Jane Bowles as Serious Lady

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  • Jane Bowles as Serious LadyThe Collected Works of Jane Bowles by Jane BowlesReview by: James KraftNOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1968), pp. 273-277Published by: Duke University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345168 .Accessed: 15/06/2014 07:33

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  • Review Essay Jane Bowles as Serious Lady

    JAMES KRAFT

    The Collected Works of Jane Bowles1 includes one novel, one play, and seven short stories, which is all she has written since 1943 when she published her first and only novel. Although her publication is limited, Jane Bowles has had a small but faithful reading public, and it is not difficult to see why she excites the attention of a coterie. She is, simply, stylistically and thematically too eccentric to appeal to a larger public. She obviously relishes taking her special viewpoint and expressing it in an oddity of style. Here are the first two paragraphs of her novel, Two Serious Ladies:

    Christina Goering's father was an American industrialist of German par- entage and her mother was a New York lady of a very distinguished family. Christina spent the first half of her life in a very beautiful house (not more than an hour from the city) which she had inherited from her mother. It was in this house that she had been brought up as a child with her sister Sophie.

    As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.

    This calculated prose, so certain of itself, seems to lean energetically forward, to move directly like Christina Goering, to express at once a compression and a thrust. "As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children." This sen- tence is made deliberately suggestive to lead us to the next: "She had never suf- fered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her," and so forth. By this time we are caught up in this firm, clear, blunt world, which makes everything so uncertain with its peculiar, suggestive tension. We are ready for the danger that crops up in the next sentence with the word "fanatics": "Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being."

    1 Jane Bowles, The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, intro. Truman Capote (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), pp. xii + 431, $6.95.

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  • NOVEL SPRING 1968

    This is the beginning of Mrs. Bowles' best work. It concerns first Miss Christina

    Goering and then Mrs. Frieda Copperfield: "Mrs. Copperfield had a sharp little face and very dark hair. She was unusually small and thin. She was nervously rubbing her bare arms and looking around the room when Miss Goering seated herself in the chair beside her. They had met for many years at Anna's parties and they occasionally had tea with each other." They meet at a party at the start of the novel and at a restaurant at the end. In between they pursue their strangely personal existences, neither with apparent success but both with some realization of what they are. The novel is about this pursuit of self against the forms that are laid down for us. These are the forms that we pick up and carry, until we throw them away-perhaps rashly or too late-trying to be what we are. Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, Christina and Frieda, two different but related women, contrast two possible ways in life: the one certain, hard, and firm; the other frightened, nervous, and confused. Mrs. Copperfield's speech quickly defines her side:

    "Oh, I'm sure," said Mrs. Copperfield, "that you wouldn't want to hear about it. You can't possibly have any respect for me, but that doesn't make any dif- ference because I have the utmost respect for you. I heard my husband say that you had a religious nature one day, and we almost had a very bad fight. Of course he is crazy to say that. You are gloriously unpredictable and you are afraid of no one but yourself. I hate religion in other people."

    Mrs. Bowles' style is prosaically flat and yet richly poetic. Everything has its meaning, first for what it is, then for what it is made into, and finally for what it could become. If Christina is anything at all she is just what the opening para- graphs, moving forward, bluntly, flatly, clearly, and inexplicably, are. Every "thing" in these paragraphs is part of her, applies to her, yet nothing expresses her so much as the style that leaves possible in its clearness so much meaning. And nothing shows Mrs. Copperfield like the nervous movement of her quixotic speech. She-and not Christina-will be the unexpected.

    Such a style is deliberately suggestive, and capable of much meaning. It is also limited. Mrs. Bowles writes the same story every time-with two possible excep- tions that will be noted later-as if she must have a Christina-Frieda contrast in order to construct her sense of reality. Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield are the two warring sides of the female personality. Sometimes Mrs. Bowles makes the two women sisters, as in the story, "Camp Cataract." Sometimes she doubles the con- trast, as in her play, In the Summer House, where the adult ladies have two daughters who reverse roles with their mothers. A short puppet play-"A Quar- reling Pair"-involves the conversation of two antagonistic sisters. There are two women in "A Guatemalan Idyll," one of whom has contrasting daughters. There are sister-like whores in "A Day in the Open," again representing the Christina- Frieda difference.

    In each of these contrasts one woman tries to dominate a weaker figure, but in the end emerges as strangely inadequate, oddly more insecure and dependent. Men never play a central role in this fiction. Men can save women from other women,

    274

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  • JAMES KRAFTIJANE BOWLES

    but in doing so men also keep women from confronting what they are. The fiction is distinctly about women; men only exist to show the difference in women-the difference between power to control, which is a weakness, and the weakness of being controlled, which is really the admission of inner strength. This attitude seems distinctly feminine.

    The theme of Mrs. Bowles' work is not in this contrast alone, but in where it leads the characters. Each is seeking to be free of the formal confines of the world that hold the self in place-the forms spoken of above. These forms include family love where there is no love, social conventions that do not apply, sexual attitudes that do not work, genteel manners and methods of speech that are meaningless. If this is her theme one can understand why she creates a style that moves the reader into a strange new world of personal expression. Her style expresses her theme more clearly than the retelling of any narrative could do. It is for this reason that Mrs. Bowles can bear repeated readings. Not only must her special symbols be understood-one must know that going out, to a restaurant for instance, is a sign of breaking the forms of family security and gentility-but one must read her again and again to sense the world she wants to express, for this world is in her moving style. As an example, here is perhaps the extreme point of stylistic creation in her fiction. It is a letter Frieda's husband sends just before she leaves him. What will happen in the novel is here, the movement that must take place, which the prose is trying to capture:

    I do not mean to be cruel but I shall write to you exactly what I consider to be your faults and I hope sincerely that what I have written will influence you. Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your life- time. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began. I do not advise you to spend your life surrounding yourself with those things which you term necessary to your exist- ence, regardless of whether or not