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.”

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet

A reader first and collector second, Jacques Bonnet’s Phantom on the Bookshelves is a witty homage to the thrill of reading, and tribulations of owning a monstrous personal library – “not one of those bibliophile libraries containing works so valuable that their owner never opens them for fear of damaging them, no I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read them in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read [..]”

As an enthusiastic reader of Alberto Manguel’s (Bonnet quotes Manguel several times) books on similar themes, I lapped up Phantom on the Bookshelves. Bonnet writes of the origin of his reading fever and why he came to own a library comprising tens of thousands of books. He obsesses about the problem of organisation and classification, and what inspires him to acquire books.

Full of anecdotes and wit, Bonnet’s book also provides insight; there is a brilliant chapter where he makes the case that fictional characters are more real than their creators:

[..] we carry on believing what we read in biographies. (Curiosity is too strong: I have masses of biographies in my library!) They are simply imaginary reconstructions based on the necessarily fragmentary elements left by someone now dead, whether long ago or in the recent past. And as for autobiography, it is no more than a pernicious variant of romantic fiction.

If you’ve enjoyed Manguel’s Library at Night, A History of Reading or Julien Gracq’s Reading Writing, you will find Phantom on the Bookshelvesequally rewarding. A warning though, each of these books associate with and discuss the merits of other books. They lead to further book buying.

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.

Masterpieces and Memory

Julien Gracq, who died in 2007, wrote with great elegance and lucidity. He deserves to be more widely read. This a passage from Reading Writing, on the novel:

Of a poem, there is no form of memory other than its exact memorisation, line by line. No reconnection with it is possible aside from its literal resurrection in the mind. But the memory one retains of a long and exacting work of fiction, of a novel, last read or reread years ago-after all the work of simplification, reconstruction, fusion, and readjustment that the elision of memory brings with it-would, if the matter were not so evasive by nature, provide a very interesting topic of study. In fact, if such a study could ever present some reliability, it would provide new information on the structure and secret resources of works of fiction.

We would have to compare the memories that avid readers of good faith distantly retained of the same work, and have them recount their idea of the book-or rather what remains of it, omitting any references to the text-from memory, to note the fairly regular recurrence of the shipwreck of entire sections that have sunk to the bottom of memory, and flashpoints, on the contrary, that continue to irradiate it, and by whose light the work is reconstructed in an entirely different way. Another book would appear beneath the first-the way another painting appears beneath an X-rayed painting-that, to the economic map of a country, would be a little like a map of its energy source.

Empire of the Sun and Literary Adaptations

From this discussion with Iain Sinclair about J. G. Ballard:

I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book.

I recently saw the film again and came to the same conclusion. It was a polished, Disneyfied interpretation, with overtones of Merchant Ivory. I’d love to see a Peter Greenaway rendering. Greenaway’s obsession with sex and death is well matched with Ballard’s themes. Ballard’s book Crash, interpreted faithfully (but ultimately disappointingly) by David Cronenberg is frequently juxtaposed with Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as controversial films.

It is a cliché to discuss how a particular film is a disappointing adaptation of a particular book. Is there a film that has aesthetically advanced the original text? Perhaps Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire or The Great Gatsby, almost certainly The Third Man.

In Julien Gracq’s discerning book Reading Writing he offers this insight:

But the reader of a novel is not a performer following notes and tempo step by step: he is a director. And this suggests that, from one brain to another, the sets, cast, lighting, and motion of the performance become unrecognisable. Whatever the explicit precision of the text-and even against it, if he so desires-the reader decides (for example) on the acting of the characters and their physical appearance. And the best proof of this is that the interpretation of a film adapted from a familiar novel almost always jars us, not because of its arbitrary nature, but most often because of its fidelity to the formal indications of the text, with which, while reading it, we have taken the greatest liberties.

This, of course, must be correct. The conclusion is that one should never, never watch film adaptations of books that you love and know intimately. But, of course, it is always impossible to resist.