Jane Bowles, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1951
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
-W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939
Though I’ve read Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies several times, it remains to me the strangest of novels. I can never fully recall what happens within its entwined and peripatetic plots, and with each reading the book seems nearly as surprising and odd as the first time. Certain words and phrases culled from the text could describe the work itself: “gloriously unpredictable,” for example, or “a train ride into the blue.” The narrative’s almost child-like quality contrasts with its close, even dreadful atmosphere, a style suggestive of the running narrative a couple of precocious and not-so-innocent children might concoct while playing with dolls.
This disconnect appears on the first page, where a blithe description of the privileged childhood of one of Bowles’ “serious ladies,” Christina Goering, swerves dangerously in a single sentence: “Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.” At this discordant note, the reader may give a second thought to the character’s charged family name, and the uneasy distance only increases when, just afterwards, the child Goering orders her sister Sophie’s friend into muddy water in order to try to wash away the girl’s sins.
Describing the action of Two Serious Ladies poses a challenge to the reviewer. Awash in alcohol, the narrative also includes dreams, and the novel as a whole possesses a woozy, dream-like ambiance, or as Miss Goering says of one of her own perceptions, something “like a dream that is remembered long after it has been dreamed.” Indeed, many of the novel’s sparsely placed but arresting images arise as though having welled up from subconscious sources to stand like the puzzling objects in a Giorgio de Chirico painting: a fire engine glowing red in the night; a blue peacock mosaic on the floor of a depressing apartment building; a garden enclosed by barbed wire, beneath which a dog is trying to crawl; a woman with no arms or legs.
Divided into three parts, the narrative follows the adult Miss Goering as she invites to live with her a Miss Gamelon, the exotically-named cousin of Miss Goering’s childhood governess. At a party Miss Goering briefly encounters an old friend – Bowles’ other “serious” lady, Mrs. Copperfield, who admits her dread of an upcoming trip to Panama – then goes home with another party guest, Arnold, and meets Arnold’s indignant mother and spry, lively father. At home later, Miss Goering announces that she intends to leave her fancy house for “some more tawdry place” on a nearby island. Abandoning this story, the novel’s second part follows Mrs. Copperfield to Panama, where, as her husband goes off to explore the jungle, Mrs. Copperfield returns to the run-down hotel/brothel where she’s befriended a teenage prostitute, Pacifica, and the hotel’s proprietor, Mrs. Quill. The narrative returns in the third part to Miss Goering, Miss Gamelon, Arnold and Arnold’s father, now sharing Miss Goering’s “tawdry” new home, and introduces other characters Miss Goering encounters during nighttime excursions into the town across from the island. The novel culminates in a bar in which Miss Goering and Miss Copperfield meet again as though for the purpose of comparing their respective (mis)adventures.
Despite the novel’s lugubrious atmosphere – Truman Capote described Bowles’ settings as “every room an atrocity, every urban landscape a neon-dourness” - Two Serious Ladies repeatedly surprises the reader with flashes of sharp wit, humorous situational irony, evanescent moments of happiness or tranquility, and above all a deep quirkiness in its characters that is both memorable and anchored by a sense of moral force. Conventional, Bowles’ two serious ladies are not, and indeed they make a point of embracing non-conformity, as Miss Goering, who has been a typist for famous authors, asserts:
I think, though, that you can make friends more quickly with queer people. Or else you don’t make friends with them at all – one way or the other. Many of my authors were very queer. In that way I’ve had an advantage of association that most people don’t have. I know something about what I call real honest-to-God maniacs.
The novel is full of oddballs, most perched unsteadily on the dulled edge of some psychological longing or frustration. Paranoia, detachment, alienation, misunderstanding – these qualities of relation rub up against the instant and even fond attachments that coalesce and dissolve throughout the story. The men in Two Serious Ladies appear largely self-absorbed, ineffectual, even brutish, their characters and motivations revealed in withering clarity. Arnold is a milquetoast; Mr. Copperfield seeks out authentic travel “experiences” while dismissing his wife’s attachments to the local prostitutes. Toby, a client at the Hotel de Las Palmas who latches onto Mrs. Quill, proves an unscrupulous profiteer. One of Pacifica’s clients splits her lip – one of several episodes of violence in Two Serious Ladies. Andy, a man whom Christina Goering meets in a bar then moves in with briefly, is presumptuous and washed up. His successor in Miss Goering’s adventures, Ben, a gangster, makes no bones about seeing women as existing only to satisfy his every whim. Even the most appealing male character, Arnold’s father, admits to a tyrannical relationship with a wife he resents and even “knock[s]…around all day long.” But a few of these men display occasional moments of remorse or thoughtfulness, as when Arnold’s father pens a beseeching letter to his wife, or when Andy, when pressed for why he didn’t reveal a morbid sexual obsession to the girl he once intended to marry, replies that he “wanted the buildings to stay in place for her and…the stars to be over her head and not cockeyed.”
