Friday, July 21, 2017

A Stick of Green Candy

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

Detail from Landscape with Flight of Stairs, c. 1922, oil on canvas by Russian-French artist Chaim Soutine (1893–1943). Click on image to see entire painting. Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In July 1947, using the money from the advance for a novel, Paul Bowles left for Morocco, a country he had visited years earlier on the advice of Gertrude Stein. His wife, Jane, remained behind in the U.S. and began an affair with Jody McLean, a New England woman who owned a tea shop. Paul, who with a friend bought a house in the Casbah of Tangier, encouraged Jane to join him in Africa. Fearful of a transatlantic journey, she kept putting it off but in January finally went to Morocco with Jody and found herself enthralled by their new home. Jody returned to the U.S. in the spring, and Jane decided to stay alone in Morocco when Paul went to New York to finish the incidental music for Tennessee Williams’s new play, Summer and Smoke. During Paul’s absence, Jane befriended—and became a bit obsessed with—a group of women she met in the grain market, including Cherifa, who operated a stall in the market and who would become Jane’s closest companion for two decades.

Paul returned to Tangier in December 1948 and suggested that he and Jane travel into the Sahara. Somewhat to Paul’s surprise, she was as enchanted by the desert as she had been with Tangier. “It is not like anything else anywhere in the world (and I do remember New Mexico), not the sand—or the oasis,” she wrote in March to friends. “It is very quiet, no electricity, no cars. Just Paul and me. And many empty rooms. The great sand desert begins just outside my window. . . . We plan to be in the desert about a month and then back to Fez. Then to Tangier, where I can resume my ‘silly life’ with the grain market group.”

During their Sahara trek, while staying in Taghit, Algeria, Jane broke through her recurring writer’s block and finished “A Stick of Green Candy.” Paul—whose famous novel The Sheltering Sky was published that year—was excited that Jane was writing again, but according to his biographer Virginia Spencer Carr he “feared that she would never stop tinkering with it.” When they returned to Tangier, Jane ended up stashing the story in a closet. In 1956 Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo visited Tangier, and Jane dusted off the manuscript for Merlo to read. Jane allowed him to take it back to the U.S. and he sent it to Vogue, which immediately accepted the story. It appeared in the magazine a couple of weeks shy of Jane’s fortieth birthday.

Millicent Dillon, Jane Bowles’s biographer and the editor of the recently published Library of America edition of her collected writings, explains how “A Stick of Green Candy” evokes Jane’s insecurity as a writer of fiction, and more specifically her “loss of belief in her imagination”:
Jane was telling of the breakdown in her imaginative world. In the desert, as she wrote the story, her sense of its truth held her, and she could complete it. Like Mary, she had to believe in the truth of what she said. . . . But when the story was done, when she returned to Tangier, she began again to disbelieve her own words, to mistrust her own imagination. . . . “A Stick of Green Candy” was to be the last work of fiction she was ever to complete.

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