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Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
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Two Serious Ladies (1943)

by Jane Bowles

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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As I started this novel, I was put in mind of Daisy Ashford's "Young Visiters", with its comically unapposite exchanges betwen characters. Continuing to read, I came to be more reminded as an inferior version of Leonora Carrington.
It began as intriguing and entertaining, following the first of our 'serious ladies' - well to do Christina Goering, a strange, unlikeable child with a penchant for extreme and outrageous religious activities. The book follows her into adulthood, living with an entirely incompatible female companion, and with a male acquaintance (and his parents.) And then she moves to an island...
The second lady is merely a fairlty distant acquaintance of Miss Goering; Mrs Copperfield accompanies her husband to Panama, where she embarks on a reltionship with a local lady of dubious repute...
There are odd paragraphs of quite clever writing, but as the implausible and incomprehensible events unroll, page after page, I became SO bored! ( )
  starbox | Aug 22, 2018 |
I am completely baffled as to how this book is considered a cult classic, it was absolute garbage. The plot was nonsense, all the characters were awful and impossible to understand, and the writing wasn't even good. It was just one completely implausible event or nonsensical conversation after another. 0 stars and also I would like the hours of my life I wasted on this book back. ( )
  plumtingz | Dec 14, 2017 |
I must confess, I picked this novel up only because I’d recently read that the wife of Paul Bowles (a rather well-regarded twentieth-century itinerant writer and composer) was the author and was, herself, a woman of much talent but limited repute. I believe I actually saw her described as “a writer’s writer.”

If so, I guess I ain’t no writer – or, at the very least, I can’t support that particular view of Jane Bowles’s work.

Two Serious Ladies is, in a nutshell, bizarre – and I don’t mean because of its content. I mean that the writing is bizarre. On the one hand, I kept asking myself whether English was really Ms. Bowles’s native language. On the other hand, the descriptors ‘fey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ occurred to me over and over again. I was consequently not in the least surprised that Tennessee Williams should’ve proclaimed Two Serious Ladies “(m)y favorite book” – and added – “I can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic.”

I’m sorry. I really wanted to like it – and to be able to declare with Claire Messud, who wrote the Introduction, that “I (too) simply could not put it down.” My problem was the opposite: I kept having to poke myself to pick the book back up and read more of Ms. Bowles’s drivel.

Yet I plunged on, wanting to find out why: “John Ashbury called Jane Bowles ‘one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language’; Alan Sillitoe anointed the novel ‘a landmark in twentieth-century American literature’; Truman Capote deemed her ‘one of the really original pure stylists’; James Purdy said she was ‘an unmatchable talent’; and Tennessee Williams (once again) announced that she was ‘the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters’” – all on p. vi of Claire Messud’s Introduction.

I had to wonder whether Ms. Bowles had been trading sexual favors for flattering reviews – or, more likely (given their separate but equal sexual proclivities), maybe this was payback time to Paul Bowles for a bit of past authorial kink.

To take just a random example (this one on p. 72): “‘All right,’ said Mr. Copperfield. He looked sad and lonely. He enjoyed so much showing other people the things he liked best. He started to walk away towards the edge of the water and stared out across the river at the opposite shore. He was very slight and his head was beautifully shaped.”

Why would a man who’d been married to the same woman for decades suddenly look “sad and lonely” because she opted not to accompany him on a little stroll through the Panamanian jungle? Disappointed, yes. Annoyed, yes. Possibly nonplused if he’s like most men whose wives change their minds at the last minute. But “sad and lonely?” Really? And would that same woman then suddenly observe that that same husband of ten thousand and one nights between the sheets now appeared to her to be “very slight(,) and his head was beautifully shaped?” If he’d been reaching up for a banana in that same instant (not out of place, given the setting of the incident), she might well have observed that he was ‘a simian delight to behold, my exuberant little tropical punch,’ but God knows not that “(h)e was slight(,) and his head was beautifully shaped.”

(Please forgive: I first learned the word ‘simian’ forty years ago chez Theodore Dreiser –who in fact used it three times in the same novel – and I’ve been dying to use it ever since!)

Or maybe this is the answer (on p. 76), ostensibly from the mouth (or thoughts – it’s always a little difficult to tell with Ms. Bowles’s idiosyncratic punctuation) of Mrs. Copperfield, although I think we can safely assume that that same Mrs. Copperfield serves as something of a mouthpiece for Ms. Bowles here and elsewhere: “‘Now,’ she said, jumping off the bed, ‘now for a little spot of gin to chase my troubles away. There just isn’t any other way that’s as good. At a certain point(,) gin takes everything off your hands(,) and you flop around like a little baby. Tonight(,) I want to be a little baby.’”

