When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read my first Jane Bowles story, there was a rather strong, positive reaction to her writing. But the comments I received about Two Serious Ladies still did not prepare me for reading this story. This short novel, in fact her only one, is enigmatic, humorous, surprising, even shocking and sad all at the same time. Truman Capote’s description of the story, I think, sums it up best:
Voyaging for the first time into Two Serious Ladies, I was immediately disoriented. I did not know what to make of this object at all. There was no discernible narrative strategy. There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work. Interpretation was useless. The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling. Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their peculiar journeys’ flights as bats. They were often drunk. They thought continuously, obsessively, but had no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.
Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, the two serious ladies, spend very little time together as they are casual acquaintances. Each has her own distinct story, but what fascinated me about both of them is their attempt to live on their own terms and find their own versions of happiness. I found them a bit crazy but also rather brave. Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Central America by her adventurous husband; we get the feeling that she stays with him out of a sense of duty, even fondness or nostalgia, but she would much prefer to be off on her own. And that’s exactly what she does. In Colon she stays at a seedy hotel, makes friends with a prostitute, and drinks way more gin than she ought to. At the end of the story she tells Miss Goering, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I’m as guilty as I can be, 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.”
Miss Goering is horrified by Mrs. Copperfield’s new outlook on life, but perhaps she is frightened by those qualities which she recognizes in herself. When the story begins she is a spinster living alone on her family’s home in upstate New York but she slowly gathers a rather strange entourage of people around her. I found Miss Goering’s narrative to be the most surprising. What oftentimes begins as a humorous description of her adventures quickly turns melancholy; twice she is invited by men back to their apartments and on both occasions nothing turns out as one would expect. She is different from Mrs. Copperfield in that she seems to be on a mission to save herself and the strange men she meets from some sort of sin. Her last words in the novel are mysterious and disconcerting: “‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, ‘but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.”
I am very eager to read Bowles’s letters which I am impatiently awaiting to arrive in the mail. I suspect, from what little I know about her life and from reading this book, that I will find among them humor, sadness, loneliness and a lot of drinking.