JANIE WOULD be fine in an air raid or any real crisis," writer and composer Paul Bowles was saying as he guided his birdlike wife Jane down the tricky steps of the Casbah in Tangier. "She'd have everyone under her wing right away. But in everyday life we're always involved with the most elephantine situations that can't possibly ever be solved." After one day with these famous literary expatriates, I could see he was right.
"Okay, Tuesday we'll have the couscous ," Jane had been deciding, "but should it be with chicken or lamb? How can I put my eyeliner on with this brush? What if it smears? I'm so frightened of this atomizer! Oi Help! If we go in the Volkswagen who should ride in the front seat? If Bob and Tom come to the party, should we ask Emma and Nora? But Nora can't stand John, can she? Where should we go if we decide just to have a snack?"
"Snack?" asked Paul. "How would I know? I haven't had a snack since 1957." This was 1967, six years before Jane Bowles's death and a year after her Collected Works - 40 pages shorter than the new version - first appeared, prompting Tennessee Williams to call her prose "perhaps the best ever written by an American," and The New York Times to say she was "one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language." The early fragments that "expand" this new edition don't enhance it; her best works are still the novella Two Serious Ladies, the play In The Summer House, and the story "Cap Cataract." (The 1966 version, however, is out of print.)
Life magazine never did run the place it assigned a photographer and me to do on the Bowleses that extravagant summer, maybe because by repressed 1967 standards our subjects were a little too, shall we say, eccentric. (The piece we did the next week in Majorca, on the tourist guide authors Temple and Nancy Fielding, slid right into the magazine.) Certainly the Bowles's was no usual marriage. "They adore each other more than any two people on earth," I had heard from the singer Libby Holman, but it was equally true, to quote their other old friend the designer Oliver Smith, that "they devour each other if they're together too long. Paul has to escape from Jane to breathe. She's obsessive and very possessive. She's the funniest person I've ever known, but it's not all just laughs, being with her. Paul has to nag and force and push her to write, which is like teaching a kitten to stand on its head."
"Paul and I are so incompatible we ought to be in a museum, " Jane said. Instead they lived in separate apartments, a floor apart, in an elevator building on a street called Chemin des Amoureux, or Lover's Lane. Just as well that they lived apart: Jane was awake before dawn, and Paul slept til noon. She drank, he smoked kif. He didn't care about food, she loved it. He spent much of his time with an athletic young Moroccan named Mohammed Mrabet, wh o fished, performed impressive handstands on the beach, and dictated folk tales which paul translated and published.
Jane was analogously taken with an Arab woman named Cherifa, whom she had first spied 21 years earlier in the Tangier marketplace."It was head-over-heels as soon as I saw her there selling wheat," Jane recalled. Cherifa thereafter worked off and on for the Bowleses, sometimes in the decorous haik and robe which traditional Moslem women wear, sometimes in jeans and a ski cap. Paul, regarding Cherifa as a witch, fired her. Jane would sneak off to join her at the movies. "I feel guilt and affection for her," she said. "If it weren't for us she'd never have been introduced to European ways at all. She's a freak, and I'm afraid she'll get worse and worse as she realizes she isn't popular.
"I was unpopular myself, in school," said Jane, an only child, "or at least I thought I was. I always went to sleep pretending I was one of eight children, all girls. It never occurred to me to want a brother. I probably liked girls in boarding school just to irritate my mother. I probably didn't transfer my affections to boys because I damn well wasn't going to, with her lurking around.
"My father used to call me Jim. He'd take me fishing when we went away summers, and I was a real little fisherman. But I was extremely feminine, and I still am. I used to love to hug my father because he had this very fluffy sweater. I slept with about eleven fluffy toys." (Even at 52 she slept with a stuffed koala bear, and "Fluffy" was her favorite nickname for her angular, Edwardian, meticulous husband.)
Wretched health plagued Jane's childhood and no doubt shortened her life. In infancy she was dropped by a nurse; at 13 a fall from a horse led to tuberculosis of the knee and two years in traction at a Swiss hospital, in which time the leg only got worse. "All I did there," she said, "was learn French and find out about syphilis." At 42 a severe hermorrhage robbed her of peripheral vision and foretold her fatal stroke in 1973. In between came several nervous breakdowns that sent her to "the nuns' place," as she called a Malaga sanitorium which she liked because "I was thrilled to see how short everyone there was. I've never been anywhere else where everyone was smaller than I am."
"Now Janie," said Paul, "remember, there are pygmy tribes to be visited," but such visits - much to his taste - were never her idea of fun. Sheltering Sky and The Delicate Prey and most of his other books concern remote, brutal, exotic places. His wife's characters live in overcrowded, overheated North American rooms with views of crisscrossing trolley tracks, and can scarcely bring themselves to travel across town. "It's absolute nonsense to move physically from one place to another," one of her people says.
"Escape is unladylike, habit isn't," resolves another, who nonetheless tells her admirer, a waitress who hopes one day to own a garage, of her scheme to slip away from her oppressive sisters by spending more and more time at a seedy resort called Camp Cataract. This plan, as she tells Beryl the waitress, is "complicated, a bit dotty, and completely original."
Writing, Jane Bowles thought, was searching. "The way I write I never know what's going to happen which is probably what gives my work its quality of surprise, as if the reader and I were finding out together. That implies it's easy, but it's hell. I hate writing and always have. Anyone, anything can interrupt me from writing. But much as I hate it, I have no interest in anything else, except for the people I love.
"I'm always in love, except when I'm in a state of depression. But the people I fall in love with are never funny or amusing. They're always fanatics." Several characters in her stories consider becoming "religious leaders" - possibly, Jane mused, because "I feel guilt about not being a religious leader myself." Which religion I never learned; had she used the phrase "oiveh" a little less often I wouldn't have guessed she had ever been Jewish. When Allen Ginsberg asked once whether she believed in God, Jane recalled, she could only think "what an irritating question!"
Love was the subject she warned to most. "There's never any between-ness between me and the people I'm in love with," she volunteered. "I first met Paul on a taxi ride with friends to a dive in Harlem, and thought at once 'this is my enemy,' but he lived in a house in Brooklyn where it smelled good. He's always had good smells about him. I soon fell in love with him and then grew to love him as well, which is deeper. Loving is much more painful than being in love. Loving is work."
Most of Jane's loves, like her best realized characters, were female. "If I like men at all," she said, "I feel very sorry for them. If I feel tenderness, it's toward men, not women. Somehow I think women are more capable of caring for themselves. The French and the Spanish have more real girls and boys than the Americans do, though there is some confusion in the French.The English certainly have confusion, don't they? They and we are the most suppressed, inhibited races."
A character in one story says of her son that "he's got some girl in him, thank the Lord. I couldn't handled one of the real ones . . . There's nothing much I can discuss with a boy. A grown woman isn't interested in the same things a boy is interested in . . . My preference is for discussing furnishings, and always has been . . . The only thing about furnishings that leaves me cold is curtains. I never was interested in curtains, even when I was young. I like lamps about the best. Do you?"
The Bowleses, unsurprisingly, never had children. "Paul might have like to," said Jane, "but I've always been concerned only with grownups."
Maybe, so, but Jane Bowles's great charm, in life as in print, was and still is that she never stopped being a child herself.