‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles – Two Outrageous Ladies

 

‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Bowles  (1943) – 221 pages

Having read a ton of literary fiction, I look out for the distinctive and the unusual, fiction that no one else besides that author could possibly have written. However I fear I may have met my match in oddness and strangeness with ‘Two Serious Ladies’.

The two main characters here often act in ways that are incomprehensible to me, and they offer no justifications for their actions.  Originally this opaqueness of behavior was offputting to me but ultimately these ladies’ waywardness becomes part of the curious beauty of the story.  In ‘Two Serious Ladies’, these two women do these unexpected offbeat things all the time.  However the scenes in this novel stay etched in my mind, and I expect they will stay there a long time.

The first lady is Christina Goering.

“As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. “

 “As a grown woman Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child.” 

Who says a main character must be likeable?  Christina has a way of hooking up with not very nice men she meets in dive bars.  Several times she goes to strange men’s houses in order to prove something (I don’t know what) to herself.  She doesn’t like any of these guys, but she has a “sickening compulsion” to go to their house and even stay there for days.  The last guy is a particularly rough sort and there is some menace for the reader fearing what he might do to her.  It is like she is on some degenerate spiritual quest.

“In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.”

Christina incidentally meets the other serious lady, Mrs. Frieda Copperfield, at a house party.  That is nearly the only interaction between the two women.  Otherwise their stories are totally separate.

The 33-year-old Mrs. Copperfield goes traveling in the Central American country of Panama with her businessman husband.  He finds a respectable dull hotel for them to stay in.  However as they are walking around the shady “red light” side of town, they come upon a sleazy place called the Hotel de Las Palmas, and Mrs. Copperfield is immediately captivated. The hotel is run as a place where prostitutes can rent rooms to bring their clients. Mrs. Copperfield becomes enchanted by one of the prostitutes, Pacifica, and also by the owner or Madam of the hotel, Mrs. Quill.  She decides to stay there on her own in one of the rooms near Pacifica.  Guys have these kinds of risqué adventures all the time.  Why not women?

I guess this novel is autobiographical but in a thoroughly outlandish way.

“There is nothing original about me except a little original sin.” – Jane Bowles

Jane Bowles was married to the more famous novelist Paul Bowles whose most acclaimed novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ I have also read. Paul chose mostly men for his sex partners; Jane chose mainly women as her sexual partners.

“Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.”  – Jane Bowles

Paul and Jane were devoted to each other.  They threw rowdy parties to which they invited many of the literary stars of the time including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal.  Jane was the wild charming “life of the party” type, and she drank heavily.  That may explain why she wrote only this one novel at the age of 24, though she did write a play and some short stories later.  She viewed writer Carson McCullers as her main female fiction writing competition.  At age 40 Jane had a massive stroke, leaving her totally dependent on Paul, and she died at the age of 56 in 1973.

I have decided that I will not give a grade to ‘Two Serious Ladies’.  This is the first time that has happened since I started grading.  I just cannot make up my mind whether it is a work of genius or just outlandish, ridiculous, and baffling.  I will let you make up your own minds.

 

Grade :   ???

 

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10 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds fascinating. I so enjoy hearing about writers of that time period too. Interesting review. Makes me very curious about this book.

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    • HI travellinpenguin,
      I’ve seen comparisons of Jane Bowles’ work with the Glass family stories by J. D. Salinger. She is definitely a writer of that 1940s and 1950s time frame. I’ve been reading her biography ‘A Little Original Sin’, and she compares herself to Carson McCullers.
      ‘Two Serious Ladies’ provoked some unusual reactions in me, not all of them positive. I suspect women might have an easier time relating to the novel.

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  2. I see from your cover image that the book has an intro by Claire Messud. Does she have anything to say about why this strange book has been reissued?

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    • Hi Lisa,
      As one would expect, Claire Messud is very upbeat about this novel in her introduction. I am a fan of Claire Messud (She has a new novel coming out) and hers is a good introduction, even though it didn’t prepare me for the strangeness of the novel. ‘Two Serious Ladies’ got lukewarm reviews at best when it came out Supposedly it is going up in critical opinion probably due to its originality. .

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  3. I read this a long time ago, so I can’t be specific, but I’ve read the short stories too and I think both of the Bowles’ took things to the edge. But as you say, why shouldn’t women have the same kind of ‘adventures’ men do? 🙂

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Yes, Paul and Jane really did take things to the edge. Even though both were more interested in partners of their own sex, their marriage was apparently quite successful, and they stayed married for 38 years until Jane’s death. Maybe that is the secret for a happy marriage. 🙂

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