from jane bowles’ “everything is nice”

Jane Bowles’ short story “Everything is Nice” is an evocation of Moroccan life, rendered in Jane Bowles’ idiosyncratic style.  Jane Bowles lived in Morocco on and off, with her husband Paul Bowles, from the 1940s until her death in 1973.

 

The story began as a non-fiction piece entitled "East Side: North Africa," which was written 1950, published in 1951, then transposed into the third person and re-titled "Everything Is Nice" and included as a short story in her The Collected Works in 1966.

 

Bookseller Photo 

 


the opening paragraphs of Jane Bowles’ “Everything Is Nice”:

 

The highest street in the blue Moslem town skirted the edge of a cliff. She walked over to the thick protecting wall and looked down. The tide was out, and the flat dirty rocks below were swarming with skinny boys. A Moslem woman came up to the blue wall and stood next to her, grazing her hip with the basket she was carrying. She pretended not to notice her, and kept her eyes fixed on a white dog that had just slipped down the side of a rock and plunged into a crater of sea­water. The sound of its bark was earsplitting. Then the woman jabbed the basket firmly into her ribs, and she looked up.

‘That one is a porcupine,‘ said the woman, pointing a henna-stained finger into the basket.

This was true. A large there, with a pair of new yellow socks folded on top of it.

She looked again at the woman. She was dressed in a haik, and the white cloth covering the lower half of her face was loose, about to fall down.

‘I am Zodelia,‘ she announced in a high voice. ‘And you are Betsoul’s friend.’ The loose cloth slipped below her chin and hung there like a bib. She did not pull it up.

‘You sit in her house and you sleep in her house and you eat in her house,‘ the woman went on, and she nodded in agreement. ‘Your name is Jeanie and you live in a hotel with other Nazarenes. How much does the hotel cost you?’

A loaf of bread shaped like a disc flopped on to the ground from inside the folds of the woman’s haik, and she did not have to answer her question. With some difficulty the woman picked the loaf up and stuffed it in between the quills of the porcupine and the basket handle. Then she set the basket down on the top of the blue wall and turned to her with bright eyes.

‘I am the people in the hotel,‘ she said. ‘Watch me.

She was pleased because she knew that the woman who called herself Zodelia was about to present her with a little skit. It would be delightful to watch, since all the people of the town spoke and gesticulated as though they had studied at the Comédie Francaise.

‘The people in the hotel,‘ Zodelia announced, formally beginning her skit. ‘I am the people in the hotel.

”’Good-bye, Jeanie, good-bye. Where are you going?"

”’I am going to a Moslem house to visit my Moslem friends, Betsoul and her family. I will sit in a Moslem room and eat Moslem food and sleep on a Moslem bed."

‘"Jeanie, Jeanie, when will you come back to us in the hotel and sleep in your own room?"

‘"I will come back to you in three days. I will come back and sit in a Nazarene room and eat Nazarene food and sleep on a Nazarene bed. I will spend half the week with Moslem friends and half with Nazar­enes."’

The womans voice had a triumphant ring as she finished her sentence; then, without announcing the end of the sketch, she walked over to the wall and put one arm around her basket.

Down below, just at the edge of the cliff’s shadow, a Moslem woman was seated on a rock, washing her legs in one of the holes filled with sea-water. Her haik was piled on her lap and she was huddled over it, examining her feet.

‘She is looking at the ocean,‘ said Zodelia.

She was not looking at the ocean; with her head down and the mass of cloth in her lap she could not possibly have seen it; she would have had to straighten up and turn around.

‘She is not looking at the ocean,‘ she said.

‘She is looking at the ocean,‘ Zodelia repeated, as if she had not spoken.

She decided to change the subject. ‘Why do you have a porcupine with you?‘ she asked her, although she knew that some of the Moslems, particularly the country people, enjoyed eating them.

It is a present for my aunt. Do you like it?

‘Yes,‘ she said. ‘I like porcupines. I like big por­cupines and little ones, too.

Zodelia seemed bewildered, and then bored, and she decided she had somehow ruined the conversation by mentioning small porcupines.
  
‘Where is your mother?’ Zodelia said at length. ‘My mother is in her country in her own house,she said automatically; she had answered the question a hundred times.

Why don’t you write her a letter and tell her to come here? You can take her on a promenade and show her the ocean. After that she can go back to her own country and sit in her house.‘ She picked up her basket and adjusted the strip of cloth over her mouth. ‘Would you like to go to a wedding?she asked her.

on keeping language unsplit

The greatness of Paul Celan’s poetic achievement is largely untranslatable, but we can catch glimpses of it now and then. One of Celan’s themes, I think, was how we use language to objectivize the political dilemmas surrounding us, forever isolating us from one another, and whether we can sufficiently purify and revitalize language so that we can, if only for a while, truly apprehend others, and ourselves.
 
Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
 
Speak —
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
 
Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.
 
Look around:
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
 
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.

Paul
Celan, Poems of Paul Celan (translated by Michael Hamburger)