Out in the World Analysis
Jane Bowles’s letters are long and exuberantly written, although their tone could not often be called happy. “I have never yet enjoyed a day,” she wrote, “but I have never stopped trying to arrange for happiness.” The important letters for admirers and critics of her work are those in which she talks about her writing. There are many. She agonizes over her difficulties in completing projects and discusses her extreme isolation in subject, theme, and style from other writers, such as her contemporary Carson McCullers. A number of these work-related letters were written to Paul Bowles during the periods in which she produced her novel Two Serious Ladies, her play In the Summer House, and her short stories.
Jane Bowles’s letters give her readers some sense of the challenges and texture of her life. Because she struggled so hard to produce her work—against writer’s block, uncertainty about her talent, and finally an irreversible illness—Jane Bowles’s life fascinates those who enjoy her fiction. A fall from a horse at age fourteen led to a two-year treatment in a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis of the knee. During this period of confinement, she wrote the novel Le Phaeton Hypocrite. (The manuscript was lost.) She later was required to have surgery to stiffen her knee permanently, which left her with a characteristic limp.
Bowles led an exotic life. She traveled in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Her letters are full of compelling descriptions of Morocco. She had adoring friends in literary and artistic circles, and in her letters she often included amusing portraits of writers such as Truman Capote, Alice B. Toklas, and Allen Ginsberg. She had passionate relationships with unusual and fascinating women, and she corresponded with them. Her marriage to the writer Paul Bowles, who is also recognized for his contribution to twentieth century fiction, was complex and unconventional. Although they were dependent on and devoted to each other, the two often lived apart. Their unique relationship as writers and marriage partners has spawned much literary speculation and gossip. Jane Bowles’s letters provide a way of understanding their bond.
The relationship between Jane Bowles’s life and work is so strong, as Millicent Dillon has suggested, that it is difficult not to seek answers to the mysteries in her fiction by reading her elegant, precisely expressed, and voluminous correspondence. The great care she took in expressing herself to those close to her through her letters suggests that her devotion to language and writing was full-time, an inextricable part of her nature and being. The search for a home, a way out of isolation, is a fundamental theme of her letters just as it is of her fiction: “I might, if I can, just stay on in Paris or even go down to Tangier before returning to New York and being stuck there for a long period of time—maybe ten years? As for my life I don’t know where I live . . .” She insisted that Tangier was not a good place for her work, but the Moroccan city by the straits haunted her nevertheless. “The terrible thing is that I love it still just as I did when I left,” she wrote from Paris. Her obsession in the letters with isolation and belonging suggests that she created her fictional places just to have a place where she would always be welcome.