Women Misbehaving: Novels by Jane Bowles and Laura Kasischke

This June is American author month for me and I started off with two unusual and insufficiently known American women. I braced myself for poetic, unusual, eccentric and they did not disappoint! Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 and was her only novel. Laura Kasischke is better known as a poet (I’ve had the pleasure to attend one of her master classes), but has also written several unsettling, hypnotic novels. I was a particular fan of Mind of Winter, but this time I read Be Mine, published in 2007.

Both books are about middle-aged women (I suppose back in the 1940s the mid-thirties were perceived as middle-aged) trying to recapture (or perhaps even capture for the first time) that elusive sense of happiness. And the way they choose to do so may be quite disturbing to the regular, sane reader, namely by plunging into some rather reckless adventures.

Jane Bowles led a very colourful life herself, but her two ‘matrons’, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, don’t at the outset of the novel. Miss Goering has flaming red hair and a grumpy disposition, never caring about pleasing others.

I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.

She is a wealthy spinster and at first people expect her to be easy to manipulate. Certainly Miss Gamelon thinks so,appearing on her doorstep one day and asking to be her companion. She then meets the hapless Arnold at a party (and later, his father) and they all move in with her, but then she decides to sell her luxurious home in New York and moves to a shabbier house on Staten Island. Even that doesn’t seem to satisfy her desire for bizarre and tawdry adventures, so she keeps taking the ferry back to town and getting involved with shady characters. Meanwhile, Mrs Copperfield goes on a trip with her husband to Panama but abandons him to move into the seedy Hotel de Las Palmas in Colon, run by the disillusioned yet ever-hopeful Mrs Quill and falling under the spell of teenage prostitute Pacifica. Both women have numerous entanglements from which they emerge wiser and somehow braver. As Mrs Copperfield says:

I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have 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 which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.

The book is almost entirely made up of dialogue; the conversation seems reckless and strange, constantly provoking you to think, retort, defend yourself, certainly not the kind of dialogue you expect to strike up with strangers. The author is also unapologetic about not giving us too many reasons for why the characters are behaving the way they are, beyond what they tell others. There is no extensive introspection here and a certain ‘don’t care if you like me or not’ attitude which is funny and refreshing. There is also no neat resolution or sense of an ending: the women have had their adventure, they are somewhat smarting from their experiences (not all of which have been pleasant). ‘Hope… had discarded a childish form forever.’ And yet they move forward, as if everything is ‘of no great importance.’

Laura Kasischke’s Sherry is less unrepentant, and less able to move on and shake off her experiences at the end of her novel. In the beginning, she appears to have a solid, happy life: a respected lecturer at her local community college, living just outside town in a nice big house with her devoted husband Jon, her only son Chad having just left for college on the West Coast. However, no life is quite as perfect as it looks on the surface. She has few real friends. Her father is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. She experiences a bit of a midlife crisis, empty nest syndrome, her marital sex life has got a little too tame, she wants to still feel desirable and mysterious… and so, when she receives an anonymous Valentine in her locker at work with the message Be Mine, she is intrigued and excited. But then she thinks she has guessed who the sender is, finds her husband oddly turned on by the thought of her having a secret admirer and so begins a descent into a very dangerous erotic game.

Billed as an erotic thriller, it is in fact very much a poet’s introspective coming to terms with aging and with what Sherry calls ‘planned obsolescence’, as she no longer feels useful or necessary to her son:

All those years feeding and rocking him, and the birthday parties – the cakes and the candles added one by one until the surface of the whole thing danced with flames – driving him to track meets, band practice, soccer, I was driving him all those years into adulthood. Oblivion. Into my own obsolescence.

She alternates between flirtatious moments, when she thinks she might be the kind of woman ‘a man might fall in love with from a distance’ to moments of stark recoil in front of the mirror: ‘I have built my house on sand… Where have I gone?’ She spends the rest of the novel searching for herself – and in the process messing everyone else’s life.

The French cover, Kasischke being quite popular in France.

Although the ending fell a little too neatly into the thriller genre, the journey to get there was filled with terrifyingly relatable moments to perimenopausal women everywhere, while at the same time hoping that we would never make such disastrous choices.

As American writers go, perhaps neither of the two are fully representative. They are elusive, allusive, telling things slant, comfortable with ambiguity, and therefore I can imagine both of them being more popular in Europe. Or maybe they simply are representative of a more universal ‘women’s literature’ and ‘women’s sensibilities’, if there is such a thing.

Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Personal Reading Challenge for December

The year of reading womenIt’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.

However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’

So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.

Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading

Françoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

BelCantoAnn Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)

Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!

icecreammanKatri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.

Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it

Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)

Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!

Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…