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Jane Bowles Biography

(1917–73), Two Serious Ladies, The Summer House, Plain Pleasures, The Collected Works, A Quarrelling Pair, œuvre

play literary stories story

American writer, born in New York of a German Jewish father and a Hungarian mother. Educated privately, she travelled in Europe and moved in artistic and literary circles, meeting Celine, E. E. Cummings, Klaus Mann, and Paul Bowles whom she married in 1938. After extensive travels the couple became the centre of an expatriate literary group including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Alan Sillitoe, and Ruth Fainlight.

Bowles has been highly praised by contemporaries—such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote (who referred to her as a ‘modern legend’), and John Ashbery—for the irony and surrealism with which she describes the bisexual, nihilistic ambience of her fictions. Although it is held that her career was curtailed by the cerebral haemorrhage she suffered in 1957, she had never been prolific. Her reputation rested on her single novel Two Serious Ladies (1943); with echoes of Kafka and Compton-Burnett, it tells the story of Miss Goering, whose ideal of sainthood dissolves into sexual servitude to dubious characters, and Mrs Copperfield, who abandons a respectable marriage in pursuit of a native Panamian prostitute. It contributed to the revival of a modern gothic sensibility. A play, The Summer House, appeared in 1954. Bowles's early physical decline, the interest in forgotten women writers, and the bizarre stories circulated about her life, have perhaps contributed to her cult literary status. Her stories were collected in Plain Pleasures (1966), which includes such notable fictions as ‘Camp Cataract’ (1949) and ‘A Stick of Green Candy’ (1957). The title story is indicative of Bowles's technique and vision: a lonely widow meets an equally lonely man, but their mutual gestures of communication end in drunken misunderstanding, sexual confusion and the threat of cruel estrangement.

The Collected Works (1966) combines the stories with the play; unpublished and early works such as the puppet play A Quarrelling Pair continue to surface in extended posthumous volumes of her œuvre such as Feminine Wiles (1976) and Everything is Nice (1989). There is a biography by Millicent Dillon, A Little Original Sin (1981).

Paul Bowles Biography - (1910–86), The Sheltering Sky, Love with a Few Hairs, M'Hashish [next]

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