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’.

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