the third person as ‘Everything Is Nice’). Farrar, Straus published her Collected Works to good reviews, but when a friend brought his copy along on a visit to the sanatorium in Málaga where she’d been admitted, she added the words ‘of Dead Jane Bowles’ to the title page. She’d gained a new kind of recognition but was still, in John Ashbery’s description, a ‘writer’s writer’s writer’, and the emphasis on her originality as a prose stylist and as a weird and wonderful creature has often functioned as a backhanded compliment, casting her as a tortured eccentric, her writing a neurotic symptom. It’s clear from the difference between the work she considered finished and the rest that her highly wrought effects were hard-won – results of the work ethic that eventually became such a hindrance. Dillon reads Bowles’s life through her preoccupations with secular sin and salvation, as a ‘story of the imagination as evil’ and of the inevitably complicated fate of a child who ‘knew and felt and dreamed what other children did not’. Though Paul’s testimony gave Dillon so much of her material, he said afterwards that she had made the book ‘a tragedy’, not understanding that ‘the most important thing about Jane was her sense of humour.’ In any case, to make Bowles a tragedy is to privilege the life over the work. People were struck by the fact that Paul originally had Bowles buried in an unmarked grave, but it makes sense that he should have both done that and worked so hard to keep her in print.