April 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"Home and the World": On Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

The shock of discovering that a blazingly original writer has antecedents: the shock of turning from Shakespeare to Marlowe, from Tom Wolfe to Céline. In the zoo of last century's literature, Muriel Spark has to be classed as one of the Great Cats, a slinking killer, cold and carnivorous, a wise fear in her gait. She was weird in ways her contemporaries only pretended to be; I got the sense that she was genuinely weird, floating almost alone in a sea of feigned weirdness, and also genuinely afraid of existence, in a time when her rivals were only just taking correspondence courses in canned Existentialism. Her concision and style, her grasp of the comedic principle that the characters can't know they're funny, and her religious contempt for characters that ended up seeming more compassionate than the cheaper, more earthbound compassion -- all this establishes her claim to uniqueness, despite the century of British comic tradition at her back.

So it was strange to open Jane Bowles's only novel, Two Serious Ladies, and find the Spark atmosphere hanging there in 1943, more than a decade before Spark began publishing her fiction. Something bizarre and monastic and sexual lurks beneath the unassuming narration. Dread, too, but an amused one. A wry dread, which blooms at the fringes of human activity.

No less than musicians, authors have particular sounds, and often these sounds are less a product of their creative effort than of their inculcating milieu. Dostoevsky didn't invent the way drunken Russians speak; neither Dickens didn't invent the way pompous lawyers speak; and Charles Portis blowhards are available to speak to you on diverse matters at every rest stop of our republic. What milieu could have produced the sound of both Spark and Jane Bowles? Both had complex links to both Judaism and homosexuality -- could that be the recipe?

I suspect no. Their books instead concern this subject matter: a woman branching off from regular society, powered by a kind of Ahab madness; or maybe the better image is of a Brothers Grimm child lost in the woods. In The Driver's Seat, our heroine takes the eros-thanatos link to unprecedented lengths on her unnerving Eurotrip; in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the crème de la crème curdles into a one-woman fascist movement.

In Two Serious Ladies, we have two parallel narratives, one of motion and the other of stasis. Mrs. Copperfield and her husband travel to sunny Panama, where the bright colors and sassy sex workers unlock her Anglo heart; what the pendulous fruit of Key West did for the frosty insurance executive Wallace Stevens, the street shouts and impoverished splendor of Central America do for Mrs. Copperfield: they fire her imagination. She's a napper woken by the crawling sunshine.

Meanwhile, stateside, Christina Goering encounters the tubby and childlike Arnold, his more charismatic father, and ends up living with both plus her friend Miss Gamelon, in a house on an island, accessible only by ferry. Why? For no reason, and for every reason. In both narratives, the women form connections and then feel subject to the opposite impulse, to dissolve these connections, to get away, to go live in a strange hotel. Both women enact a fantasy, imbued with large and private significance, of going out to a bar, alone, and meeting new, mysterious people, not exactly for sex (neither of these Serious Ladies seems particularly horny in the physical sense) but in pursuit of some species of emotional commerce, spiritual currents.

One of the toughest tasks for a critic is to convey the experience of actually reading a novel. Summarize the themes all you want; talk about the author's life, but some kernel remains out of reach, and that kernel is the whole point; it's why the readers keep coming back. After four hundred years, no one has quite managed to say just what the nightmare essence of Hamlet is, its weird rage about sex and cowardice. If anyone had explained that kernel, probably no one would read the play.

In Two Serious Ladies, events drift into the fantastic, while maintaining their own hidden logic. Glass perfume bottles get thrown with blood-drawing force; people leave home and move in together with total casualness, almost involuntarily, like sleepwalkers. The novel begins with a Spark feeling and ends up feeling like Luis Buñuel or David Lynch.

"[R]eality was often more frightening to her than her wildest dreams," writes Bowles about Miss Gamelon. Fear, and the overcoming of fear, seem central to the author's imagination here. Claire Messud writes in her introduction, "Bowles was famously indecisive, in part because she fretted that each decision, however small, might have lasting moral implications. She was also, in youth, extremely fearful, constrained by an impressive catalogue of anxieties and phobias. But she pushed hard against her nature." Reading this, and the novel that followed, it was hard not to think about Valeria Ugazio, and her description of a "semantics of freedom," in which life is divided between those who travel and assert themselves and gain independence and those who cling to a circumscribed home life, so cautious they seem cadaverous. Underneath the dream atmosphere of Two Serious Ladies, we can sense a soul wavering between fear and boldness, but unable to choose either. One character writes a letter stating, "I can only say that there is, in every man's life, a strong urge to leave his life behind him for a while and seek a new one. If he is living near to the sea, a strong urge to take the next boat and sail away no matter how happy his home or how beloved his wife or mother."

Two Serious Ladies is a rare vision. If I had adapt this story to another medium, I think I'd choose ballet; that would provide the requisite gesture (sometimes jerking, sometimes flowing), the dread, the sense of the primitive, the frail and the fierce combining together in a spectacle that's nearly human.