Two Serious Ladies

By JANE BOWLES

In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II looked around him and saw a land of many tongues and many dialects. But which, if any, was the pure language of God? Perhaps it was  something innate, lost in the course of growing up human. In order to discover the inborn language, he had a group of infants isolated from language at birth: The children’s nurses were instructed to care for the infants but never to speak to them, so that when they began to speak their voices would be unsullied by human intervention, by any mundane dilution, and from their lips would spring the language with which we are naturally bestowed, the language of the heavens, be it Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic.

I was thinking of Frederick II when I was reading Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, wondering if she was the result of a similar experiment. Perhaps a literary critic wanted to discover how a writer deprived of novels, storybooks, even good anecdotes would go about telling a story. Because Bowles does not break the rules of how to structure a novel; she writes as if she had no idea such rules ever existed.

The results of the second experiment were more fruitful than the first (a bunch of dead babies.) But it really makes for a curious act of reading. No one, apparently, ever told Jane Bowles that it would confuse a reader if you spent the first quarter of the book following one character, only to abruptly drop her to follow a woman we briefly met at a cocktail party many pages back without any transition whatsoever. No one, apparently, ever told Jane Bowles that the actions of her characters need to make some sort of logical sense, even if that logic is entirely subjective. Likewise she seems entirely ignorant about things like character development and five-act structures and resolution. And thank god for all of that, because the result is strangely beautiful, like an elegant and venomous insect.

The form reflects the content, then, because the novel is about the effects of deprivation of another kind: social. Our lonely selves might be our purer selves, unshaped by society’s expectations and normalizing effect, but our purer selves sure are strange. The first of Bowles’s eponymous ladies is Christina Goering, the product of a lonely childhood, spent friendless but in a state of religious exaltation. No wonder she could not find anyone to play with her. “[The game's] called ‘I forgive you for all your sins’… You’ll have to take your dress off.” Christina is remarkably lifelike, the child whose only friend was God. She grows into an ascetic eccentric with a bit of Messiah complex and her house begins to fill with followers, as Messiahs rarely seem to have trouble attracting them.

Her titular companion is Mrs. Frieda Copperfield, who follows her husband on vacation into Panama, only to break away from him to befriend prostitutes and sleep with all comers. Frieda is perhaps Christina’s opposite, socialized into normalcy but crammed into a marriage with a man who had no interest in seeing her or hearing her. It seems he only got married so that he would have someone to explain things to, and Frieda went along with it until she did not. She is the dutiful wife, but then she finds herself in the sweaty embrace of a large female prostitute and her true self, kept for so long underground and under pressure, erupts to the surface as fully formed and pure as a cut diamond.

The plot is not the point, nor really the prose, it’s the experience of the thing. “Oh my — oh my,” says Mrs. Quill, speaking for us all, “must I always be told what other people do? I’ve had just about enough of it.”  The best way to describe this book might be queer. Certainly it’s written by a gay woman who married a gay man and lived as an expatriate in Tangier in the 1940s, but my definition does not stop there. I also mean by “queer” all of those inappropriate, singular weirdnesses that got smashed out of us in elementary school, anything that stood out as too angular and too bizarre and so made us a target. We shed most of that stuff, so desperate we were not to stand out. Jane Bowles and her strange ladies had the strength to retain it. The result is a reminder of the divinity of the inappropriate, which we so willingly relinquish in the name of being understood. Or at least understandable.

Two Serious Ladies was Jane Bowles’s only novel, but then Frederick’s babies only got a few clicks and howls out before giving up entirely, too. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years,” says Mrs. Copperfield at the end of the book. We all go to pieces sometimes, it’s true. But then only a few of us have the strength to decide not to put ourselves back together.