My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles

I was reminded of Jane Bowles again by Chris Kraus mentioning her story Going to Massachusetts. This collection includes that story, along with all of Bowles’ other work, most notably Two Serious Ladies, which I read a few years ago and had silly opinions of. I liked it much better this time, being more in a modernist mood, I suppose. Also, I read her biography last year, highly unsatisfactory, but traces of it shot through me when I was re-reading Ladies today. And bonus, I found when searching “Bowles” on the site that I had read Jane’s hubby Paul’s translation of The Beach Cafe a few months ago.

This collection of all her work is useful, but most of the stories are lumps of clay that sit squat and flat and stare back at you challengingly. It does give one hope and comfort that when you sit down at the writing table each morning to let the pen go willy-nilly, perhaps sometimes it works and sometimes not.

Two Serious Ladies

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I don’t particularly like reading books that I don’t understand, but perhaps it’s like eating a vegetable you hate but know is good for you. It stretches the brain a bit, as you furiously try to stitch together various pieces into a meaningful whole. The book follows two wealthy women on odd journeys, a quick read that will leave your head spinning. Written by Jane Bowles in 1943 and dubbed “modernist”, it will niggle at the back of my mind for some time.

Christina Goering lives in a magnificent house an hour from the city, takes in a female companion, decides to give up the house and take a much smaller and more uncomfortable house that she, her companion (Miss Gamelon), and Arthur (a fat, lazy man she met at a party who took her home and installed her in a cold bedroom from which she was tossed out by Arthur’s father) move into. Along comes Arthur’s father to complete the packed house, which delights Goering to no end. After many months, Goering sets off on a solo excursion in the evening where she meets Andy at a bar, and goes home with him. Making a commitment to come again the next night, she returns, but with Arthur and his father in tow. Arthur participates in a basketball game wearing his pajama top and acting crazy. Arthur’s father dislikes Andy and mopes to leave. Goering moves in with Andy for eight days, then hopes to become the mistress of a hulking dark figure she has seen at the bar. She leaves with the mysterious figure (Ben), only to be ferried into the city to sit at a table in a restaurant while Ben does business for several hours at another table. Goering calls her friend Mrs. Copperfield to join her at the restaurant and catch up.

The other journey we follow is Mrs. Copperfield’s excursion to Panama where she exults in her freedom whenever she leaves her husband, and becomes quite merry with Pacifica (a Spanish prostitute) and Mrs Quill (who owns the hotel). Mr. Copperfield tramps around the jungle and considers raising cattle in Costa Rica while Mrs. Copperfield develops a deep attachment to Pacifica, having an orgasmic experience whilst learning to swim. There is a great scene where a man takes Mrs. Quill to the nicest bar in town to entice her to hire him to improve her own club, but he dashes off without paying the check when he learns the meager contents of her bank account. Mrs. Copperfield rushes in to help pay the bill for Mrs. Quill and gives the assistant manager a major dressing down, calling him a bad manager and a boor for not treating them more kindly once the bill was settled. “The most horrid thing about you is that you’re just as grouchy now that you know your bill will be paid as you were before. You were mean and worried then and you’re mean and worried now… it’s a dangerous man who reacts more or less in the same way to good news or bad news.” Eventually Mrs. Copperfield returns to the US with Pacifica in tow, and we encounter her in the final scene with Goering at the restaurant. Miss Goering’s reaction to Mrs. Copperfield’s appearance:

She was dismayed at the sight of her old friend. She was terribly thin and she appeared to be suffering from a skin eruption.

“Don’t be insane,” said Mrs. Copperfield. “I can’t live without her, not for a minute. I’d go completely to pieces.”

“But you have gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?”

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. 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, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Mrs. Copperfield was getting drunk and looking more disagreeable.

“I remember,” said Miss Goering, “that you used to be somewhat shy, but I dare say very courageous. It would take a good deal of courage to live with a man like Mr. Copperfield, whom I gather you are no longer living with. I’ve admired you very much indeed. I am not sure that I do now.”

“That makes no difference to me,” said Mrs. Copperfield. “I feel that you have changed anyway and lost your charm. You seem stodgy to me now and less comforting. You used to be so gracious and understanding; everyone thought you were light in the head, but I thought you were extremely instinctive and gifted with magic powers.” She ordered another drink and sat brooding for a moment.

“You will contend,” she continued in a very clear voice, “that all people are of equal importance, but although I love Pacifica very much, I think it is obvious that I am more important.”
Miss Goering did not feel that she had any right to argue this point with Mrs. Copperfield.

“I understand how you feel,” she said,”and perhaps you are right.”

“Thank God,” said Mrs. Copperfield, and she took Miss Goering’s hand in her own.

“Christina,” she pleaded, “please don’t cross me again, I can’t bear it.”

Miss Goering hoped that Mrs. Copperfield would now question her concerning her own life. She had a great desire to tell someone everything that had happened during the last year. But Mrs. Copperfield sat gulping down her drink, occasionally spilling a little of it over her chin. She was not even looking at Miss Goering and they sat for ten minutes in silence.