Monday, January 10, 2011

{review} jane bowles

My Sister's Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies
"Since you live so far out of town," said Arnold, "why don't you spend the night at my house? We have an extra bedroom."
"I probably shall," said Miss Goering, "although it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it." Miss Goering looked a little morose after having said this and they drove in silence until they reached their destination.
I struggled with this novel and I can't see myself reading any more of the Jane Bowles' stories/plays in this anthology. I like progression. Plots. Sympathetic protagonists. Less contradictions. I don't even really think that I can sum it up except that it is about the search by the Two Serious Ladies, the "exalted" Miss Goering and the anxious Mrs. Copperfield for some sort of redemption or salvation and that their different paths towards this goal involve an exploration of their sexuality and a claustrophobic narrowing rather than broadening of their horizons. Mind you, it was good to see that the lesbian didn't have to achieve salvation by dying, unlike other conflicted women of the first half of the twentieth century.
She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before, because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.
It is such a miserable book filled with characters doing things that they should not and often do not want to do while attempting to remain (or actually being) indifferent to those around them and to themselves.
Miss Gamelon was slightly embarrassed by this elderly man who seemed to have just recently made some momentous change in his life. But she was not really curious about him.
As one character says, "...I have a habit of never paying attention to whoever I am talking to."
He lit his pipe in rather an affected manner and looked around him at the walls of the room.
"Well, lady," he said to her, "are you an artist too?"
"No," said Miss Goering. "I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy. I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier."
"What do you think of my son?" he asked, winking at her.
"I have only just met him," said Miss Goering.
"You'll discover soon enough," said Arnold's father, "that he's a rather inferior person..."
My overall lack of enjoyment aside, Bowles' manipulation of language is often astonishingly: "She was uneasy and the electric fan seemed to blow directly on her heart." It is also very sexy: many descriptions - particularly of places and things - ripple with sensuousness. Bowles evokes a constant feeling of unease, of lack of closure, of continuous contradiction, of doom even. Thus Mrs. Copperfield's first impression of Panama is that "It's like a city that is being constantly looted". The madam of the brothel where she finds a sort of sanctuary notes that,
"People don't murder as easy as that. They do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering. I've had some murders here, but not many. I've discovered that most things turn out all right. Of course some of them turn out bad."
I think this is the sort of book that will produce a lot of women's studies PhDs but is very hard going for the casual reader interesting in broadening her reading from 1940s' America.
"Golf would be wonderful for you," said Miss Gamelon to Miss Goering: "probably would straighten you ought in a week."
"I don't like sports," said Miss Goering: "more than anything else, they give me a terrible feeling of sinning,"
"Sports," said Miss Gamelon, "can never give you a feeling of sinning, but what is more interesting is that you can never sit down for more than five minutes without introducing something weird into the conversation. I certainly think you have made a study of it."
Rating: 5/10

If you liked this... I'm out of my depth but shall move on to Paul Bowles. Another big gap in my reading.


  1. Thanks for posting the link to your review (are you part of Fyrefly's blog search engine? I didn't see this review when searching there - check it out: )

    How strange that we picked two of the same quotations from this novel, so full of odd excerpts! I can see why you didn't like it, and even though you didn't, I think you've captured Two Serious Ladies really well. Your review still made me want to reread the novel, despite you not liking it!

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote "I like progression. Plots. Sympathetic protagonists" - I don't mind whether or not these things are present, so I didn't have the same problems with the novel that you did.

    Thanks for adding another angle!


  2. Thank you Simon -- I had not encountered Fyrefly's search engine, but have joined now. What a great resource. I too was a bit freaked when I saw we had the same quotes: I think they were the (rare! funny!) bits I liked. ;-)


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