They are hardly known, but her acutely sensitive stories deserve to sit next to Mansfield, Rhys and Woolf
|An uncompromising determination to avoid convention ... Jane Bowles in Morocco. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images|
A good friend recently became a better one still by urging me to read Jane Bowles, whose writing inspired her husband Paul, previously known as a composer, to take up prose. Jane Bowles (née Auer), who was born in New York in 1917 and died in Malaga in 1973, wrote comparatively little – one novel (La Phaeton Hypocrite, a piece of juvenilia, notwithstanding), one play, and one short story collection – but her small oeuvre is distinguished by its quality and innovation.
The stories that make up Plain Pleasures, written between 1944 and 1951, are typical in their juxtaposing of domineering and weak women, and frequent preoccupation with moments of psychological crisis. There might be nothing distinctive about that, perhaps, but Bowles’s ability to convey a mind in flux is powerfully discomfiting. In part this is due to the feeling, which infuses her stories, that such a chaotic state is a more or less permanent feature of existence. Some argue that the alienation forced on her by her sexuality was partially responsible for this, but both her unconventional marriage (she and Paul were bisexual, with Paul preferring men and Jane women) and life in Tangiers afforded relative freedom in this regard.
A more interesting explanation was suggested by Paul Bowles – always an astute judge of Jane's work – in a 1971 interview with Oliver Evans, when he noted her ability “to see the drama that is really in front of one every minute – the drama that follows living”. Navigating by such lights, her fiction charts some of the territory explored by Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys. Her style, however, is closer to the reportorial terseness of Hemingway, but leavened with a dry wit that his prose lacks.
Humour is superficial in Bowles’s work, however. Much like the waterfall through whose roar Sadie, the doomed spinster in Camp Cataract (1949), believes she can hear “someone pronounce her name in a dismal tone”, the febrile thoughts of her characters seem to be suspended above yawning depths. Blank stares and non sequiturs abound, from the moment where Señora Ramirez’s memory “seemed suddenly to have failed her” during the seduction in A Guatemalan Idyll (1944), to the bizarrely stuttering, ambiguously homoerotic conversation between an American and a Moroccan in Everything Is Nice (1951).
According to Truman Capote, Bowles found writing “difficult to the point of true pain”. Paul Bowles concurred, remarking in an interview that it "cost her blood to write … Sometimes it took her a week to write a page". She preferred socialising, drinking, conversation and promiscuity. Her original impulse to write was inspired by sociability, following as it did a meeting with Louis-Ferdinand Céline on a transatlantic crossing when she was 17.
But her difficulties were as much a product of an uncompromising determination to avoid convention as they were the result of being temperamentally unsuited to the writer's lifestyle. For all that, though, the chief reason for Bowles’s modest output was a terrible series of strokes, the first of which she suffered in Morocco in 1957. After this she was incapable of producing anything of worth and, already an alcoholic, proceeded to drink so much that her lucid spells occurred only between periods of insanity and something resembling a vegetative state.
In her preface to My Sister's Hand in Mine, the 1978 collected edition of Bowles’s work, Joy Williams notes that writing “had to be difficult from the first paragraph in order for her to have respect for it”. Post-1957, however, such things were beyond the reach of her crippled faculties. In a letter to the poet Ruth Fainlight, Bowles wrote:
“I haven't the energy to read since it's always a bit difficult for me because of the hemianopia trouble resulting from the stroke which you know about and which, although it is a thousand times improved, slows down my reading so much that I fall asleep with the light on. I managed to stay awake for one week reading a book called Plain Girl, a book for children with large print.”
Following the publication of her magnificent novel Two Serious Ladies in 1943, Bowles outlined her concerns regarding her isolation in a letter to her husband: “I am serious but I am isolated and my experience is probably of no interest at this point to anyone.” Despite Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and John Ashbery all professing their admiration, Bowles was never widely read. As the latter noted in a 1967 New York Times article, “When a London publisher wanted to reprint [Two Serious Ladies] three years ago, even Mrs Bowles was unable to supply him with a copy.” Although things are better now, it seems likely she will remain a cult interest; a major talent with a minor readership.