Unsolved Problems: Negar Azimi on Jane Bowles




“Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” – Virginia Woolf,  A Room of One’s Own 

Read more in the Unsolved Problems series in the LARB Quarterly Journal, No. 13.

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“Ay!” cried Pacifica, releasing her hand. “We are both too wet, darling. Qué barbaridad!

That’s Pacifica in Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies (1943) as she takes Mrs. Copperfield, a middle-aged woman of bourgeois bearing, swimming in the ocean. Pacifica is a prostitute — Qué barbaridad! — and she’s wet. Mrs. Copperfield is wet, too, having just had an out of body experience at sea. (It’s her first time swimming.) Jane Bowles is a ham, as evidenced in the delicious double entendre. She’s the writer we’d all have a spectacularly fine time getting drunk with.

Mrs. Copperfield, as it happens, was not entirely unlike Jane herself — questing, a little crooked, chafing at the straight lines that pinched her in. I’ve known of few writers who are so of a piece with their writing. The line between Jane and her kooky characters is paper thin. They spring from the imagination, but they have no clunky artifice. Everyone, I guess, has met such people — the sexually odd, asymmetrical, hysterical. But to create a literature — an entire universe — out of them is what Jane did. The fact that she was perennially overshadowed by her more famous husband, Paul, is depressing. The fact that she didn’t write more — she produced a smattering of hauntingly original short stories, two plays, and one perfect novel — is a loss for everyone. Not least herself; she was tortured over her inability to bring to completion so many scraps and works in progress. “I find myself staring at my writing materials from the couch as though they were ‘Nazis,’” she once wrote.

She tried to find spiritual succor in Tangier, where she spent two decades and more worrying over her writing, but also investigating the kaleidoscopic life around her. It had its limits. She once wrote to a friend of feeling that she was “on the edge of something” — a Nazarene in Arabia, forever looking in. Literary acclaim came too late. When her friend David Herbert brought her the enthusiastic reviews of her Collected Works in the late 1960s — by then she was confined to a sanatorium in Malaga, Spain, after having had a number of strokes, and meltdowns — she declared the gesture “cruel.” She took her book and in a shaky hand, wrote the words “of dead Jane Bowles.”

She would have been 100 this past February.


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