Claire Messud | Jane Bowles

#APStogether December 2, 2020

Read Two Serious Ladies with Claire Messud in the tenth installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here. Read Claire's daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us on December 14 at 7:30 pm for a discussion of the novel with Claire Messud. The event is free and open to all. Register here.

Two Serious Ladies is the only novel by Jane Bowles, the marvelous and idiosyncratic mid-twentieth century writer also of stories and the play In the Summer House. The novel—a rare American existentialist fiction by a woman writer—tells the stories of Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, two women seeking to live authentically and to find happiness. Compelled by Bowles's particular combination of humor and pathos, we follow their separate journeys as they stray ever further from home.

You can purchase your copy through our bookstore partners, Seminary Co-Op in Chicago and Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, DC.

Reading Schedule
Day 1 (December 3) | Chapter 1, p. 1-18 (through “She was not sure that she did not find him a bit too familiar.”)

Day 2 (December 4) | Finish Chapter 1

Day 3 (December 5) | Chapter 2, p. 37-62 (through “The other two women looked across the street and they all watched him disappear.”)

Day 4 (December 6) | Chapter 2, pp. 63-83 (through “Oh, I’d love to Pacifica,” said Mrs. Copperfield, running out of the room.”)

Day 5 (December 7) | Chapter 2, pp. 83-102 (from “When Mrs. Copperfield arrived in Mrs. Quill’s room" through “Mrs. Quill was dignified and remote and did not give her the lavish thanks which she had been expecting.”

Day 6 (December 8) | Finish Chapter 2, pp. 102-121 (from “Early the next morning Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica were together in Pacifica’s bedroom" through “Listen, your pal’s been out of the room two whole minutes already. She’s gone to look for Pacifica.")

Day 7 (December 9) | Chapter 3, pp. 123-142 (through “She held her hand over her heart and smiled to herself.”)

Day 8 (December 10) | Chapter 3, pp 142-158 (from “When she arrived at the tip of the island" through “something would happen to interfere with her departure.”

Day 9 (December 11) | Chapter 3, pp. 159-176 (from “She noticed with a faint hear” through “shortly she fell into a deep sleep.”)

Day 10 (December 12) | Chapter 3, pp. 176-196 (from “At about five thirty on the following afternoon" through “Then all three of them politely bade good-by to Andy’s back and left the room.”

Day 11 (December 13) | Chapter 3, pp. 196-210 (from “Arnold’s father had been sitting in the ice-cream parlor" through “He’s never going to listen to me,” Miss Goering said to herself.")

Day 12 (December 14) | Finish Chapter 3, pp. 211-End

Day 12 | December 14
Finish Chapter 3, pp. 211-End

When Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica arrive at the restaurant to join Miss Goering, we see Frieda, for the first time, as she appears to an old friend – dismaying. “She was terribly thin and she appeared to be suffering from a skin eruption.” (p.215)

“I have gone to pieces,” Mrs. Copperfield concedes, “…a thing I’ve wanted to do for years…but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring…” (p.217)

Miss Goering demurs; Mrs. Copperfield, too, has judgements: “You have…lost your charm…everyone thought you were light in the head, but I thought you were extremely instinctive...” (p.218) How we are seen bears little relation to how we see ourselves.

“Although I love Pacifica very much, I think it is obvious that I am more important,” says Mrs. C (p.218). How could Miss Goering disagree, having left behind her a trail of broken hearts?

Herself abandoned at the last, Miss Goering believes she is nearer to salvation, tho “is it possible that a part of me…is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?” (p.221) For someone without religion, what is sin?

Day 11 | December 13
Chapter 3, pp. 196-210 (from “Arnold’s father had been sitting in the ice-cream parlor" through “He’s never going to listen to me,” Miss Goering said to herself.")

Miss Goering’s quest for self-realization has led all her hangers-on into ever-stranger circumstances. Arnold’s father, weary, renounces and wants only to go home. Arnold, though, remains charmingly importunate, which both saddens and pleases her.

Like Andy, Ben pays no attention to what Miss Goering says. He deems her a prostitute, and she will become a kind of prostitute. She will abandon Andy just as she abandoned Arnold and his father; but her choices have, to her, an inexorable logic.

“Together they entered a tiny automatic elevator and Miss Goering’s heart nearly failed her.” (p.210) Her claustrophobia is more powerful than any fear of Ben’s brutality and malevolence. (You’ll recall that Mrs. Copperfield too fears elevators…)

Day 10 | December 12
Chapter 3, pp. 176-196 (from “At about five thirty on the following afternoon" through “Then all three of them politely bade good-by to Andy’s back and left the room.”

