jane bowles/denton welch, “a stick of green candy”

Jane Bowles & Denton Welch 
A Stick of Green Candy
(illustrated by Colter Jacobsen) 
(Four Corners Books, 2010)

This book is not, of course, a long-lost collaboration between Jane Bowles and Denton Welch; rather, it consists of two stories by Bowles (“A Stick Of Green Candy” and “Camp Cataract”) and two by Welch (“The Trout Stream” and “Narcissus Bay”) will illustrations by Colter Jacobsen as part of Four Corners’s Familiars series, where artists are invited to illustrate texts. Four Corners make beautiful books: this is hard-cover, beautifully bound, with attention paid to details: the white case has a shiny green spine, candy-like enough. The title page is hand-lettered; the illustration is generous, not only black and white but also full color. Matthew Carter gets thanked on the colophon for his work on the type; the book was printed in Italy. Four Corners makes books for people who appreciate beautiful books, and this is a large part of the attraction of this edition. There’s something to be said for this assemblage of stories, though. The Jane Bowles stories are in print, as part of My Sister’s Hand in Mine. The Denton Welch stories are a bit harder to get ahold of, at least in this country: Tartarus Press put out a complete edition in the U.K., but it’s pricey and I don’t have a copy of it. I probably should.

The illustrator, Colter Jacobsen, seems to be the person who selected these stories to appear together. What ties them together, besides his judgment? Though the writers were roughly contemporaneous, they’re very different; while Welch’s works tend to be strongly centered around a single consciousness, it’s pointedly difficult for the reader to find anyone to identify with in the work of Jane Bowles. Three of the four stories here involve strange children; the fourth, “Camp Cataract” is about two sisters whose relationship never quite becomes adult. In “The Trout Stream,” Welch’s protagonist young protagonist observes his elders, who try and fail to make themselves happy; in “A Stick of Green Candy,” a young girl, ignored by her parents, grows up by herself. “Narcissus Bay” relates the story of a young boy in China who sees a procession of a beaten woman, two chained men, and a police officer, the aftermath of some crime; more importantly, he learns how his knowledge of this can affect those around him. Like “The Trout Stream,” “Camp Cataract” seems to end with a drowning. If Bowles and Welch’s voices aren’t particularly similar, there’s a consistency to these stories in their focus on outsiders. Welch’s narrators seem to be outsiders by choice; those of Bowles seem dragged along by the world around them. 

I like this presentation: with only four stories, these narratives have room to breath, and the reader is encouraged to slow down. The Bowles stories can be found in the FSG collection of her works; to my mind, though, they suffer in that context from being presented after Two Serious Ladies, a more powerful work. Welch’s stories appear with 74 of their fellows in his collected stories; I know that I find it hard to focus on details in the midst of so much. Here details stand out: at the country house of “The Trout Stream,” they eat Bombay duck; later, a woman has a “voice like an electric guitar”. I don’t know when the story was written, but Denton Welch died in 1948; one wonders what that sound would have meant to him. There’s something to be said for having the leisure to appreciate this; certainly its possible in a collected work, but it’s more difficult. 

Colter Jacobsen’s illustrations appear to be pencil versions of found photographs: snapshots of children playing at dusk, people in front of old buildings, some men behind an enormous shark. Most of them are repeated: one image on the left page, one on the right, though there’s not a precise repetition: small differences can usually be discerned between the two images. The images in the endpapers (a waterfall with a slight rainbow, done with colored pencil as are a handful of other images in the book) appear to be mirrored across the gutter, but looking more closely reveals that the left and right images, though similar in outline, are entirely different in detail: the rock face and trees are entirely different. Some of the drawings of photographs give the impression of having been manipulated or treated: in the pictures of the men with the shark, the shark seems to have been whited out or erased. 

One spread shows two snapshots, dated “4-1941”; they are again imperfectly mirrored, and in one of the photos, depicting two women, the faces are blurred on the right: there’s something almost creepy to this. There isn’t generally anything that directly ties the illustrations to the text; there’s a similarity in feeling, however, and the reader comes away with the idea that like the depicted photographs, the stories have also been rescued from the past. With this spread, the last set of paired photographs in the text, it’s possible to draw a correspondence between what’s pictured and the story that’s being illustrated (“Camp Cataract”): there are two women who might be the sisters of the story, a date which might match the story, a label (“COLD SPRING – N.Y.”) which might fit the story, and two images of waterfalls, one of which appears prominently in the story. This set of images most directly matches the text; flipping back through the text of this particular story, one can find other illustrations which also fit, as well as some that don’t (a reproduction of a color photograph of a small girl holding up a piece of clothing; a teenager in a B.U.M. t-shirt inhaling from a bong): these weren’t drawn from Bowles’s text, but they feel of a piece with the text. 

