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.