The Hotel de las Palmas, in Jane Bowles’s conspicuously strange novel “Two Serious Ladies,” is a gnatty pension where pimps and winos lie about. It is here, in a rundown Panamanian port town called Colon, a place “full of nothing but half breeds and monkeys,” that Frieda Copperfield, a fine lady of early middle age and of respectable provenance, decides to jettison her handsome but square husband to find warmth and gin-soaked comfort in the arms of a teen-age prostitute named Pacifica. Lying in leonine Pacifica’s tiny bed, her cheek resting on the girl’s breast, Mrs. Copperfield feels that she has finally found the sort of love that she has always looked for. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else for the world,” she says, a little later, about the inn that will soon become her adopted home.
The passionate pursuit of elusive happiness is the major preoccupation and drama for the heroines of “Two Serious Ladies,” Bowles’s only novel, born of many years of writing and many more of worrying over her inability to do so. Few people have had more legendary writers block—Bowles spent decades agonizing over works she would never complete—which is, at least in part, why “Two Serious Ladies” is required reading when it comes to understanding the writer’s enigmatic and crooked world. The recent reissue of the novel by HarperCollins, the second since Bowles’s collected works were released in 1967, provides an occasion to revisit the underknown half of a famous couple—she was married to the considerably more prolific and ultimately more celebrated Paul Bowles. Hard drinking, hard living, and neurotic, the outlines of Jane’s exhaustingly dramatic persona very often overshadowed her art. At forty, while living in Tangier, she suffered a debilitating stroke that would send her into premature convalescence. She died sixteen years later, alone, in a Spanish convent. And yet her literary output, small but perfect, puts her on a stylistic planet all her own.
As “Two Serious Ladies” opens, we meet Cristina Goering, an acquaintance of Frieda Copperfield’s, whom we are told is the daughter of a powerful American industrialist. From here, Bowles relates each woman’s separate story, until the two, who are friendly but not intimate, cross paths at the book’s unforgettable end. Both women—they are referred to as Miss and Mrs., like the good librarian types they appear to be—are of bourgeois bearing. Both, too, astonish, perplex, and offend just about everyone they meet, willfully straying from the straight path set before them and descending into debaucherous excess. Dipsomaniacal uptown girls—one is never far from a drink in this tale—these serious ladies find pleasure downtown, in the company of lunatics, clowns, and misfits.
As a young person, Miss Goering was disliked by other children. Out of touch and out of fashion, she was marked by the “look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.” As an adult, she sent people running with her eccentrically too-red cheeks, dark heavy clothing, and verbal non sequiturs. Once, trying to engage in a friendly conversation with another woman on a train, she is told by the conductor to stop molesting the passengers. Heroically unaware of her strangeness, or indifferent to its effects, Miss Goering seems to do everything she can to reject the life that is expected of her. Accompanied by a female companion and a male hanger-on, she abandons her stately Victorian home outside of New York City and relocates to a gloomy little house on an island (we can presume it is Staten Island). After squeezing all she can out of that strange milieu, she travels to a neighboring town; there, she halfheartedly has an affair with a sulky hobo who, in spite of the hospitable weather, keeps his blinds drawn at all times. After eight days, she leaves him for a burly, steak-eating gangster lothario who mostly speaks in single syllables and mistakes her for a prostitute. She loves him more for his mistake and, in fact, it marks the beginning of their “relationship.”
“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,” Miss Goering says. Later, when she gives herself over to the gangster, she speaks of a “sickening compulsion” to do so, as if resisting the airless cage of convention and comfort has a kind of moral character of its own. Bowles very often marks these spiritual journeys with water. Miss Goering, after all, has relocated to an island. Her far more timid companion, Miss Gamelon, announces that she fears “crossing large bodies of water.”
