This is another fairly long review, but a few of you were kind enough the other day to tell me not to apologise for long reviews – so I shan’t! I certainly enjoyed writing it, and formulating my thoughts.
Eighteen months ago John Self very kindly offered me a copy of Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles, in its beautiful reprint by Sort Of Books (responsible for the recent Tove Jansson editions too, most of which are newly-commissioned translations.) He thought it might be my sort of thing – and he was definitely right. It just took a while for me to get around to reading it… (By the by, Sort Of Books – I love you, I love your production standards and your choice of titles – but… only one lady on the cover of a book called Two Serious Ladies – really?)
I know John Self read the novel, but can’t find a review of it on his blog, so perhaps it never got that far. In fact, despite being a celebrated novel, there isn’t a great deal of coverage of it in the blogging world – perhaps because it is essentially a very strange book. You know I love me some strange, now and then, so I was more than happy with that – but it isn’t one that I would recommend to everyone. Bowles writes quite like Muriel Spark, but without the ironic authorial comment. The unsettling dialogue never settles into the expected, the sparse narrative offers very little guidance, and the whole novel is deliciously disconcerting and unusual. And yet it’s still often very funny. If you like beginning-middle-end and naturalised conversations between characters, then look away. If you like Muriel Spark, Barbara Comyns, or even Ivy Compton-Burnett – then you could well be in for a treat.
The females of the title only meet twice, briefly, in Two Serious Ladies – towards the end of the first and third sections, of three. The ladies in question are Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield – always called, by the narrative, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield; one of the novel’s most subtle strangenesses. Lorna Sage’s excellent introduction reveals that there was once to have been a third serious lady, Senorita Cordoba, which might have made the unusual structure less striking – but would have thus robbed Bowles.
We first see Miss Goering as a child, attempting to inveigle a straightforward friend into an elaborate and invented religious ritual. The reader might, not unnaturally, expect to follow Miss Goering throughout her life – but we quickly fast-forward to Miss Goering as a “grown woman” (age unspecified) and stay there. She is unsociable, uncompromising, selfish and violently honest – yet not truly malicious. Her character is so open and amorally direct that she reminded me of Katri from Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. Oddly, suddenly (so much in this novel is odd and sudden) Miss Goering invites Miss Gamelon, the cousin of her governess, to live with her. They are never amiable companions, and although they depend upon one another to an extent, their relationship is never reliable and neither even attempts to understand the other. It is a mystery why either would want to live with the other – but a mystery neither of them care to address. Here is the sort of conversation they have:
I know I shouldn’t be attempting a piece of close reading, as that’s not what you’ve come to read, but I think that excerpt would be fascinating to analyse. One example – that word ‘certainly’ in the final sentence. How many authors would have included that? And what a transformative effect it has on the sentiment, and on the character speaking it – she becomes that much more combative, and idiomatic, and faux-dramatic. She is speaking for effect, for drama, rather than with simply honesty. Even if I’d only read these sentences, Miss Gamelon would stand fully-formed before me.
Nearly all the characters and their conversations are piercingly honest, unswervingly self-absorbed, and insistently irrelevant. Rarely do they seem to have paid the remotest attention to what their interlocutor has replied. If they have, it is solely as a means of flatly refuting it. Forster’s Howards End is renowned for the mantra ‘only connect’ – Two Serious Ladies proffers the opposite doctrine, especially where Miss Goering is concerned. She does go out with a weak man called Arnold, whom she openly despises – although, again, without intending malice. Jane Bowles excels at portraying awkward conversations and unhappy exchanges – if they lean too much towards the morosely disjointed to claim verisimilitude, then at least it makes a change to the neat patter of many novels.
Miss Goering bumps into her acquaintance Mrs. Copperfield at a party, and the narrative passes the baton on. Mrs. Copperfield is about to embark on a trip to Panama with her husband.
This section of the novel is equally interesting, although I jotted down fewer notes while reading it… where Miss Goering is indifferent and jaded, Mrs. Copperfield has an ingenuous lust for experience. She is not an intelligent woman, but is easily captivated, and dashes around Panama – befriending the inhabitants of a brothel along the way. Here she has just met a flighty girl named Peggy, whose appearance in the novel is fleeting:
How are these ladies serious? Lorna Sage suggests that Bowles uses the word to mean ‘risking the possibility that you were meaninglessly weird’. I think perhaps it is these ladies’ choice not to laugh at life, but determinedly to live it, and see what happens. But, truth be told, Jane Bowles doesn’t seem to have a grand theme to Two Serious Ladies. Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield are not part of a philosophical quest; there is no sense of purpose or conclusion. Questions are not answered; they are scarcely posed. In many ways the novel doesn’t follow any progression at all – the ladies merely experience a great deal, whether grasping at it enthusiastically or raising an ambivalent eyebrow at life. Bowles’ astonishing talent is creating a dynamic that, if not unique, is highly unusual – strange, surreal, and yet grounded to the mundane. Her ear for dialogue is astonishing – dialogue which is almost never realistic, but always striking.
And Two Serious Ladies is a brilliant novel. As I said, it would not suit many readers – but anybody who chose writing style over plot in my recent post on the topic would be quite likely to appreciate this book. It is a huge shame that Bowles only wrote one novel. The one she has created ought to be enough to assure her a sort of immortality – Bowles is one novelist we should be taking seriously.
Others who got Stuck into it:
“There’s something interestingly off in the way the characters in this book make choices; they are all inscrutable.” – With Hidden Noise
“At its heart, it is a book about people who feel quite often unrooted and alone, even in their own parlor, surrounded by friends.” – Margaret, The Art of Reading
“It’s essentially an absurd tale and not one I really got into.” – Verity, Verity’s Virago Venture