Against most of Bowles’ characters, her two “serious ladies” stand out through a drive that impels them to confront their fears and an awareness of themselves as beings capable of choice and self-determination. “The idea,’ said Miss Goering, ‘is to change first of our own volition and according to our own inner promptings before they impose completely arbitrary changes on us.’” The women’s motivations too are presented starkly, albeit with qualifiers. Mrs. Copperfield’s “sole object in life,” the narrator tells us, “was to be happy, although people who had observed her behavior over a period of years would have been surprised to discover that this was all.” Miss Goering, intent on working out her “own little idea of salvation,” repeatedly responds to questions about her behavior by noting that it’s not for fun that she does what she does, but because “it is necessary.” Attainment of the ideals of both women is a near constant struggle involving dynamic tensions between autonomy and dependence, attraction and repulsion, domesticity and travel, safety and daring, insularity and expansiveness, peace and violence, tyranny and timidity. Dualities and binaries recur throughout Two Serious Ladies (including, obviously, in the title), as though Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield form a single dialectical unit representing characteristics and choices both opposed and complementary.
In their rejection of convention and embrace of asserting their own volition, and even as they sink to the lower depths, Bowles’ serious ladies display a questing, even moral quality. They are not eccentric simply to be eccentric. Christina in particular is determined to conquer her fears; her sojourns out of the house seem equal parts Homeric odyssey and Dantesque descent, as she sails, or rather, takes the ferry, across water - a thematic motif running throughout Two Serious Ladies. Repeatedly, Miss Goering plunges into the water, coercing others to join her or leaving them behind on an island, including Miss Gamelon, who admits to an insurmountable inability to cross a big body of water, a fear that has prevented her from fulfilling her dreams and which, one can surmise, excludes her from being “serious.” Mrs. Copperfield resists water and is terrified when her Pacifica offers to teach her how to swim, but submits nonetheless, her vulnerability poignantly revealed as she hangs on “hard to Pacifica’s thigh with the strength of years of sorrow and frustration in her hand.”
But the moral dimension of these women seems unmoored from any conventional morality. Despite frequent allusions to religion, such as Mrs. Goering’s quest for sainthood and a reference to Mrs. Copperfield’s being of l’age du Christ, Bowles’ serious ladies follow a vague internal compass. “It is against my entire code,” proclaims Miss Goering in response to Arnold’s invitation to spend the night, “but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.” And when Miss Goering accuses Mrs. Copperfield of having gone to pieces, Mrs. Copperfield retorts, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.” Whither that compass may lead them and whether it’s in the right direction or not seems nearly beside the point when a life choice is always of interest, but perhaps not of importance, as Miss Goering opines, simultaneously wondering if, though she feels nearer to sainthood, something inside “hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield.”
Claire Messud’s introduction to a new edition of Two Serious Ladies, while focusing on the unconventionality of the novel and the characters, barely skirts the important context in which Bowles’ novel was born. Bowles composed Two Serious Ladies in the early 1940’s as fascism marched across Europe. Although aside from the resonant name “Goering” there is nothing manifest in Two Serious Ladies regarding the dire events unfolding in the world, anxiety about the war seems as subsumed into the narrative as the sea seems contained in an oyster. Messud also omits mention of the “February House” in Brooklyn Heights, the creative furnace in which Bowles lived with her husband Paul, Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, the burlesque and Broadway performer Gypsy Rose Lee, and the house’s founder, the charismatic editor George Davis, with an almost infinite parade of the most notable artists and writers of the time passing through, including many, like Klaus and Erika Mann and Salvador and Gala Dalí, fleeing the horrors of the Europe. W. H. Auden was particularly involved in inspiring and influencing Bowles’ work on Two Serious Ladies; the novel’s questions of choice and morality in a world in which humanity seems abandoned to its own devices and sinking into a terrible conformity echo those found in much of Auden’s most searching work of the time. Sherrell Tippins, in February House, a study of the community, notes both authors’ fascination with Franz Kafka, especially Kafka’s implicit questioning of original sin in a world in which God is non-existent - or arbitrary, indifferent, asleep.
Two Serious Ladies grapples with difficult questions and eschews easy answers. Its style is breathtakingly original. Its peculiar realism, which starkly presents life as a panoply of choices, a grasping in a world of violence and alienation but also of intrepidness and small kindnesses, is infused with a strangeness that pushes it towards a haunting surrealism. But above all, its mesmerizing, complex binary characters are what truly stand out in the novel. In one of the few instances in Two Serious Ladies in which Bowles actually employs the word “serious” (aside from in the title), Arnold complains of his “more and more…insupportable” life, wishing to switch to something “in the book line, or in the painting line,” noting that his family “doesn’t believe that such an occupation is serious.” Arnold’s father instead dismisses his son as lacking the capacity to be an artist, which requires “a certain amount of brawn and pluck and character.” One can see in Bowles’ two serious ladies - eccentric, courageous, awful, frail, determined, perhaps even damned - no small amount of brawn and pluck and character, an unfiltered embrace of curiosity regarding the world around them, a struggle to create themselves anew, horrid warts and all, to wrest a bit of self-determination and a lot of originality from a darkening world. In delivering us her only novel, as singular and daring and discomfiting a work as one can find in any literature, Jane Bowles has displayed the same.
Many thanks to the Dolce Bellezza blog for organizing this group read of Two Serious Ladies!