There’s no artist’s statement with this book: I would have liked to see one, as the choices made here are interesting and not obvious. John Morgan is the designer of the series; I feel like I should go back and get the older books in this series.

jane bowles, “two serious ladies”

Jane Bowles
Two Serious Ladies
(originally 1943; published in 1966 as part of My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Writings of Jane Bowles, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

It’s a crying shame that Two Serious Ladies is only in print as part of Jane Bowles’s Collected Works: not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of her Collected Works, it’s simply that Two Serious Ladies is so perfectly complete on its own; it deserves to be a Penguin Classic, not one of the ugly redesigned ones, but one of the differently ugly older ones with the light green covers that didn’t smack of marketing, only belief in the power of literature. At one point, it could have been a New York Review Book, shelved between James Schuyler’s Alfred & Guinevere and James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz. I don’t know what happened to Two Serious Ladies that it should be tied up so; maybe this is FSG’s fault.

Two Serious Ladies is a weirdly structured book. The first chapter, 34 pages long, introduces Christina Goering, a rich woman, strange from her religion-obsessed youth. Much later, she is visited by Lucy Gamelon, the cousin of her governess, who has heard stories about Christina; though Lucy worked in publishing, she is not up to anything, and she promptly moves in with Christina after her second visit. Some months later, Christina is invited to a party; she sees her acquaintance Frieda Copperfield, who is distraught about a trip she will have to take. She is then distracted by a morose man named Arnold, who she goes home with, thinking this is the interesting thing to do; she stays the night at Arnold’s house, where she meets his parents, who she likes better than Arnold. Christina sells her house and moves to a smaller house on an island. The second chapter, 75 pages long, is about Mrs. Copperfield’s trip to Panama with her husband; Mrs. Copperfield evidently hates to travel, but she leaves her husband for Pacifica, a prostitute. The third chapter, 90 pages long, returns to Christina Goering: she is now living in a house on an island with Arnold and Lucy Gamelon; eventually, they are joined by Arnold’s father. Christina has an affair with Andy, a man she meets in a bar; she leaves him after a week for a monstrous man named Ben who takes her for a prostitute. Five pages from the end of the book, Frieda Copperfield returns, evidently having returned to the city with Pacifica, who is running after a boy. 

The plot is not why I find myself reading this book over and over again; rather, it’s the way in which the characters behave. In a characteristic passage, Christina Goering and Lucy Gamelon are sitting outside their house; Lucy is thinking about how much she hates Arnold. “He is even too lazy to court either of us,” she tells Christina, “which is a most unnatural thing you must admit – if you have any conception at all of the male physical make-up. Of course he is not a man. He is an elephant.” But Lucy most hates Arnold for freeloading on Christina, which is of course something that Lucy is also doing:

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Miss Gamelon was thinking seriously about all these things when suddenly a bottle broke against her head, inundating her with perfume and making quite a deep cut just above her forehead. She started to bleed profusely and sat for a moment with her hands over her eyes.
     “I didn’t actually mean to draw blood,” said Arnold leaning out of the window. “I just meant to give her a start.”
     Miss Goering, although she was beginning to regard Miss Gamelon more and more as the embodiment of evil, made a swift and compassionate gesture towards her friend. (p. 115)

Within ten pages of this scene, Arnold is calling Lucy “Bubbles” and they are sharing a room, united, perhaps, by their dislike for each other. None of the characters in Two Serious Ladies are likeable. They are not pleasant; at one point Arnold describes Lucy as “constantly in either a surly or melancholic mood,” which could be said about any of these characters. There is no pretense of redemption: these characters start out terrible and they will end terrible. This makes it a very funny book; but, in a way, it’s also more realistic. 

There’s something interestingly off in the way the characters in this book make choices; they are all inscrutable. Here, an interaction between Christina Goering and Andy, her would-be paramour:

“Step back a little farther, please,” he said. “Look carefully at your man and then say whether or not you want him.”
     Miss Goering did not see how she could possibly answer anything but yes. He was standing now with his head cocked to one side, looking very much as though he were trying to refrain from blinking his eyes, the way people do when they are having snapshots taken.
     “Very well,” said Miss Goering, “I do want you to be my man.” She smiled at him sweetly, but she was not thinking very hard of what she was saying. (p. 166)

There’s a disconnect between thought and action that’s funny as well as terrifying: none of their behavior is at all predictable. In another novel, this sort of action could be accounted for by drugs, which would feel like a narrative copout; but these characters are entirely straitlaced, and even drinking doesn’t reliably change their inhibitions. 

