Ecco recently reissued a paperback edition of Jane Bowles’ novel, Two Serious Ladies, which was first published in 1943. The blurb on the cover is by Tennessee Williams: “My favorite book. I can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic.”
Are you in?
I loved her husband Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, and, as is so often the case, tI thought I might like the wife’s novel if I liked the husband’s, though that hypothesis is illogical.
In this case, could two styles be more different?
I do want to reread this, because there is so much there.
Jane Bowles’ short elegant novel is comically transcendent, weird, preposterous, and laced with Catholic symbolism. She wrote very intensely about freakish characters who certainly do not inhabit my world. According to the introduction by Claire Messud, Bowles envied Carson McCullers, and though I consider McCullers a much better writer, certainly one can see the similarity in their obsession with grotesque characters.
Two Serious Ladies is essentially two short stories, slapped together a bit rawly, though Bowles’ style is elegantly minimialist. The two serious heroines find self-knowledge through a downward spiralling through friendships with oddballs and dropouts, sex and prostitution. Christina Goering, a wealthy, eccentric, young woman, was so isolated as a child that, when she finally had a chance to play, she created a game called “I forgive you for all your sins.” As an adult, she supports a very odd menage consisting of her companion, Miss Gamelyn, Arnold, a chubby realtor, and, for a while, Arnold’s retired father.
When she first meets Miss Gameylyn, she asks if she has a guardian angel. Miss Gamelyn doesn’t know what she means.
“Yours might be luck; mine is money. Most people have a guardian angel; that’s why they move slowly.”
Her spiritual quest takes her from her parents’ enormous house to a small cold house with no central heating. Miss Gamelyn thinks the move is ridiculous, but to Christina the move is necessary. Then she begins to take trips alone at night into a nearby town, where she has sex with a stranger.
Her friend, Mrs. Copperfield, a silly woman who lacks Christina’s intensity, takes a trip with her husband to Panama. They stay in a hotel in the Red Light District, because Mr. Copperfield is cheap, and after she befriends a hotel owner and a teenage prostitute in another Red Light District, she leaves her husband.
By the end of the novel, Mrs. Copperfield is a drunk and so obsessed with her prostitute friend that she is almost sick.
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.”
Yes, my ten minutes is up.
This is a fascinating novel.