When Miss Goering returns to the mainland with Arnold and his father, Andy seems surprised to see her. Of course she came back, she says: “I told you I would.” (p.182). “That doesn’t mean a thing,” he replies; but Miss Goering’s word is her bond.

On the basketball court, Arnold makes a spectacle of himself in his pajama top, roaring like a lion, butting his opponents like a goat, to the delight of the crowd. Those who can’t conform sometimes find other ways to belong.

Andy takes confidence from Miss Goering’s presence, and dreams of business success. But her interest wanes as he seems less sinister. She cares only about “the course that she was following…to attain her own salvation.” (p.189)

Day 9 | December 11
Chapter 3, pp. 159-176 (from “She noticed with a faint hear” through “shortly she fell into a deep sleep.”)

Andy, to whom Miss Goering will attach herself, explains straight away that “I have a habit of never paying attention to whoever I am talking to.” (p.159) His honesty perhaps surprises; but his way of being is eminently familiar is “his way of attributing qualities to her which were not in any way true to her nature” (p.160), which makes her feel “inconsequential.” What woman hasn’t had that “eerie” experience?

The opposite of utilitarian, Andy, “Citizen Skunk,” threw over his sweet girlfriend on account of his sexual fantasies about Belle, the woman with no arms or legs. Dostoevskian, he has ended up “in the mud” (p.167) – not unlike Miss Goering, indeed…

“One must allow that a certain amount of carelessness in one’s nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing,” Miss Goering thinks (p.170). When the super-ego is relentless, the id must occasionally intervene…

“It is absolute nonsense to move physically from one place to another,” Arnold advises. “All places are more or less alike.” (p.174) On one level this statement is mad, of course; but on another quite true.

Day 8 | December 10
Chapter 3, pp 142-158 (from “When she arrived at the tip of the island" through “something would happen to interfere with her departure.”

Looking at the dark boardwalk, “Miss Goering, usually so timorous, was not frightened…She even felt…elation…common in certain unbalanced but sanguine persons… [who] approach the thing they fear.” (p.142) Bowles too did what frightened her most.

Dick’s radical politics suggest that “It is wise to destroy yourself…at least to keep only that part of you which can be of use to a big group of people.” (p.156) Parodic, perhaps, but less outré than one might wish.

Miss Goering, less gnomic than she seems, argues that humanity’s problem is that they (we?!) “hold on so hard…to all the ideals by which they have always lived,” (p.157) clarified as “the dark and all the dragons” – mythical terrors, indeed

Day 7 | December 9
Chapter 3, pp. 123-142 (through “She held her hand over her heart and smiled to herself.”)

For Miss Gamelon, “reality was often more frightening…than her wildest dreams” (p.123) – a plight of those without imagination. Given that for many of us the inverse is true, it’s helpful to recall that there are those repeatedly astounded by what is.

Arnold’s father visits and wants to stay: “You see what a new leaf I have really turned over…You mustn’t ever think people have only one nature. Everything I said to you the other night was wrong.” (p.133) For various reasons, Miss Goering is dismayed.

Miss Goering decides she must take a trip alone at night, upsetting though it will be. “It is not for fun that I am going,” she says, “but because it is necessary to do so.” (p.137) An echo of her serious childhood game.

Day 6 | December 8
Finish Chapter 2, pp. 102-121 (from “Early the next morning Mrs. Copperfield and Pacifica were together in Pacifica’s bedroom" through “Listen, your pal’s been out of the room two whole minutes already. She’s gone to look for Pacifica.")

Pacifica takes Mrs. C swimming, and revives her recurring dream of safety in a mannequin’s arms. This elating baptism leaves her “trembling and exhausted as…after a love experience” [p.106]: braving her terror together is a form of great intimacy.

When young Peggy Gladys takes to Mrs. C with a zeal and generosity similar to Mrs. C’s for Pacifica, Mrs. C can’t quite be kind in the way of Pacifica: she “could not resist being just a little bit sadistic” [p.112] with the girl.

“She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before, because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy.” Mrs. C will stay in Colon while her husband leaves. The paradox of agency: to take control, to be free is no easy thing.

“You are not able to face more than one fear…You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began.” Mr. C writes to his wife as he leaves.

Day 5 | December 7
Chapter 2, pp. 83-102 (from “When Mrs. Copperfield arrived in Mrs. Quill’s room" through “Mrs. Quill was dignified and remote and did not give her the lavish thanks which she had been expecting.”

