Despite her limited body of work, Jane Bowles (bohlz), author of a novel, short stories, and one full-length play, has been proclaimed by such writers as Tennessee Williams to be a major American writer of prose fiction. Born Jane Auer in New York City in 1917, she was the daughter of Clair Stajer, who had been trained as a teacher, and Sidney Major Auer, who died when his daughter was thirteen. Following her father’s death, Jane was cared for by her affectionate, possessive, and ambitious mother. Problems between mothers and daughters surface throughout Bowles’s work; in In the Summer House, for example, Gertrude Eastman imagines that her daughter is “plotting something.”
After one semester at public school, Mrs. Auer enrolled her daughter at Stoneleigh, an exclusive girls’ school. Less than six months later, Jane fell from a horse, breaking her leg. Because of continuing medical problems, including a lifelong limp, she was sent to a clinic in Leysin, Switzerland, where she was educated for the next two years by a private tutor. On the journey back to the United States, while reading Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), Bowles met its author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Upon her return to America, she announced, “I am a writer, and I want to write.”
Between 1914 and 1937, Bowles lived with her mother in New York City, where she briefly attended acting school before writing “Le Phaeton hypocrite” in French, all copies of which have been lost. In 1937, she met Paul Bowles, composer and author, whom she married in 1938. After a stay in Central America and Paris, the couple returned to New York City and, subsequently, lived in a farmhouse on Staten Island, the model for Miss Goerling’s house in Two Serious Ladies. After traveling in Mexico, they shared a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights with such well-known figures as poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, and striptease dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. From 1947 until 1967, when she entered a hospital in Málaga, Spain, Bowles spent most of her time in Tangier, Morocco. During that twenty-year period, however, she rarely wrote about Morocco or the life around her.
In Two Serious Ladies, Bowles introduces the themes of sin, loneliness, and salvation—motifs which inform much of her subsequent work. Written in three parts, the novel shifts between the worlds of New York and Panama. Like Bowles herself, the characters in Two Serious Ladies are rootless and peripatetic; they seek a home but also fear the constraints that such ordered existences impose. A “nest,” for example, may turn out to be a brothel. Following “A Guatemalan Idyll” in 1941, “A Day in the Open” in 1945, and “Plain Pleasures” in 1946, Bowles published “Camp Cataract” in 1949, often considered to be her most successful short story. The story utilizes Bowles’s essential plot: One woman seeks to escape from the traditional pattern of her life while another woman advocates restraint, prudence, and dependency. Themes of alienation and dependency dominate Bowles’s only full-length drama, In the Summer House. Much like Laura in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944), the main character, Molly, occupies a dreamworld buttressed by her strong-willed and manipulative mother. Like many of Bowles’s characters, Molly cannot communicate with those around her. In such a charged mother-daughter relationship, love becomes destructive as the young Molly murders an outgoing young girl her own age whom she considers a rival for her mother’s affection.
The main characters in Bowles’s fiction are usually women who feel isolated and guilt-ridden in a world stripped of myth. Bowles’s fictional terrain is that of a nightmare where fear and loneliness are givens. The only respite from such anxiety is a retreat to prelapsarian childhood, or to eccentricity and madness. Although it is difficult to characterize Bowles’s style, terms such as Kafkaesque and surrealistic seem appropriate. Unlike that of...
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