Forgotten Ladies

Longtime journalist and fiction writer Gary Indiana—his new novel, The Shanghai Gesture, sits in my to-be-read pile—uses his engaging if mind-zappingly Day-Glo blog to enthuse about Jane Bowles‘ 1943 novel, Two Serious Ladies, which he argues isn’t just a lost classic but indeed a “perfect book.” There are a couple of obvious reasons why the book seems to have fallen off the larger critical radar: Bowles’ career was overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, Paul, and its lesbian themes didn’t go over well with a World War II-era audience. Best as I can tell, the book is currently out of print in the U.S., though relatively affordable used copies are available (I’m considering this one, by virtue of its cover alone). (Update: Once again, a wise commenter corrects me, noting that the novel is included in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

But if there were problems with bad timing then, there are no excuses now. Indiana writes:

The structure of Two Serious Ladies has, as far as I know, no direct precedent in literature. Neither the lives nor the happenings in the two women’s lives are at all intertwined, nor do they “alternate” the way novels rich in subplots do. The book simply, abruptly, abandons Christina Goering in mid-¬novel, so to speak, and jumps into the story of the Copperfields in Panama….

Jane Bowles devised a brilliantly original technique to splice two almost completely disconnected narratives into perfectly harmonious movements of the same story. Each mirrors the other in ways that are both logical and inexplicable. Two Serious Ladies captures the haphazardness of human connections in a world of transience. The two brief moments of contact between its subjects constitute the book’s sole concession to “plot.” It’s the finest novel ever written by an American, actually, the only one I’ve never repeatedly picked up without reading straight through to the end.

The book certainly struck Bowles’ husband. As Millicent Dillon writes in A Little Original Sin, her biography of Jane Bowles, “Two Serious Ladies had a profound influence on Paul when he read it. As he himself says, it was the generating force that brought him back to fiction. And there is, in fact, in The Sheltering Sky a curious resemblance to Two Serious Ladies…. [Both] are novels that deal with the same basic themes: choice, sin, sex, and the spirit.”

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