Sunday, November 6, 2011

On "Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles *****

I first read this novel about eight years ago, in conjunction with a list of reading I was doing on the Arab world and Paul Bowles. I figured, Why not read Paul's wife. And so this novel and her short stories got tacked on to the end of that list. The novel has nothing to do with the Arab world, of course, but it was a great discovery for me (sadly the short stories didn't seem anywhere near the same level). Paul's method apparently involved writing quickly then rewriting one draft more. Jane, by contrast, apparently labored over each sentence, sometimes managing only one in a day. And that method shows in this work of hers, for each sentence is a gem.

*Two Serious Ladies* is, actually, hilarious. The story--but it's not really a novel set around a plot--ostensibly involves two parallel narratives about two women. One woman is Miss Christina Goering; the other is Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet up in two places in the novel, once near the beginning (at a party) and at the end (at a restaurant). In between, Mrs. Copperfield goes to Panama with her husband and finds a new sense of herself--or loses herself in yet another person. For if at the start of the book she is Mr. Copperfield's wife, at the end she is a woman obsessed with a Panamanian prostitute named Pacifica. Mrs. Goering, by contrast, moves from a house she has inherited into a new home on an island and then deserts the people who have come to live with her to spend her days back on the mainland pursuing various men--and some kind of religious experience.

There are parallels between the two women. Both are consumed by obsessions with others. Mrs. Copperfield has her Pacifica; Miss Goering has her Miss Gamelon (and then her Andy and her Ben, not to mention Mr. Arnold's father, or even Mr. Arnold himself). Both move to new places and then return, of a sorts, to the world from which they have come--but in a transformed state. Both are searchers who never stop searching, who think that they are getting closer to what it is they are looking for but who seem incapable, in the end, of finding it.

But the essence of this book--what makes it so memorable--is not in this vague idea of a plot. The narrative wouldn't be substantial enough to hold most people's interest. What is fascinating here is the language itself--those sentences. There are zingers everywhere, some of them laugh out loud funny. One of my favorites is a statement one character makes to another at a party in describing one of her friends: "She's not like you at all. She's very intelligent." Or there's this description, early on, of Miss Goering, as a child: "Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being."

And the book does have some ties in to themes that her husband Paul would so often return to in his own fiction, for in Jane's work, Panama stands in for that Arab world that Paul so often wrote about. And as in Paul's world, where American ignorance of foreign social customs results in grave danger, in Jane's world the same sort of ignorance creates danger as well; however, in Paul's work, the result is usually tragic, whereas in Jane's the result is comic--to an extent. For underneath all the comedy, there rests in this book a kind of vague hopelessness, not so much that we as humans will never understand each other because of differences in upbringing but that we'll never understand each other because of our own strict adherence to our own worlds, our own minds, our own imaginations.

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