Jane was the wife of Paul Bowles, the expatriate, existentially-inclined, pre-Beat author of The Sheltering Sky who lived out much of his life in Tangiers, and there are some quiet but distinct parallels between their work: listless characters adrift in exotic locales fleeing their own disaffection; a private conception of reality that's simultaneously heightened and yet hazily distant. And, in the spaces between the words, a mysterious yearning for something which language can't quite grasp – an inadequacy acknowledged in the discretely ironic tone of their prose. (I covered Bertolucci's febrile adaptation of The Sheltering Sky starring John Malkovich here. Despite – actually, because of – the glossy over-abundance that characterises Bertolucci these days, I'm weirdly fond of the film.)
Both Paul and Jane were gay, and Jane also suffered from a series of debilitating psychic and physical afflictions. That's partly why she produced so little; the act of writing, she said, was essential to her yet literally tortuous. She suffered a stroke at the age of 40 and though she lived for another 16 years, her output dwindled from a stream to a trickle and finally dried up altogether. Her husband's star ascended, but during her 20 years in Tangiers she only produced two stories. Two Serious Ladies, published in 1943 was her one and only novel.
In the story Plain Pleasures, prim Mrs Perry is invited out to dinner by a gentlemanly neighbour. Slightly disgusted – or perversely delighted? – by his attention, she gets drunk and passes out upstairs in the restaurant where something so appalling happens that it's literally written out of the text. (The story also contains the bone-dry line, "In his youth he had considered raising alligators in Florida. But there was no security in alligators." William Burroughs quotes the sentence in an essay on style. He also conceded that he and Jane "just don't click, exactly." But then, who did click with William Burroughs?)
There's an uncanny (in the Freudian sense) and oeneric tone to this writing. Yet, like Kavan, Bowles' radar seemed to be picking up frequencies from the future: certainty, structure, knowledge, truth – all those issues which post-modernism would either redefine or attempt to jettison are quietly taken apart.
The introduction to this volume, incidentally, comes from Elizabeth Young, the journalist and critic who died in 2000 after years spent championing new strains of marginalised fiction as it mutated out on the perimeter: Kathy Acker, Stewart Home, Alisdair Gray. I remember reading her in the 90s, at which point she didn't just have a finger on the pulse, but seemed actively capable of accelerating it. Young also, incidentally, had a fleeting role in The Clash's film Rude Boy. That's her kneeling in front of Ray Ganges…
Anyway, I was trying to think of contemporary writers operating in a similar field to Bowles and Kavan. Deborah Eisenberg could be one. Mary Gaitskill, maybe. Squint, and you can almost make out some of the same anxieties pulsing through the stories of the toweringly brilliant Wells Tower.
"I warn Dorothy every time I see her that if she doesn't watch out her life is going to be left starving and aching by the side of the road and she's going to go to her grave without it," writes Bowles in Plain Pleasures. "The farther a man follows the rainbow, the harder it is for him to get back to the life which he left starving like an old dog."