Mrs. Copperfield is also immersed in baptismal water. Her affair with (aquatic) Pacifica begins in Panama. In one of the book’s most tender scenes, the teen-age prostitute teaches Mrs. Copperfield how to swim. Floating, finally, precariously, “Mrs. Copperfield felt happy and sick at once.” Afterward, trembling and exhausted, the reader senses that she has undergone an intense sexual experience. Here and elsewhere in Jane Bowles’s universe, sex—itself understood as a lascivious transgression—appears to be crucial for inching toward some as yet undefined and utterly necessary salvation. (Did Georges Bataille ever read young Jane?)
When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.
But the early reviews seem to confirm what ardent fans of Jane Bowles have known all along: she is a neglected genius. Like most readers, I read Paul before Jane. His spooky short stories, set in North Africa and full of madness and magic and sex, thrilled me. Much later, I encountered “Two Serious Ladies” through a friend who had claimed Jane as a distinguished literary lesbian—thankfully, she has not yet been reduced to that caricature—and realized that Paul had somehow, through no fault of his own, sucked up all the air between them. Jane’s gift, perhaps above all, was her uncommon ear for dialogue. Her speech was as eccentric and abrupt as dada, but it was also painfully real. Here is 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.” She continues, matter of factly: “I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.” Not entirely unlike the more disturbed members of J. D. Salinger’s Glass family, Jane’s characters are out of place, born at the wrong time, wearing the wrong dress, sexually unusual.
For those who actually knew her, the work may have been even more compelling because the line between her characters and Jane the person seemed so paper-thin. Born into an affluent Long Island Jewish family, Jane Auer was stained by difference from the beginning. Millicent Dillon, the author of an essential biography on the writer, notes that some local mothers referred to young Jane as a “terrible kid.” At least once, she and a friend went on a frenzied vandalism streak, defacing dozens of parked cars. Another time, she tried to swipe a sleeping woman’s wig (but was caught). A horse-riding accident at the age of fifteen, followed by a bout of tuberculosis, left her with a permanently bad leg. While being treated at a Swiss sanitarium, she became intimate with the works of André Gide, Marcel Proust, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In her early twenties—she was petite, with cropped hair and feline features—Jane was known to run around Greenwich Village salons with a cigar or a drink in hand, playfully referring to herself as Crippie, the Kike Dyke. (She harbored dramatic crushes on women. She was also very, very funny.) The composer Virgil Thomson said of her during this time, “People loved her. But what she cared about no one knew.” Like Mrs. Copperfield, who was scared stiff of elevators and of drowning, Jane suffered from phobias and indecision. As early as 1936, at the age of nineteen, she wrote to a friend, “The incapability of mine to ‘act’ is spreading. I stare at my corset for hours now before I put it on.”
And Jane, like both Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, was consumed by the idea of sin. “There is nothing original about me except a little original sin,” she wrote to a friend, in 1929. It is no wonder, perhaps, that she was so taken by the ascetic Simone Weil, another writer who had a terribly vexed relationship with the world, and who also suffered from a tragic sense of sin. Dillon, the biographer, writes that, for a period of her youth, Jane would read Weil’s “Waiting for God” each night before falling asleep.
In 1937, Jane met Paul Bowles, a slight, handsome, waspish composer from New York. He was seven years older than she was and already gaining a reputation for his hypnotic musical compositions for the theatre. They married, and lived both together and separately in the Chelsea Hotel, on West Thirteenth Street, and in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that they shared with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and others. They travelled, too—to Panama, Mexico, and Paris. In Paris, they visited Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude was very fond of Paul in particular; Alice later said of Jane that she was “not surprisingly like her novel”), Jane frequented a lesbian bar called the Monocle, and Henry Miller tried to go home with her. Jane, famously charming, was a flirt with both men and women, and in spite of her marriage to Paul—they were exceptionally devoted to each other until the end—she had affairs with women, many of them older, most of them inappropriate or somehow puzzlingly unattractive. In Mexico, Jane met Helvetia Perkins, a forty-four-year-old divorcée with whom she would live on and off for years (“Two Serious Ladies,” published in 1943, was dedicated to Paul, Mother, and Helvetia). Years later, in a letter to Paul, Jane writes, “Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.” Paul, in the meantime, had his own affairs, with men.
