Friday, February 17, 2017

East Side: North Africa

Jane Bowles (1917–1973)
From Jane Bowles: Collected Writings

Street scene, Tangier, Morocco, c. late 1920s–1930s. Detail from a hand-tinted photograph on a postcard.
In 1965, after the publication of the UK edition of Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies, the London publisher Peter Owen proposed a collection of her shorter fiction. Jane was hesitant to republish her stories, and she claimed that she had lost all her copies anyway. But, as her husband Paul Bowles later told biographer Virginia Spencer Carr: “I was able to come up with tear-sheets of everything at hand, including the travel article ‘East Side: North Africa’ that she had written [in 1950] for Mademoiselle. I saw that in ten minutes it could be transformed into a story. As I expected, she refused to consider it. So I did it myself, called it ‘Everything Is Nice,’ and included it. . . . When I showed her the result, she said angrily: ‘Do whatever you like.’”

Paul condensed the original Mademoiselle piece and turned what Jane had written as a first-person memoir into a third-person work of fiction. He then edited and prepared six other stories for the collection, which was published in England as Plain Pleasures. In the United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux included the stories with her novel Two Serious Ladies and her play In the Summer House in an omnibus edition, The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, which Jane regarded dismissively as the “Dead Jane Bowles.” Thirty years later, Paul seemed to express regret for his dabbling with the Mademoiselle essay: “I believed that because we had collaborated before when she was having difficulties getting something down on paper that she desperately wanted to say and asked me to look at it and make suggestions, it would be fitting for me to tinker with this one. I was wrong, of course.”

“East Side: North Africa” describes a single day in Tangier during which Jane (“Jeanie”) is invited to visit with Moroccan women who know her housekeeper and companion Cherifa. Literary scholar Brian T. Edwards, in Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, explains the significance of the central expression in both the original essay and the story:
“Everything is nice” seems at once to translate and not to translate a common Moroccan expression (kulshi mizzian) and more generally a Moroccan manner of speech in which precision of meaning gives way to a refusal to condemn or to judge God’s world. Indeed, whatever the expression Jane Bowles would have heard in the context, it would likely have been followed by hamdullah (“praise to God”), a phrase Bowles doesn’t render or include. In this sense, the phrase “everything is nice” is not a translation of the Moroccan expression but rather the representation of the failure of communication.
In early 1950, about the time Jane was working on the article for Mademoiselle, she wrote to her husband and mentioned how Morocco makes her feel “connected” with her work. Her main aggravation was learning to speak Arabic. “I just can’t accept having gotten this far in the damn language, and not getting any further,” she wrote. “With me, as you know, it is always the dialogue that interests me, and not the paysages [scenery] so much or the atmosphere.” And, as readers will discover, it is the dialogue—and her frustration with it—that forms the center of her text.

Both versions—“East Side: North Africa” and “Everything Is Nice”—are included in the latest Library of America volume, Jane Bowles: Collected Writings. We present here, as our Story of the Week selection, the original article Jane wrote for Mademoiselle.

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The highest street in this blue Arab town skirted the edge of a cliff. I walked over to the thick protecting wall and looked down. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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