Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Two Serious Ladies

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!


  1. This sounds like a most extraordinary book novel, so strange and distinctive. Even though I'm trying to steer away from buying too many books, I'm sufficiently intrigued to add it to my wishlist. Thank you for piquing my interest.

    PS Nice commentary on the imagery. I couldn't help but think of Silvina Ocampo as she studied art in Paris under Giorgio de Chirico.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui - "a most extraordinary novel" indeed, and one you should certainly add to your wishlist.

      It's astounding how many Venn diagrams one might be able to make that show various circles and schools of writers overlapping with the circle of Giorgio de Chirico. In reading a bit further late last night in Sherrell Tipton's book February House, about the extraordinary cultural nexus where Two Serious Ladies was written, I felt awed and even a bit vindicated to learn that among the many paintings in the house was one by de Chirico.

  2. A novel with odd characters and an unconventional narrative wounds like something that I would like to read.

    It seems a pity that Jane Bowles only wrote one novel.

    Brilliant commentary as always.

    1. Thanks so much, Brian. And yes, it's indeed a pity that she wrote only one novel (though apparently worked on another - never finished - for quite a number of years). On the other hand, the small output means that you can get nearly all of her fiction in one place, the collection entitled My Sister's Hand in Mine, which also contains her Broadway play In the Summer House and her fantastic long story Camp Cataract.

  3. It amazes me how much Bowles was able to convey in this seemingly simple book. Her prose moves along so smoothly, in almost a dreamlike (drunk-like?) way that it isn't until I reflected on the book (and Claire's post and yours) that I see how complex it truly is. Surely it would bear several rereads, each time revealing something more.

    Someone left a comment on my blog, a reader I don't know, about how tragic Jane Bowles' life was. I see many aspects of her life in the book, a certain alienation in particular.

    I'm so appreciative of you bringing this book to my attention, and there would have been no read-along had it not been for your suggestion of such a fascinating novel. And, the way you write about what you've read quite takes my breath away.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks very much, Bellezza, both for the kind comments and for enabling this group read to happen! Obviously I feel the novel more than bears several rereads, and I felt that while I got quite a bit out of this one, I've still only begun to scratch the surface.

      I saw that comment on your blog and responded to it. While it's true that there are many autobiographical details woven into Two Serious Ladies, I did not think the comment did justice to the richness of the Bowles' lives and contributions. Jane's life was indeed marked by a lot of suffering and anxiety, but apparently by a good deal of joy too and by an almost incomparable immersion into the cultural life of her time. She put a tremendous amount of effort put into her writing, which did not come easily to her. If Two Serious Ladies were all she'd written it would be enough, but fortunately, as I note in my reply to Jacqui above, her few other works - especially Camp Cataract - are also highly rewarding.

    2. Yes, that comment left in my blog was rather unflattering to the book and to Jane Bowles herself. I am not nearly so informed about her life, or her work, as you are, but I think the person who left it totally ignored the fascinating qualities in Two Serious Ladies.

      When something is deceptively simple, such as an Olympic skier going down a dangerous course, or a novel beautifully written, it's easy to dismiss it while completely missing the strength that went into the work in the first place.

  4. "gloriously unpredictable" appears to be an apt description of the experience of reading Two Serious Ladies! I love how we have all got something a little different out of our reading, a first reading has that element of surprise and anticipation and reading your review adds to the process.

    Even now I have new thoughts popping up, the role of Miss Gamelon almost feels like a literary reference, she represents that part of the traditional life Miss Goering feels compelled to leave behind, and despite not really liking her (nor that life she is expecetd to lead) she takes her with her anyway, an alter ego.

    When she does venture out in search of 'other experiences' she isn't sure how to react or even to cope with those situations, vastly inexperienced in dealing with the external world, she has developed no instinct for dealing with the reality of meeting 'common man' nor 'con man'. As you succinctly put it, they have "an unfiltered embrace of curiosity regarding the world around them".

    My version had an introduction by Lorna Sage which talks about a third serious women who was cut out.

    My reading around the life of Jane Bowles, though brief didn't leave me with the impression that it was so tragic, it seemed that she and her husband had an understanding and that the debut of their marriage was authentic, they seemed to make a good, if unconventional couple, of course they can't be looked at through a traditional lens, I think they were fortunate to have found each other.

    Jane Bowles may not have published a lot, but writing was her expression and way of dealing with a multitude of issues, real and imagined I guess.

    Thank you for such an in-depth review Scoot and for commenting on mine, I really enjoy reading your thoughts and admire your passion for this particular oeuvre.

  5. Oops, please fix that I meant Scott not Scoot!!

    1. Thank you, Claire. Somewhere I also read about the "third" serious lady - apparently Paul Bowles advised Jane to reduce the number to two - and I wondered if Miss Gamelon was to be that person. Does Sage say anything about that? Miss Gamelon's worth turning one's focus upon, as she and Christina Goering first hit it off so well but then quickly Goering perceives something in Miss Gamelon that she finds concerning. I think Gamelon's admitted fear of crossing a big body of water, and how it's prevented her from achieving her dream of going to Europe, says a lot about her in relation to Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield. Throughout the novel Miss Gamelon is something of a sourpuss - and the mere fact of her latching onto Miss Goering because of the "interesting" stories told to her by her governess cousin also suggests her relative shallowness.

      I would love to know the origin of a lot of the elements in Two Serious Ladies, given the people surrounding Jane Bowles and providing her advice during her writing of it. Perhaps it's too late for a meaningful annotated edition?

      Agree totally about Bowles' life. "Tragic" is not the right word. She met with immense acclaim from people in a position to know her work best, and she seemed to have lived more fully than most people ever do, aiming for something a bit higher than comfort, convention or mere happiness.

  6. Found this review looking through images of Bowles, and have to say this is the best analysis I've yet found on Two Serious Ladies, both online and published. I actually linked it to my own review of the novel. Thanks in particular for the info on Auden's connection--I'll have to look more in that.

    Re: the disappearance of the third serious lady, I have to say that it has struck me as a book already full of very Serious Ladies; indeed I assumed during the first chapter Miss Gamelon was going to be the second titular lady, and was surprised at the introduction of Mrs. Copperfield. And then there's that curious narrative tangent when Mrs. Quill temporarily takes over the narrative too. I suppose that's part of the fascination the novel evokes--the narrative is just as capricious as its characters...

    Will be following future reviews with interest.


    1. Jesse - Thanks so much for the kind comment, and my apologies for the tardy response. I agree - the book is quite full of serious ladies, and I'd love to have been privy to the discussions that might have gone on between Bowles, her husband, W. H. Auden and others in February House about that title, and whether she intends by it some fundamentally qualitative difference between Goering/Copperfield and the novel's other female characters. "Capricious" is a good word; as I noted above, even after several readings I'm still thrown off by the directions the novel can suddenly take.