In 1947, upon Gertrude Stein’s suggestion, Paul settled in Tangier, a seedy port city where artists, pirates, picaros, philistines, homosexuals, lapsed aristocrats,real aristocrats, and paupers posing as kings had found refuge for centuries. Jane, true to her character, was wracked with indecision about whether to join him. She wrote this in a letter around the time of Paul’s move: “I’m sure Arab nightlife would interest me not the slightest. As you know I don’t consider those races voluptuous or exciting in any way.” And yet she went ahead, and stayed for the next two and a half decades. In Tangier, she and Paul presided over an enviable literary and artistic milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Brion Gysin, Mohamed Mrabet, and others. Grumpy Susan Sontag came over and hated Tangier. Djuna Barnes typed up “Nightwood” there. Jane made a reputation out of being a sort of resident literary muse; Tennessee Williams, who visited a number of times, hailed her as “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” Capote referred to her as “that genius imp, that laughing, hilarious, tortured elf.” Gore Vidal said of both the Bowles, “They were famous among those who were famous.”
Although initially skeptical, Jane embraced her new life in North Africa. Unlike the kind of pathetic travelers who, as Mrs. Copperfield writes in her journal, are “so impressed with the importance and immutability of their own manner of living that they are capable of traveling through the most fantastic places without experiencing anything more than a visual reaction,” Jane was bent on penetrating the inaccessible world of Tangier. This desire manifested itself most vividly in the person of Cherifa, a gorgonish, hirsute grain seller with whom Jane fell madly in love. Dillon, in her biography, writes of the fantastic hold that Cherifa—“this wild creature, this illiterate but powerful peasant girl nineteen or twenty years old, a descendant of the patron saint of Tangier”—had over Jane. Their relationship was odd. Barely sexual, it was mostly built around mutual need: Jane’s for Cherifa’s acceptance and Cherifa for Jane’s cash. Jane strained to learn the difficult, guttural Moroccan dialect of Arabic, Derija, so that she might understand Cherifa better. In her collected letters, one gets a view of a woman desperate to gain entry to Cherifa’s world, desperate to be accepted by a culture that was so far removed from her own. In a photograph taken at the gates of the city’s medina, Jane, tanned, quite possibly wearing a wig, dressed in a stiff white dress and with a slightly stoned air about her, stands next to Cherifa, who is in turn dressed in a black niqab and wearing dark sunglasses. It is a stirring image and yet utterly creepy. “Perhaps I shall be perpetually on the edge of this civilization of theirs,” Jane wrote to Paul as early as 1948.
Janet Malcolm once wrote, “Writing is a fraught activity for everyone, of course, male or female, but women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements, than men do to activate their imaginations.”* She might have especially been channelling Jane Bowles. Following the publication of “Two Serious Ladies,” Jane’s writing sputtered. When a play, “In the Summer House,” débuted in New York, in 1953, and closed only three weeks later, she was quoted in Vogue as saying, “There’s no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends.” No matter what encouragement she received from Paul and from others, she flailed. As if she were fulfilling the cliché that being well adjusted was somehow incompatible with an artistic temperament, every word she put to paper seemed to be torture. Jane, uncommonly dedicated to producing art that was unique, was her own harshest critic. Speaking about her process, Paul told Millicent Dillon that Jane couldn’t bring herself to “use the hammer and the nails that were there. She had to manufacture her own hammer and all the nails.” Somewhere along the way, her standards got in the way. So did booze. And so did Arabia.
