Curiosity about Jane Bowles compelled me to track down a selection of her letters, which I intend to read in parallel with the short stories in the Collected Works.
The first of the short stories I read was Plain Pleasures, which escalates from a subtle tale of social reserve to what appears to be a story about rape. Like Kleist’s The Marquise of O, the rape is not represented directly. Bowles suggests it with a single sentence, immediately transforming a seemingly simple tale into what becomes a barbed, disturbing story.
Bowles takes the story from that single sentence not to a dark place, but to one of emotional and possibly sexual fulfilment. It is a sly work of considerable psychological complexity that, like Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies reveals a silence at its core.
Reading Plain Pleasures immediately makes sense of Joy Williams’s comment in the preface to this collection: ‘Reading Jane Bowles is making the acquaintance not with dread but with dread’s sister, perhaps—a grave, absurd disquietude.’
In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson describes this story as a ‘quietly brutal, fourteen-page masterpiece’, a verdict to which I can only agree. Nelson adds of Bowles:
It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.
Though Bowles seems to get the most attention for Two Serious Ladies, her other stories prove that the novel was not a one-off oddity, and serve to amplify a wish that she had been able to write more.
Quite so; our loss is the lost and unfinished novels.