This isn’t quite surrealistic whimsy, though the characters do appear to move in dream-like trances: at least in the sections based around Miss Goering, the sense is less of a world gone strange than it is of strange characters who don’t fit into the regular world, characters who could not be described as surrealist dreamers. Miss Goering and her friends appear to move from Manhattan to a largely rural Staten Island, perhaps the Staten Island that Arshille Gorky painted to look like the south of France; the setting is identified by geography rather than by name, but it maintains the prosaic stolidity one expects from that borough. For excitement, they take a ferry to New Jersey, where things seem to be much the same. (There’s a certain similarity to Kafka’s Amerika, though that would have been published in English after Two Serious Ladies.) The Panama that Frieda Copperfield visits is more fantastical; I find myself less drawn to this part of the plot partially because we’re used to seeing Latin America described as a fantastical place where anything can happen. The drama there is still very much more personal than based on its setting: what happens to Mrs. Copperfield on her trip is not what would happen to anyone else, but Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica don’t sparkle quite as brightly as Christina Goering and her followers.

It’s left to the reader to discern what exactly the narrative of Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica has to do with the story of Christina Goering; presumably Copperfield & Goering are the eponymous two serious ladies of the title, although Lucy Gamelon appears more often in the book than Frieda Copperfield does. In their final discussion, Frieda gives an idea of what she might have been trying to do:

“But you have gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?”
     “True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.” (p. 197)

Ms. Goering promptly admits her dislike for Mrs. Copperfield; there seems to be something incompatible about the way that the two of them are working out their lives. When we first meet Christina, she is purifying a young friend’s sins in a ceremony involving a burlap sack and a great deal of mud; through her narrative, talk of sin comes up from time to time. Christina and Lucy, for example, get into an argument about whether sports give Christina a feeling of sinning. Near the end of their affair, Christina realizes that Andy’s self-image has improved and he no longer thinks of himself as a bum:

This would have pleased her greatly had she been interested in reforming her friends, but unfortunately she was only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own salvation. (p. 172)

Christina’s theology seems to be her own brand of gnosticism: like Irenaeus’s description of the libertine gnostics, she seems to be trying to save herself through absorbing the sin of the world, which must be destroyed for truth to appear. Frieda, by contrast, appears to finally be enjoying the broken world as it is.

i have nothing but conflicts

LIONEL Maybe it would be stroke of luck to be like you. I have nothing but conflicts. For instance, one day I think I ought to give up the world and be a religious leader, and the next day I’ll turn right around and think I out to throw myself deep into politics. (VIVIAN, bored, starts untying her beach shoes) There have been ecclesiastics in my family before. I come from a gloomy family. A lot of the men seem to have married crazy wives. Five brothers out of six and a first cousin did. My uncle’s first cousin boiled a cat alive in the upstairs kitchen.

VIVIAN What do you mean, the upstairs kitchen?

LIONEL We had the top floor fitted out as an apartment and the kitchen upstairs was called the upstairs kitchen.

VIVIAN (Hopping to her feet) Oh, well, let’s stop talking dull heavy stuff. I’m going to swim.”

(Jane Bowles, In the Summer House, pp. 231–2 in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

the next time you’re on this train

“ ‘The next time,’ said the conductor, who really was at a loss for what to say, ‘the next time you’re on this train, stay in your seat and don’t molest anybody. If you want to know the time you can ask them without any to-do about it or you can just make a little signal with your hand and I’ll be willing to answer all your questions.’ He straightened up and stood for a moment trying to think of something more to say. ‘Remember also,’ he added, ‘and tell this to your relatives and to your friends. Remember also that there are no dogs allowed on this train or people in masquerade costume unless they’re all covered up with a big heavy coat; and no more hubbubs,’ he added, shaking a finger at her. He tipped his hat to the woman and went on his way.”

(Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, pp. 128–9 in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

against my entire code

“ ‘Since you live so far out of town,’ said Arnold, ‘why don’t you spend the night at my house? We have an extra bedroom.’

‘I probably shall,’ said Miss Goering, ‘although it is against my entire code, but then, I have never even begun to use my code, although I judge everything by it.’ Miss Goering looked a little morose after having said this and they drove on in silence until they reached their destination.”

(Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, p. 19 in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

in the future

“Miss Goering invited Miss Gamelon to dine with her. She found her soothing and agreeable to be with. Miss Gamelon was very much impressed with the fact that Miss Goering was so nervous. Just as they were about to sit down, Miss Goering said that she couldn’t face eating in the dining-room and she asked the servant to lay the table in the parlor instead. She spent a great deal of time switching the lights off and on.

‘I know how you feel,’ Miss Gamelon said to her.

‘I don’t particularly enjoy it,’ said Miss Goering, ‘but I expect in the future to be under control.’ ”

(Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, p. 11.)