Jane Bowles’s Selected Letters

Throughout Jane Bowles’s letters, the unceasing lament about not-writing, “I have decided not to become hysterical, however. If I cannot write my book, then I shall give up writing, that’s all. Then either suicide or another life. It is rather frightening to think of. I don’t believe I would commit suicide, though intellectually it seems the only way out.”

The book, Out in the World, a follow-up to Two Serious Ladies, went unfinished, though she finished a single play, In the Summer House and a handful of stories. There are those who would argue that she is as important a figure as Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes. Whether or not such comparisons matter is of little real consequence, though Jane Bowles is greatly underrated. Two Serious Ladies and each of the meticulously crafted, unique stories demonstrate a vital force. Her fiction confronts life and death with open eyes. There is dark humour wrapped around the anguish of living in the face of death.

This weekend I finished a volume of selected letters, titled Out in the World, edited by Millicent Dillon, also Jane Bowles’s biographer (of whom Paul Bowles said “She managed to do exhaustive research. She never knew Jane, and I think that she never understood that the most important thing about Jane was her sense of humour.”)

To be aware of Jane Bowles’s fate is to imbue these letters with a painful predictability as the combination of drink and prescription drugs reaches its conclusion. As Stacey D’Erasmo wrote in her superb essay on Bowles, “You know, Jane, I think with some sourness as I go through these scant pages, some with only doodles of sad faces on them, it might have been better if you had stopped drinking.” Bowles’s wit comes across amid the endless worry in her letters, about writing, money, love, loneliness and drinking, but what also is evident from Jane Bowles’s letters is her kindness and understated warmth, which, in the end, with her enigmatic and beautiful stories, is enough.

15 thoughts on “Jane Bowles’s Selected Letters

  1. I must read Two Serious Ladies. I bought it several years ago when it was reissued in the States (where I live) with an introduction by Claire Messud. So many people have praised this novel.

    As an aside, I continue to read posts in your archives, and you really have such interesting taste in books–and your blog has added to my TBR pile! I am reading Compass right now–very much enjoying it!–along with another highly praised work of foreign literature (Belladonna by Dasa Drnidic). They both use language in inventive ways and I am greatly enjoying both.

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    • Please do read Two Serious Ladies and let me know what you make of it. It is such a strange book.

      All of Mathias Enard is worth reading. Compass is my favourite but I do intend to re-read all three this year. I keep pondering Daša Drndic’s work so pleased to hear you are enjoying Belladonna. There is a sequel due later this year.

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      • Yes, I will let you know what I think of it. I read somewhere that Edith Wharton (one of my favorite writers of all time–I have read The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The Custom of the Country) was not a fan, but I see so many others praising the book highly.

        I will read Enard’s other work after I finish Compass. In the past I did not enjoy reading digressive novels like Compass and Belladonna, but now I find such books compelling. Belladonna took a while to pull me in, but now I am enjoying it. However, I find that it is not an easy read for me. I am not well versed in the politics and history of Eastern Europe despite majoring in history in college so I am finding myself checking many of the references online. And it most definitely is not a plot driven novel, but on a sentence level it is so interesting. Reading Compass is similar in that I am not well versed with regard to music or the Orient, but I can follow the story line (what there is of one, at least) a little better. But challenging works of literature are the most rewarding, as I know you are aware, so these books are very, very good.

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  2. I’ve always been intrigued by this book, as well as by Dillon’s biography (having already read everything I could find by Bowles herself). But I’d also read Paul Bowles’ somewhat dismissive comment about Dillon having missed his spouse’s sense of humor, and I suspected that her letters, despite that, might be something of a dreary slog. I’m going to look up the D’Erasmo essay now. A writer whom I do think did Jane Bowles justice is Sherill Tippins, in her book February House, about the Brooklyn Heights residence shared by Jane and Paul, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, among others.

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    • It is all too easy I think to be swayed by the second part of Paul Bowles’s dismissive comment and miss the first part saying that Dillon’s biography was well researched. The letters are far from essential. For me they are essential in the same way that I wish to read every word that oozed from Denton Welch’s pen, both brilliant writers of whom we have too little. The letters are far from dreary, especially if you indulge in the back stories of Jane Bowles’s correspondents, especially people like Libby Holman. I will definitely get hold of February House. Thanks.

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  3. Pingback: Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update – findingtimetowrite

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