One Serious Lady

I am not sure who you are, or how you found me. I am not sure where I am writing from, or when, this being a disembodied place, and the form neither an intimate letter nor a public performance. Perhaps it’s rather like broadcasting , speaking into the single ear of an imaginary listener while speaking through that listener to an unseen world. What I do know is that I’m here to write about reading, and writing, and the space literature makes for humans to hear, know and see a little of each other. 

The title of this blog comes from Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies, a “serious work of art” which is also droll, ludicrous, and tragic. Jane Bowles, in case you don’t know, was a misfit of her times who experienced struggles with language, both speech and writing, whilst also living a life of privilege and proximity to literary power centres. Her work could have ended up completely unknown were it not for her connections. White, wealthy and well educated, she was also Jewish, queer and disabled; she married fellow writer and composer Paul Bowles to whom she had a lifelong attachment. Seeking space to live more openly (Paul was also queer) they moved to North Africa, where Jane formed a deep erotic connection to a woman merchant with whom she shared almost no common language.

A genius at capturing the non-communicative power of speech and dialogue, she wrote plays and stories that existed on the edge of realism and surrealism–when she could. Mostly she was blocked. She drank and smoked to excess, and ultimately suffered a stroke which made speech difficult. Her position in the world was riven with contradiction and perhaps her triumph was to refuse to resolve any of it. Fortunately, her work was championed by important voices, and has undergone some revival, now that readers are perhaps better positioned to read it.

Her biography is certainly relevant, but it’s not the person as much as the work which I’m interested in here. Her stories gain their power from angular, aggressive juxtaposition: the placing of conflicting, jarring statements or details beside each other, such that a sentence begins one way and ends in another to the extent that it almost cancels itself out. Narratives are set up and proceed like realism, but the conventional cause and effect chain either isn’t there, or else deliberately undermines our expectations. In this way, Bowles launches an offensive against cliché, not just of character or plot but thought and emotion. Instead, Bowles makes no attempt to bend narrative into a shape which evokes moral epiphany or aesthetic satisfaction, such that the reader emerges from her fictional worlds with a sense of having witnessed something utterly true and complete.

My intent here, in this same spirit, is to respond seriously to books that have affected me, some of which may be well-known or well-regarded, all of which have touched, provoked and/or inhabited me for a while, in particular those which work against cliché. I’m particularly interested in amplifying works which have received less attention than they deserve. I also expect to veer off into other creative directions, including covering issues of interest related to my recent novel, The Causes, and other projects. Please tell me what you think, or if you have a title to suggest.

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