I like a snifterful (or “hookerful,” as she calls it in the sentence immediately following) as much as the next guy or chick, but I’m also ever-mindful of Hemingway’s dictum: “Write drunk; edit sober.” I have to wonder whether Ms. Bowles ever bothered to pull herself up from under the table long enough to heed the second part of Hemingway’s dictum.

I will give Ms. Bowles credit for one rather trenchant observation early on in the novel – viz., “(t)ourists, generally speaking,” Mrs. Copperfield had written in her journal, “are human beings 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. The hardier tourists find that one place resembles another.”

As she and her husband were particularly well-traveled, I have to concede to her a well-earned authority in this quasi-aphorism. I just don’t understand how it could’ve been penned by the same hand that wrote so much tripe. Maybe – just maybe – she was actually sober when she wrote it.


But the long and short of it is that this book, in my opinion, is an amateur piece of work – AMATEUR writ large and bold. There is one anecdote or action after another that leads nowhere and hardly advances the plot of the book – if advancing the plot was ever even a thought in Jane Bowles’s head. Categorize it however you like – modern; post-modern; post-post-modern; irony; parody; buffoonery; critical social commentary – it just didn’t work, at least for this particular reader.


But as I never fail to add, de gustibus non est disputandum. If my fellow reviewers found the work enchanting, I’m certainly in no position to question their judgment or their choice of enchantment.

RRB
11/30/14
Brooklyn, NY



( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
Jane Bowles is a crazy woman, and I love crazy women. She has written a great book here, which oddly has all the lightness of Kafka when he is light, but a different kind of darkness. This book is about freedom, and desire, but not exactly of the sexual kind. More like a passion for life, or alternately, a sadness for the lack of life. It is constantly surprising and hilarious, and filled with weird and somewhat naive characters who act unconventionally but in a way that makes you think "well, why not act that way???" However, at no point did I feel like the character's surprising behavior was unwarranted or random. Each character felt genuine, each with their particular brand of individuality. Because of how strange and funny it is, it may be easy to overlook how resonant and deep it is as well. I loved this book immensely and I think it is criminally overlooked and under-read.

"But you still look terribly morose."
"I am less morose. I am just showing the results of the terrific fight that I have waged inside of myself, and you know that the face of victory often resembles the face of defeat."

p.186

Here's the awesome author photo on the back cover:

PS - When I said that the desire was not sexual, I don't mean there wasn't a lot of reference to sex and sexual tension. Just that the sexual component seems to be a result of boredom, or an extension of the character's independent searches, than something arising from lust or love. I may be way off, though. ( )
5 vote JimmyChanga | Jul 13, 2010 |
Showing 4 of 4
Bowles's spare, elliptical prose has a hallucinatory quality, pierced by moments of startling clarity and wit. Her characters retain a sphinx-like opacity, as unsettling as it is engrossing; "If you are only interested in a bearable life, perhaps this does not concern you," one of them writes. It is this challenge that lies at the heart of Bowles's novel.
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jane Bowlesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Capote, TrumanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gray, Francine du PlessixIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Laurencin, MarieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sage, LornaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Christina Goering's father was an American industrialist of German parentage and her mother was a New York lady of a very distinguished family.
'I can't live without her, not for a minute,' a heroine of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies says about the teen-age whore she has taken as a companion. (Introduction)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
' I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I've wanted to do for years...but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf.'  With exhilarating wit, Two Serious Ladies follows the decline into debauchery of two very different women: Christina Goering, a wealthy spinster in pursuit of sainthood who ends up as a high class call-girl; and Frieda Copperfield, who abandons her stick of a husband for love of a prostitute, and ends up more or less permanently under the influence. Their unlimited lush for doing exactly as they like and hilarious eccentricity triumpantly celebrate the joys of female freedom. First published in America in 1943, this brilliant comedy of manners has gained a legendary reputation for its author, Jane Bowles- a bizarre and marvellous writer, a true original.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0720611792, Paperback)

This comedy of manners follows the decline into debauchery of two different women, one a spinster who turns into a high class prostitute and the other a woman who changes her husband for Pacifia, a Panamanian. The author has previously written "Everything is Nice" and "A Little Original Sin".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:29 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Christina Goering, eccentric and adventurous, and Frieda Copperfield, anxious but enterprising, are two serious ladies who want to live outside of themselves. Old friends, each will take a surprising path in search of salvation: during a visit to Panama, Mrs. Copperfield abandons her husband, finding solace in a relationship with a teenage prostitute; while Miss Goering, a wealthy spinster, pursues sainthood via sordid encounters with the basest of men. At the end the two women meet again, each radically altered by her experience"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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