Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

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Right from the beginning, Mrs. Copperfield describes Miss Goering has “gloriously unpredictable”, and for me, those would be accurate adjectives applicable to the entire novel. It wouldn’t be surprising to say that this is the strangest novel I’ve read all year, for it’s only the fourth one I’ve finished in 2016. Perhaps I ought to say it’s one of the strangest novels I’ve read ever, and yet that does not mean I wasn’t completely absorbed by it. No, as I turned the last page tonight I could see why Scott mentioned to me that he has read it several (I believe five?) times. The surprises are so abrupt, the themes so large, that I could see myself reading it several times myself, but not before initial thoughts are “due” by the end of the month.

In the beginning, Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering connect at a party, go their separate ways during the course of the novel, and reconnect at the end of the book. While they have been absent from each other, they have endured embraced some remarkable experiences. Mrs. Copperfield and her husband travel to South America, and disembark in Panama where Mrs. Copperfield meets sharp-featured, wiry-haired Pacifica, a prostitute with whom she falls in love. She bids her husband to continue his trip without her.

Miss Goering sells her lovely home for a shack on an island, and moving in with her are her governess’s cousin (Lucie Gamelon), Arnold, and Arnold’s father. An odd assortment of people move in and out of the pages of this novel, and while it seems that they long for connection with Christina Goering, she longs for nothing of the sort.

To me, her life is more a trial-and-error stab at abating loneliness, which none of the characters are very capable of achieving, least of all Miss Goering.

The characters seem to be in horror of being alone. Mrs. Quill, proprietress of the Hotel de las Palmas where Pacifica works, says to a waiter, “Such an awful, dreadful, mean thing to be alone in the world even for a minute…” (p. 134)

When Miss Goering is sitting at a bar, she answers the question put to her about if she’s having a good time like this: “Well,” said Miss Goering, “it wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions-” (p. 194)

In several places, Miss Goering points out that she is forcing herself to accomplish something, yet what that might be befuddled me until the conclusion of the novel. It seems she had been on a quest for salvation: “…she was only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own salvation.” (p. 239).

How one obtains salvation without faith is beyond me, but Christina Goering seemed to think it can be accomplished by downsizing. Facing her fears. Keeping herself busy, and surrounded by someone interesting to talk to at all times. It is as though isolation is the worst state of being for both of these women, yet having a lovely time does not fill the gap in their aching hearts.

Jane Bowles writes in a way that made me think there had been a translator for Two Serious Ladies, until I remembered that she was an American writer born in 1917. Yet there is a passive, almost surreal quality to her writing that led me to feel that her characters were quite ungrounded. They seemed lost and instead of finding the novel to have an overall effect of humour, for which Jane Bowles has been noted, I found it tragic. They are two serious ladies, indeed. Two serious, sad and hopeless ladies in my opinion.

I read this book with Scott, Frances, Dorian, Claire and Laurie, each of whose thoughts I am eager to know. This novel also qualifies for the Back to The Classics Challenge: Book by a Female Author. And, in an attempt to schedule this for Wednesday, I accidentally published it tonight. So sorry if this was rushing the timing for anyone…

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22 comments

      1. A fascinating read! Thank you for inviting me to readalong, I went further than Panama and the island, I’ve been to Tangiers and been reading around about Mad Queen Jane as The NewYorker referred to her and her coterie of friends, lovers and various antics. All made for an interesting reading experience and days of mulling it all over before putting my thoughts down.

        It seemed to me that neither knew exactly what they were looking for and found it as difficult to say yes and it was to say no, Miss Goering just allowed herself to indulge each situation, regardless of her instinct , never discerning (bound to get her in trouble eventually) and Mrs Copperfield seemed to be searching for a maternal experience, to mother or be mothered, though ironically seeking it in a business/hotel owner and a prostitute, but women who were kind to her. Bizarre indeed and yet fabulous and thought-provoking. I’m intrigued that Scott has reread it so many times!

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    1. I’ve not read anything by her before, nor her husband. In many ways this novel seems to mirror their marriage, her life. I hope you have a chance to pick it up, it’s so interesting.

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  1. I really enjoyed your review! I still remember reading this, it is SUCH a weird and unsettling novel, it really stays with you. I’ll have to read it again. I never know quite what to make of it, it seems to revel in its artificiality and oddness and yes, abrupt is a good word for it. You’ve given me lots to think about! I’m looking forward to reading the others’ reviews too.