“The Lord has spared me more than he has Pacifica,” says Mrs. Quill. “She hasn’t been spared a single thing. Still, she’s not as nervous as I am.” Like Mrs. C, Mrs. Quill admires Pacifica’s toughness. In Bowles’ world, women’s happiness requires money, or men, or steely fortitude.

“Such an awful, dreadful mean thing to be alone in the world even for a minute.” Toby and Mrs. Quill dance around each other in the Hotel Washington bar, pretending to have resources. He wants money; she wants romantic attention. Both are disappointed, but Mrs. Quill is undone.

Luckily, Mrs. C is wealthy, & comes to pay Mrs. Quill’s bar bill. There, irritated, she explains to the assistant manager that the rich “want to be liked for their money too and not only for themselves.” An observation I have found true all my life.

Day 4 | December 6
Chapter 2, pp. 63-83 (through “Oh, I’d love to Pacifica,” said Mrs. Copperfield, running out of the room.”)

In Panama City, Mrs. C says to Mr. C, “I feel so lost and so far away and so frightened…” [p.64] Pacifica & Mrs. Quill are her nest in the Godless world. Suffering a sort of spiritual agoraphobia, she longs for the security of the Hotel de las Palmas.

For Mrs. C, “A little spot of gin” offers comfort: “At a certain point gin takes everything off your hands and you flop around like a little baby.” Bowles too liked a drink – a respite from the relentless effort of living authentically.

“Mrs. Copperfield sensed that Pacifica was proud of her. She realized that all this time Pacifica had been waiting to show her to her friends and she was not so sure that she was pleased.” Friendship has its economy; disconcerting when it’s not as one had thought.

Day 3 | December 5
Chapter 2, p. 37-62 (through “The other two women looked across the street and they all watched him disappear.”)

“You must admit…that the land is nicer than the sea,” says Mrs. Copperfield: “She herself had a great fear of drowning.”As does Miss Gamelon. Miss Goering has other terrors. Facing one’s greatest fears is a serious moral challenge that can look to others simply strange.

“When people believed in God they carried Him from one place to another…God watched over everybody…Now there is nothing to carry with you…” A Godless world is desolate: “I must try to find a nest in this outlandish place,” Mrs. Copperfield decides. Memory is one answer to this conundrum.

Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield, Americans in Panama, want not to be tourists: Mrs. C notes that “The hardier tourists find that one place resembles another.” [p.48] For the Copperfields, as Flaubert said, “Not to be like one’s neighbor, that is everything.”

The prostitute who captures Mrs. Copperfield’s heart is aptly named Pacifica. “What has the absence of worry to do with beauty?” Mrs. Copperfield asks her; and she wisely replies, “That has everything to do with what is beautiful in the world.”

Day 2 | December 4
Finish Chapter 1

Miss Goering is so paranoid about taking a taxi-cab (and getting into a car with a male stranger) that she’d rather go home with Arnold, also a male stranger. When I first read the novel, this logic made perfect sense to my 20 year old self.

Returning to Arnold’s flat, where he lives with his parents, Miss Goering is drawn to his father’s apparent toughness, his harsh words about Arnold and his mother. But as often happens, the bully is easily cowed: Arnold’s mother proves toughest of all.

Prompted by her “little idea of salvation” (p.29), rich Miss Goering sells her house, appalling Miss Gamelon. Arnold “mustn’t align myself too much…[with] Miss Gamelon,”(p.35) or Miss Goering will despise him; so he tells her what she wants to hear.

Day 1 | December 3
Chapter 1, p. 1-18 (through “She was not sure that she did not find him a bit too familiar.”)

Jane Bowles wrote this novel during World War Two; Christina Goering’s name is no accident: ‘Christina’ for the woman who “wanted to be a religious leader when I was young”, and ‘Goering’ for the infamous Nazi aviator and Reichsmarschall.

“It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.”

Even as a kid, Christina Goering takes things too seriously, roping her sister’s friend Mary into a game called “I forgive you for all your sins." Who hasn’t known (or perhaps been) the kid who doesn’t understand fun?

Miss Gamelon announces to Miss Goering (on p.9) that “you can make friends more quickly with queer people.” She may or may not mean ‘queer’ in a contemporary sense; but she certainly means ‘unconventional’. And is not, perhaps, wrong.

Bowles’s other serious lady, Frieda Copperfield, shares a surname with Dickens’ dogged, feckless protagonist. Of travel, she says, “I don’t think I can bear it…it frightens me so much to go.” [p.17] Both women are bound to do what most frightens them.


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