Two Serious Ladies
Translated BY: Wael Ashrey
Available only in Arabic
Named by Tennessee Williams as his favourite book, Two Serious Ladies (first published in 1943) is a singular achievement – a modernist cult classic, and Jane Bowles’s only novel.
Bowles, the darling of the avant garde, anatomises women’s place in society with delicate but devastating skill. Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield meet at a party in a New York suburb: one a wealthy spinster, the other married, both seek escape from their stifling social milieu, though the paths they choose in their search for salvation take them far apart. Abandoning her family home, Miss Goering decamps to a dilapidated house on an island, but asceticism yields swiftly to increasingly sordid encounters with strange men. Mrs Copperfield dutifully accompanies her husband on a cruise to Panama, but falls in love with a prostitute and is swallowed up by a seedy world of bars and bordellos. When the two meet again, they are much changed – both have suffered the depredations of their deadbeat odysseys, but have found a new strength too. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years,” Mrs Copperfield declares. “I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which I never had before.”
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.