CHEERS TO MILLICENT DILLON for lifting Jane Bowles out of the mist. For those who don't know who Jane Bowles is, or was -- and they far outnumber those who do -- a few facts may be in order. Jane Bowles, formerly Jane Auer, was a gay New York Jewish gal who produced only two books and a play during her unhappy lifetime (1917-73), but was nonetheless a legend among her contemporaries. Known as a super-original wit and eccentric, she added to her luster by a unique marriage to composer-novelist Paul Bowles that endured for 35 years, even though they both habitually sought out partners of their own sex.
You might say the couple were the Scott and Zelda of a new liberated era, even a new exotic playground, since they made their headquarters in Tangier, Morocco for almost a quarter of a century until Jane's lingering illness and death in a Spanish clinic. Jane Bowles may have produced a comparative thimbleful of work -- a novel entitled Two Serious Ladies, a play called In the Summer House, and a book of stories, Plain Pleasures -- but she has a band of champions second to none. Among her most ardent admirers are Tennessee Williams ("I consider her the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters"), poet John Ashbery, Truman Capote and the late Carson McCullers. And why has she commanded such an elite chorus of praise?
Unlike the characteristic "fine" writing of her time, Jane Bowles' prose is as seemingly playful and inconsequential as poolside banter. That is, until it rivets you with shock and surprise, and all done with no change of expression. For example, this moment from Two Serious Ladies:
"'What is your name?' the girl asked.
"'My name is Peggy -- Peggy Gladys. You looked kind of adorable to me with your hair all wet and your little nose as shiny as it was. That's why I asked you to drink with me.'
"Mrs. Copperfield jumped. 'Please don't embarrass me,' she said.
"'Oh, let me embarrass you, adorable. Now finish you drink and I'll get you some more. Maybe you're hungry and would like some steak.'
"The girl had the bright eyes of an insatiable nymphomaniac. She wore a ridiculous little watch on a black ribbon around her wrist."
It is to this enigma -- a devastatingly real writer who cloaked herself in an almost perverse, breezy style, in life as in literature -- that Dillon addresses this truly major biography. Jane Auer Bowles was a puzzle both to herself and her adoring friends, and the author traces this difficult and, ultimately, very painful life with great tenacity and patience. From childhood companions to the well-known and famous -- Alice B. Toklas, Cecil Beaton, Libby Holman, Judith Anderson, W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, etc. -- she has collected, written and taped documentation that builds a powerful portrait. By the time we finish this solid reconstruction of Jane's life we feel that we genuinely know her, as well as the gallant, unfailingly supportive Paul Bowles.
Born in New York City on February 22, 1917, Jane Auer was the spoiled, eye-catching only child of a mix of Austrian and Hungarian Jewish stock. Her handsome, rather ineffectual father died when she was 13; from then on Jane was in the sincere but sometimes neurotic clutch of her comfortably-fixed mother. Jane soon escaped into her own world, however, via illnes. Tuberculosis of the right knee (who else but Jane Bowles would have been hit with that?) took her to sanitariums in Switzerland and France where she spent two years reading; highly contemporary authors like Gide, Proust, Celine, Montherlant and the like. By the time she was 17 she knew that for the rest of her days she would be stiff-legged ("Crippie, the Kike Dyke," she later joked about herself), lesbian, and a writer. Such precociousness was indeed scary.
Once back home, it didn't take Jane long to become familiar with Greenwich Village lesbian haunts and to become the mascot of a set that included E. E. Cummings and musicians like the gifted John LaTouche, who introduced her to the blond and immaculate Paul Bowles. This began a lifelong relationship for them both, a true attraction of opposites that was never to let down amidst almost incredible strains for practically four decades. When they were married in 1938, Jane was 21 and Paul 27. Within five years, Jane wrote and published her one and only novel to "disheartening" reviews -- it was simply not understood -- and then she and Paul Bowles set sail for North Africa.
It was there, during the ripest part of both their lives, that Paul flourished as a significant composer and novelist (The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down) and Jane began that slow journey of deterioration that ultimately led to intermittent breakdowns, blindness and merciful death. Millicent Dillon makes us see very clearly that Jane in a sense predicted her own fate by abusing body and mind without letup. She drank heavily, took drugs, took great risks in having affairs not only with well-born European and American ladies but with native Arab women as well. There was a fatal restlessness in her that had to be fed, even at the expense of her work, which she herself knew was her only means of even partial salvation.
She somehow managed to complete her "refreshingly bitter" comedy, In the Summer House, in the early '50s and see it fizzle out on Broadway after a run of less than two months. And Paul Bowles himself pieced together the only other book of hers to be published while she was alive, the seven stories that make up Plain Pleasures (1966). But other than that Jane was trapped in a mammoth psychic glue of indecision, unfinished manuscripts, the increasing inability to sit long enough to read let alone write.
In the late '50s she suffered a stroke and lost the ability to recognize the meaning of certain words and to spell others. Then this was apparently extended to her vision, where the significance of particular objects became lost to her. On top of this -- almost as if it were the reaping of punishment for sins, a theme that had always been ironically close to her -- she could no longer control her behavior in public and had to be put in a Malaga psychiatric hospital. Finally, at 56, now totally blind and removed from a reality that had always been a torment to her, no matter how she flippantly defied it, Jane Auer Bowles was spared by death.
A Little Original Sin is a very shaking, disturbing biography, in the end. It seems to confirm a truth that has become a bitter motto for our century: that there is no first-rate art without a miserable, shredded life to provide the dark nourishment. One has to wonder if it is finally worth it, no matter how extraordinary the accomplishment. All this, of course, is impotent speculation -- life squeezes its fairest spirits to the point of a scream, and their only asnwer seems to be in embroidering something that can delight or astonish us. What a cruel mathematics!
But no matter how sad this book legitimately makes us feel, it has resurrected Jane Bowles and her gorgeously offbeat work for a long time to come. And that is a bright flower to see on what only yesterday was her unmarked grave in a Malaga cemetery. CAPTION:
Picture, JANE BOWLES, by Carl Bissinger