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.

Jane Bowles’s Plain Pleasures

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.

Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies

In a letter to her husband, Jane Bowles wrote, ‘Men are all outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.’ This conception of the world is the orbit of Jane Bowles’s only novel Two Serious Ladies.

It is a decidedly odd story, one that seduced me almost immediately as I fell under the spell of its highly mannered vocal inflections. Bowles’s two serious ladies refuse to settle for a life in which all is reduced to a state of acquiescence and uniformity. Bowles suggests two possible responses to a world her characters find profoundly alienating, to seek redemption through generosity and sacrifice, or withdrawal into happiness and sensual pleasure.

Written in 1943, Bowles’s story feels ahead of its time, bold in its treatment of sex as a calculated gesture rather than an erotic response or a significant human connection. I don’t know much about Bowles’s life, but that it is her only completed novel, and the striking similitude between the two serious ladies, suggests a distinctly autobiographical novel. To quote Julien Gracq, “I’m always happy when I have the impression of surprising the author hot in her tracks and as though about to move out.”

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

In her poem Zelda Helen Dunmore writes, “Some visitors said she ought / to do more housework, get herself taught / to cook / Above all, find some silent occupation / rather than mess up Scott’s vocation”. Vivienne Eliot and Jane Bowles would have recognised the sentiment. In Heroines, Kate Zambreno extricates these muses of modernism from the asylum, and their one-dimensional role as wives of Great Authors, and breathes life into them as intellects and, though often blocked and suppressed, artists.

Kate Zambreno has a fresh way of approaching literary history. There isn’t a flaccid, dull page in Heroines. The language is in your face, conversational, idiosyncratic, but informed by years of research and reading. Part diary, part polemic against the treatment of depression, part defence of sentiment in the face of the school of New Criticism. It is also an incitement to fill all sorts of reading gaps. My wish list expanded considerably by the end of the book.

Go to the bookshop, or order online, or however you procure your reading material, but read this book. If you are in doubt you can read an excerpt. It might just be the best book I’ve read this year.

I am choked at coming to the end of Heroines, and for several days will be found reading Kate Zambreno’s blog archives.