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    1. Helen, I’m so happy you enjoyed my review. One wonders if one can convey the important thoughts and ideas whirling in one’s head after finishing a book; hopefully, these paragraphs of mine made some sense.

      It’s a book which does indeed stay with you, and is so multi-faceted it could bear several rereadings. I’m sure I’ve only grazed the surface from my first time through. I really looking forward to seeing what the others thought, if we’re even on the same page. 😉

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  2. This sounds fascinating! To never have a moment alone would be the most dreadful thing to me. I will need to read more about this book, and read it when I can.

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  3. Another Two Serious Ladies surprise: my going on-line this morning to find your post two days early! Ah, well, it’s not a serious transgression. And yet another surprise: we could easily swap introductory paragraphs. I too went with the “gloriously unpredictable” description to apply to the whole novel, as you’ll see – unless I change things around. But I won’t reply here in much detail as I expect my post will contain an implicit reply. Bravo for tackling this “strange” novel and providing such a thought-provoking review.

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    1. Scott, as a blogger who has worked with Blogger for years before WordPress, I struggled with correctly scheduling my post. So sorry to throw a wrench in that plan.

      I am SO eager to know your thoughts, wishing that we were all around a dining room table together to more easily chat face to face. I found this novel so odd, yet so charming, and when it was all said and done, I found it sad. They seem like serious, but tragic, ladies, with not much chance for joy ahead of them.

      Well, please know I’ll be over first thing Wednesday morning looking for your post!

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  4. I liked your review. That novel is weird and strange. The biography on Jane Bowles is really depressing as she was a hopeless alcoholic who drank & smoked so much she had a stroke at 40. She was really neurotic and seemed intent on destroying herself with booze & pills. Her husband was a Gay who loved Arab boys so I guess she was really unhappy with her life. They were both a bit creepy as they were like early sex tourists as they travelled around looking to pay for gay sex (that’s implied in the novel). When she got older and was no fun, he ended up putting her in an asylum so he could live with his 20 year old hustler arab boyfriend. She died there. Really depressing stuff. She reminded me a lot of Carson McCullers. Their lives ran is spooky parallels. Have you read McCullers?

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  5. I have to admit that I did find this very funny. The quests for salvation struck me as quests for an alternate salvation, not one as yet defined. This is going to sound odd, but I kept thinking of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening which is not in the least bit funny but also addressed the questions of where does one head, what does one do, when one’s own thoughts, needs, etc. find no echo in a highly prescriptive world. Promise to get my thoughts together to post this week. Gotta make that January deadline! 🙂

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  6. “…the questions of where does one head, what does one do, when one’s own thoughts, needs, etc. find no echo in a highly prescriptive world”

    So beautifully put, Frances. I think this is spot on with Bowles’ overarching themes, the difficulty of finding one’s way and living authentically and – for Bowles’ darker vision – trying to do so in order to avoid being swept under by forces of conformity and coercion. I’m looking forward to your review!

    Regarding Morella’s comment above, it’s worth picking up Millicent Dillon’s biography, A Little Original Sin, for a rounder picture of these complicated authors, who, despite their sexual and romantic adventures, were by nearly all accounts deeply devoted to one another until Jane’s death.

    The “spookiness” of the parallels between Bowles and Carson McCullers has a thoroughly non-spooky explanation: they lived together during the period in which Bowles wrote Two Serious Ladies (and during which Carson wrote Ballad of the Sad Cafe and A Member of the Wedding), and they encouraged one another’s work. It’s telling that Bowles once commented that she didn’t find McCullers “serious” in the way, for example, that she found one of their other co-habitants, poet W. H. Auden, whose ideas concerning the roles and obligations of the artist Bowles latched onto fervently.

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  7. I find Jane Bowles letters about giving a Moroccan market girl a cheap radio so she can persuade to have sex with her, very upsetting. Does nobody else find something wrong with this? Paul Bowles always talk about Moroccan as ‘they’ and never as equal people. ‘They have big cocks and are very cheap’. These are terrible, terrible people. You have to read between the lines and not just repeat the book what you have read otherwise you learning nothing. What does the book show you in a life?

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    1. I do not know much about Jane Bowles’ personal life, and this is the first novel I have read of hers. But what you say is upsetting to me. In fact, the life of Mrs. Copperfield depicted in this novel was also upsetting to me personally, which is why I believe I used the word tragic. I would not leave my husband for laisons with strangers, and that is a gentle way of saying same sex with prostitutes included.

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