Authors: Jane Bowles

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Plain Pleasures, 1966

Long Fiction:

Two Serious Ladies, 1943

Drama:

In the Summer House, pr. 1953

Nonfiction:

Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970, 1985 (Millicent Dillon, editor)

Miscellaneous:

The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, 1966

Feminine Wiles, 1976

My Sister’s Hand in Mine, 1978

Biography

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.”{$I[AN]9810001196}{$I[A]Bowles, Jane}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bowles, Jane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bowles, Jane}{$I[tim]1917;Bowles, Jane}

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 such contemporaries as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, Bowles’s art is neither rooted in a sense of place nor set in a specific social milieu. Relatively little has been written about Bowles’s work in the United States, perhaps because of the notion, shared by Bowles herself, that she belonged to a European rather than an American tradition. A formative segment of Bowles’s education took place in Europe. She felt that her limp marked her as different even to the most casual observer. Moreover, growing up, Bowles was distanced from her Jewish background. Later, she attempted to write while living in Morocco, a cultural milieu thoroughly different from any she had previously experienced. Despite the publication of The Collected Works of Jane Bowles in 1966 and an expanded collection, My Sister’s Hand in Mine, in 1978, Bowles continues to be viewed as something of an underground writer. Nevertheless, she has commanded a loyal coterie of admirers, including John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Purdy.

BibliographyAshbery, John. “Up from the Underground.” Review of The Collected Works of Jane Bowles. The New York Times Book Review, February 29, 1967, 5. In this oft-quoted review, Ashbery calls Bowles “one of the finest modern writers of fiction, in any language.” He observes that Bowles’s work often involves a conflict between weak and strong characters; he also praises her use of local color in dialogue and details.Bowles, Paul. Without Stopping. 1972. Reprint. New York: Ecco Press, 1991. Bowles’s autobiography sheds light on the marriage of the two authors, their life in Morocco, and Jane Bowles’s writer’s block.Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. This essay revises Dillon’s comments in her 1981 biography (below) about Bowles’s writer’s block. Dillon asserts that the fragments that characterized Bowles’s writing (which Bowles saw as artistic failures) can instead be seen as “a valid expression of her own narrative vision.”Dillon, Millicent. “Keeper of the Flame.” The New Yorker 72 (January 27, 1997): 27-28. Discusses the efforts of an eighteen-year-old Spanish high school student to have Bowles’s remains exhumed from a cemetery of San Miguel in Malaga (which is to make way for a freeway) and reburied in Marbella.Dillon, Millicent. A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. This illuminating and thoroughly researched biography gives full coverage of Jane Bowles’s life and offers insightful commentary on her work. Dillon suggests that much of Bowles’s work (and in turn, her life) was concerned with the notion of sin and its absolution, with imagination as another powerful force in her writing.Gentile, Kathy Justice. “‘The Dreaded Voyage into the World’: Jane Bowles and Her Serious Ladies.” Studies in American Fiction 22 (Spring, 1994): 47-60. Discusses the concept of dread in Bowles’s short fiction and her novel. Argues that her work has been neglected because of her avant-garde reputation and because of the subject of dread. Claims that her heroine in the story “Camp Cataract” confronts dread from a perspective of existential freedom.Green, Michelle. The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Green provides a fascinating portrait of the exotic “outpost” of Tangier in the decades after World War II. She gives additional biographical information about Jane and Paul Bowles, plus factual information about Jane Bowles’s works and their publication history.Lougy, Robert E. “The World and Art of Jane Bowles, 1917-1973.” CEA Critic, no. 49 (1987): 157-173. Lougy explores the major themes and forms of Bowles’s work: isolation, fragmentation, guilt, and eccentricity. He often provides biographical background for aspects of her fiction and labels her a much more contemporary author than many other writers of her time.Roditi, Edouard. “The Fiction of Jane Bowles as a Form of Self-Exorcism.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 2 (1992). Looks at what Roditi sees as Bowles’s fears of lesbianism and insanity.Skerl, Jennie, ed. A Tawdry Place of Salvation: The Art of Jane Bowles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. A good interpretation of Bowles’s characters, settings, and themes. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
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