“It was good for Paul, but not good for me,” Jane wrote of Tangier near the end of her life. Since having moved to Morocco, she had written a handful of short stories, a play, and many more unfinished sketches. With Paul’s midwifing, some of the material from “Two Serious Ladies”—for originally there were to be three serious ladies—was excised and reconfigured into the short stories “The Guatemalan Idyll” and “A Day in the Open.” In 1949, she published what might be her most magisterial short story, “Camp Cataract,” a tale of grotesquely dysfunctional sisters gone awry, in which Sadie, an overbearing spinster, meets an eerie end while trying to rescue Harriet, who has a nervous condition (she “practice[s] imagination” every morning), from the summer camp that she visits each summer. But by the nineteen-sixties, Paul’s rising literary star had dramatically eclipsed his wife’s. His first novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” which he later said he was inspired to write after the experience of helping Jane edit her “Ladies,” was widely praised and thought to be a classic. (Some years later, it would be made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci.) And yet, little attention has been paid to how Jane’s work and, perhaps, “Two Serious Ladies” in particular, set into motion a lifelong obsession and even an existential mode that came to mark not only Jane’s writing but also Paul’s for decades to come. “Two Serious Ladies,” published six years before “The Sheltering Sky,” appears to be cut from the same cloth. Both books take up travel and the situation of the foreigner in foreign lands. While Paul, in this work as well as in his short stories, captured how the East can break down men’s souls until they regress into a crazed primordial state, Jane saw in that same act of travel—uncomfortable, perilous, occasionally terrifying—her salvation. The Jane-like character in “The Sheltering Sky,” Kit, wanders deeper and deeper into the desert after her husband succumbs to typhoid, is repeatedly raped, and, finally, becomes the fourth wife and concubine of a Bedouin. Far from any trace of the civilized world and divested of reason, Kit goes completely mad.
Jane, too, eventually went mad. In 1957, at the age of forty, she suffered a massive stroke that left her vision impaired, making it painful to read or write. She depended wholly on Paul and assorted friends for care and supervision. The simplest decisions—what to wear, what to eat—would inspire hours of semi-theatrical vacillation. Although she was prohibited from mixing alcohol with her medicines, she very often drank herself into an incomprehensible stupor. A second stroke, frequent epileptic fits, and depression followed. When things got out of hand, Jane was treated in medical centers in the U.K., the United States, and Spain. By the end of her life, Jane, who had always been paranoid about money, was not only handing it out to American hippies and Moroccans in the bars of Tangier but also distributing her belongings to whoever would take them. Paul and others speculated that Cherifa might have cast a spell on her, a belief fuelled by the appearance of packets of pubic hair, finger nails, and menstrual blood that Cherifa had planted in the apartment that the two shared. In 1973, while staying at a Spanish convent in Malaga, Jane, who was never a practicing Jew, declared, as her childhood hero Simone Weil once did before her, that her last wish was to convert to Catholicism. She died not long after she was said to have danced “too wildly” at a birthday party for one of the other residents. She was fifty-six.
In the final scene of “Two Serious Ladies,” a slightly haggard Mrs. Copperfield, her sweet Pacifica in tow, joins Miss Goering at a New York City bar. Mrs. Copperfield, turning to her friend, says, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.” Jane, too, had gone to pieces. She lived as she loved and drank: ravenously. But, if her sense of sin spelled her end, it was also what made her astounding art possible in the first place.
Today, little is left of the loose and louche Tangier that Jane left behind. Guitta’s, the bar where she drank every night and was known to have at least once stripped naked, is now a French bank. The labyrinthine medina in which she liked to wander at night has been transformed into a maze of posh Club Med-style bed-and-breakfasts for French tourists. Even the building in which she lived her last years—Paul lived upstairs—is run-down. To get there, Moroccan taxi drivers respond to the sound “pa-bo pa-bo.” Downstairs, a stone engraving reads, in both English and Arabic, “Paul Bowles, American writer and composer, lived here from 1960 to 1999.“ There is no trace of Jane.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, this quotation was misattributed to Elizabeth Hardwick.
Credits: This article was originally published in 2014 in The New Yorker