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Lost & Found: Alice Elliott Dark on Jane Bowles
It is hard to write well about children. Most often, we portray them as prototypes of ourselves; we trace who we are back to that smaller version of us, the one in the fading photographs. Psychology has led us to believe we contain all of that person, that the trajectory from then to now is like a staircase seen from the side, the steps predictably rising. Yet when we are lucky enough to really know a child, we sense the chasm between their world and ours, and realize that something has been lost in transit. We further understand that to write about them as smaller versions of ourselves is a form of personification, and a falsehood. The mysteries of their existence are largely unknown to us; only rarely do we remember what it was really like: the vivid sensations, the freshness of things, the connection to the earth, the other animals, and, oddly, death. Children are not separate from their existence; only from adults.
All of Jane Bowles’s writing has about it an otherness that feels expressive of a child’s perceptions. Her vision lands on people and places and finds them funny—a child’s version of funniness. She is ironic in the way children are as they match one fact to another and find an ill fit; she manages to capture the essence of the cosmic joke without developing a defensive cynicism born of the truth that it’s a joke played on her. Yet she is not a child, nor in any way aiming to give a naturalistic portrayal of one (or of anything, for that matter.) She writes in a considered style that could only be the product of a most sophisticated literary sensibility; no child could ever think the way she does, or create a paragraph like this, from the beginning of her novel Two Serious Ladies:
As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active innter life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without having once gained the respect of a single human being.
A fanatic, a burgeoning solipsist, an individualist insensitive to fashion; Christina is an original. She is not exactly what could be called a likeable character, yet I am charmed. How many times have I read the first section of this book? Dozens, but not enough. Each time, I smile and wonder; how does Jane do it? It is possible to imitate her style, but her thought process is wholly her own. Apparently writing was agonizing for her, and she did it slowly, crossing out line after line. I have a sense of her being akin to writers for whom English is a second language, although she was born in New York in 1917 and grew up for the most part on Long Island. Jane is a consummate translator, both from her deepest compulsions into a lucid prose, and from her own psychological landscape into a world that parallels our agreed upon one closely enough that we are all shaken by her take on it. She never settles, never once. I have read the wonderful biography of her called A Little Original Sin by Millicent Dillon that describes her life, but I’m still mystified as to why she tried so hard.
I love her story “A Stick of Green Candy,” which was first published in Vogue in 1957, in the good old days when fashion magazines published serious fiction. I teach this story often in my writing class, but no one to whom I assign it has ever heard of it before. They have heard of Paul Bowles (sometimes), but not Jane. Because of that, there is suspicion about the quality of this author. How could she be as good as the teacher says without being famous? Why is the story not in any of the anthologies? I tell them they are learning a lesson about literary reputation, and then I tell them to read.
We are introduced to Mary. Like Christina, mentioned above, she’s a loner with a similarly active imagination. The beginning of the story shows her in the clay pit where she goes to play daily, running her men through their maneuvers. Like many other children, she fancied herself the head of a regiment. Today is different than all other days because a fresh rain causes Mary to slip on the wet clay, so she decides to wait until after nightfall to leave the pit so as to hide the mud on her coat. She feels a sense of inner untidiness because of the change in her routine, but she will not allow herself to dwell on the punishment that surely lies ahead. At this period she was rapidly perfecting a psychological mechanism which enabled her to forget, for long periods of time, that her parents existed. Her father does punish her, in a sense; he tells her that from now on she must play at the Kinsey Memorial Grounds with the other children. To her surprise, Mary is not horrified by this, as she usually is by her father’s words. For the first time in her life she has been infected by adult concerns. She goes back to her clay pit the next day, but without her usual assurance. All at once she had had the fear that by looking into her eyes the soldiers might divine her father’s existence.
Suddenly a boy, Franklin, comes down from the hill above the pit. Impulsively, Mary follows him back up the steps in a journey described in laden imagery that touches on heaven and hell; it is a simple yet harrowing trip. Inside the house, Mary is made uneasy by her surroundings; it occurs to her that adults probably live here as well. Sure enough Franklin’s mother appears. She is as clever a depiction of the clever snake in the Garden of Eden as I’ve ever comes across. She is delighted to meet Mary, and immediately confides in her as if she were another adult woman.
“Franklin,” the woman said, “get some candy for me and the girl.”
When he had gone she turned to Mary. “He’s not a rough boy like the others,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do if he was one of the real ones with all the trimmings. He’s got some girl in him, thank the Lord. I couldn’t handle one of the real ones.”
Mary tries to block her out, but it isn’t possible. Instead, she meekly takes a green stick from the box Franklin holds out to her. She flees the house after that, at first in panic, but when she gains some distance from the event and begins to breathe more easily, she has a moment of solitary triumph in her newfound knowledge.
She had never experienced the need to look at things from a distance before, nor had she felt the relief it can bring. All at once, the air stirring around her head seemed delightful; she drank in great draughts of it, her eyes fixed on the lights below.
The next afternoon she waits for hours for Franklin to join her so they can run away together. Surely he knew that all the while his mother was talking, she in secret had been claiming him for her own. Yet Franklin doesn’t come, and eventually she gives up. Wearily, she goes to the pit and coaxes her men to practice their mountain goat fighting, but she can no longer commune with them. She has become separated from them by her experience of the adult world. She isn’t pure anymore.
I am swept with woe whenever I read this story. Poor Mary, I think. Poor Eve. Poor all of us. Yet there are consolations in knowledge; houses, children, candy. Would we trade the world for a solitary dwelling in our own perfect minds?
Alice Elliott Dark is the author of 4 books: Naked to the Waist (stories and novellas), The Betty Book (humor), In the Gloaming (stories), and Think of England (a novel.) Her stories and essays have been widely published and anthologized, including in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and The New York Times.