To say that Americans are enthralled by the new underscores the obvious. But one of the delights and privileges of bookselling is keeping the breadth of literary culture alive—even the old stuff now that no longer sparkles with the sheen of “the next big thing.”
To that end, I’m so pleased that Ecco has reissued this cult classic by Jane Bowles (wife of Paul) and said to be Tennessee Williams’ favorite novel. It has a new introduction by Claire Messud, who seems the perfect choice to discuss this subversive modernist novel about two women who choose to break from culturally defined expectations. In the intro Messud writes, “I fell in love with Two Serious Ladies in 1986 when I picked it up (on account of its odd & somewhat ugly cover) in a paperback edition at the Yale Coop; and I was so taken with it — it felt as though it had been written just for me — that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on it my senior year… It’s so funny, and odd, and mysterious, but also true. I know that many who love the book feel it’s personal to them in some way.”
First published in 1943, this is the story of two upper-class women long to live outside the lives assigned them. Mrs. Copperfield visits Panama with her husband, where she finds solace among the women who live and work in its brothels; while Miss Goering becomes involved with a series of men. At the end the two women meet again and look at how they have been changed by their experiences. While Bowles wrote relatively little over the course of her lifetime she is considered an influential stylist of the modernist era and in her hands a tale that could simply have been debauched is instead—as the editor says—“mysterious, profound, anarchic and very funny.”
Perhaps thinking of the “somewhat ugly cover” that Messud refers to, Ecco commissioned a new cover by Leah Goren, an illustrator and textile designer who does justice to the beautiful and strange tone of the novel.
“A singular achievement… Bowles, the darling of the avant garde, anatomises women’s place in society with delicate but devastating skill.”
— The Guardian
“A very funny writer … with at [her] heart the subtlest comprehension of eccentricity and human apartness.”
— Truman Capote
“Readers who’ve not yet read Jane Bowles are almost to be envied, like people who’ve still to read Austen or Mansfield or Woolf, and have all the delight, the literary satisfaction, the shock of classic originality, the revelation of such good writing, still to come.’
— Ali Smith
Two Serious Ladies (9780062283122) by Jane Bowles. $14.99 trade paper. 2/25/14 on sale.