Every once in a while I stumble across a book I’ve never heard of before that completely enchants me. The only thing better than this is turning to the front matter of said-enchanting book and seeing a long list of titles beneath the heading “Other Works by the Same Author.” I found Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies in Shakespeare & Co., read the back cover, skimmed one or two of the reviews, and knew I’d found something special almost before I really began to read it. I also knew, thanks to the introduction, that the book was her only novel, and that the rest of her small oeuvre consists only of a single play and a handful of short stories.
I’d never heard of Bowles before, though she was a contemporary of one of my favorite writers, Carson McCullers, and the friend of several well-known authors and artists including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Born Jane Sydney Auer to an affluent New York family in 1917, Bowles suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and the illness left her with a permanent limp.
Cover of "Two Serious Ladies", by Jane Bowles.
In 1938 she married the writer Paul Bowles, though each continued to have other lovers: she, mostly women and he mostly men. She published Two Serious Ladies in 1943, and her sole play, In the Summer House, in 1953. After years of difficult health problems Bowles passed away in 1973, six years after McCullers (who, like Bowles, was also born in 1917).
Two Serious Ladies is the story of two women, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, and their adventures in the world, their search for new experiences, for understanding and for salvation, in some form or another. Mrs. Copperfield goes on a trip to central American with her husband (an episode taken from Bowles’ own honeymoon with her husband, Paul), where she falls in love with the Spanish-Panamanian prostitute, Pacifica. Miss Goering, a New York heiress, abandons her comfortable home for a cramped, unheated wooden house in an area so bad she can “smell the glue factories.” Both women are in search of something, something vague and unidentifiable, something like truth.
Bowles is really a singular writer—her style is reminiscent of other authors I’ve read, but it remains in every moment very much her own. To give you a sense of her writing, here is a passage from the middle of the novel, describing Miss Goering in her new, dilapidated house with her companion, Miss Gamelon and her friend Arnold.
They sat in silence for a few moments. Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head, inundating her with perfume and making quite a deep cut just above her forehead. She started to bleed profusely and sat for a moment with her hands over her eyes.
“I didn’t actually mean to draw blood,” said Arnold leaning out the window. “I just meant to give her a start.”
Miss Goering, although she was beginning to regard Miss Gamelon more and more as the embodiment of evil, made a swift and compassionate gesture toward her friend.
“Oh, my dear, let me get you something to disinfect that cut with.” She went into the house and passed Arnold in the hall. He was standing with his hand on the front door, unable to decide whether to stay in or go out. When Miss Goering came down again with the medicine, Arnold had disappeared.
To use a term that’s sterilizingly over-technical, the way that Bowles’ writes diffuses the sense of agency attached to the characters in her novel. “Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head.” Bowles doesn’t write “…when suddenly Albert broke a bottle against her head,” which is what the next line reveals to have happened. Initially, she leaves out the actor and shows only the action. Things just seem to happen, to arrive, and not always inline with the intention which impelled their happening in the first place; as Albert says, “I didn’t actually mean to draw blood…I just meant to give her a start.” It’s as if things are done merely to see what will happen, or things themselves simply happen and in so doing reveal themselves a little bit for what they truly are.
This style of writing echoes the attitude of Bowles’ two “serious” ladies, both of whom do things as much to see what will happen as to effect any ultimate goal. They are after reaction more than action, and both Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering seem to watch their own lives unfold with an attitude of affable and curious self-scrutiny. They are on the watch for those flashes of unintentional honesty (if honesty is the right word to use—openness might perhaps be better), those instants of almost debilitating self-knowledge that reveal, for a moment, something of one’s true identity.
Jane Bowles in New York City, 1946, by Karl Bissinger. From the front matter of "Two Serious Ladies."
I adored this book and Bowles’ characters for seeking out these moments—moments I know from my own best writing—and also for recognizing the daunting murkiness that fills the rest of life. Take for instance this passage, which occurs shortly after the bottle-breaking incident.
“While [Miss Goering} was still outside, Miss Gamelon seated in the parlor before an empty fireplace, felt that all of God’s wrath had descended upon her own head. The world and the people in it had suddenly slipped beyond her comprehension and she felt in great danger of losing the whole world once and for all—a feeling that is difficult to explain.”
This book approaches a lot of things that are difficult to explain, but it does so in a way that is incredibly stylish, compassionate and witty. And while it is often a very funny book, it is also often melancholy and at times deeply sad, because at its heart, it is a book about people who feel quite often unrooted and alone, even in their own parlor, surrounded by friends. Amidst all the color and the wit, there’s a sombre underlying suggestion that the moments of clarity and love which punctuate the greying muddle of human life may themselves be only a distraction: interesting, but ultimately, not important.
In the end I really loved this book; the only disappointing thing about it is that Bowles never wrote another. For better and for worse, Two Serious Ladies is truly one of a kind.
If you liked Two Serious Ladies: I recommend Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, or Truman Capote (whose memoir of Jane Bowles, incidentally, is included in my addition of the novel).
Note: If you try to track down Two Serious Ladies (which I highly recommend you do!) you may run into some problems, as the older editions are out of print, and the edition I just purchased is from a UK publisher and hasn’t been released yet in the US. It should be out in the fall (and if you’re desperate before then, and you promise to return it, I’ll let you borrow mine).