On Paul Bowles, 1910-1999

Paul Bowles (1910 - 1999)

     It is a shame that the author of one of the best and strangest novels of the twentieth century is known, if at all, as a footnote on the Wikipedia pages of William Burroughs (who moved to Morocco because of Bowles) and John Malkovich (who starred in the ill-conceived/-fated Bertolucci adaptation of Bowles’ masterpiece The Sheltering Sky). Bowles was a talented composer, an inimitable writer, and the WASPiest guy I consider a badass. Putting his WASPyness to good use, he once helped Peggy Guggenheim spite the antisemitic New England aristocracy by posing in an interview as the real buyer so that she could purchase property on what she called the “Non-Jewish Lake.”

     For a full catalogue of his famous friends and fantastic exploits, you’ll have to read the biographies. But here’s a smattering of the sort of thing you can expect to find. 

     Bowles was a close friend of Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, and Gertrude Stein. Stein had him exercise her standard poodle Basket by running around the courtyard in lederhosen so the dog would chase him. 

     He wrote the music for Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. He came up with the now iconic title for the English translation of Sartre’s Huis Clos (which does not mean “No Exit” in French). He even made an extensive and painstaking collection of traditional Moroccan music by hauling a gas generator and recording equipment through rural Morocco in the final moment before many of the local styles were drowned by westernization and kitsch. That said, avoid his poetry. Stein was absolutely spot on when she told him he simply wasn’t a poet.

     He briefly attended the University of Virginia, like Poe, though Bowles’ vices were less decadent. A very light drinker, his grades suffered because he liked to skip class to wander nearby hills and forests. But before you get the idea that he was like Robert Frost strolling the fecund orchards by moonlight, here’s his own account of his decision to drop out of UVA - “I returned to my room one afternoon at dusk and upon opening the door knew at once that I was about to do something explosive and irrevocable…. I shut the door and gave a running leap onto the bed, where I stood, my heart pounding. I took out a quarter and tossed it spinning into the air. ‘Heads!’ I cried out with relief. Tails would have meant that I had to down a bottle of Allonal and leave no note. Heads meant that I would leave for Europe as soon as possible,” (Without Stopping p. 79). Note that remaining a student wasn’t even an option.

     His first and best novel, The Sheltering Sky, was written on contract with Doubleday who rejected the manuscript because it ‘wasn’t a novel’ only to regret that decision when Viking rode it up the 1949 bestseller lists. After The Sheltering Sky I would recommend The Delicate Prey (his first short story collection) then his second novel Let It Come Down (ten points to anyone who can place the title’s reference). 

     The Sheltering Sky follows the American couple Port and Kit Moresby as madness and malady drive them deep into the Sahara. Fun fact: Port Moresby is also the capital of Papua New Guinea. David Wallace attempted a phenomenological description of death in “Good Old Neon,” but Bowles’ attempt at the same in The Sheltering Sky makes Wallace’s look about as rich and compelling as a Hallmark card. 

     The Delicate Prey condenses into short stories much of what made The Sheltering Sky so powerful - death, drugs, whimsy, and depravity told with the unforgiving observational acumen of a psychoanalyst and the cynical candor of an apostate priest. 

     Let It Come Down, his second novel, is a more focused investigation of loneliness and identity than that of The Sheltering Sky. Nelson Dyar, a straight-laced American bank-teller, travels to Morocco looking for a new life. It’s your call whether he finds it or not.

     If racy Modernist fiction isn’t your cup of mint tea, then try his travelogue Their Heads Are Green And Their Hands Are Blue, which treats the same subject and is at least as good as Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti’s Voices of Marrakesh. 

     Taking care of his wife Jane after she suffered a stroke, Bowles had trouble finding the uninterrupted time he needed for his novels and turned to translation. He was one of the first to translate Moghrebi Arabic fiction for an American audience, which he did alongside his translations from avant-garde Spanish- and French-language authors. A number of or these translations were published through Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press - M’Hashish by Mohammed Mrabet, The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt, and The Beggar’s Knife by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. 

Biographies

     There are four biographies of Bowles worth mentioning - Without Stopping (Bowles’ autobiography), Paul Bowles: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr, You Are Not I by Millicent Dillon, and An Invisible Spectator by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno.

     Without Stopping was the very first work by Bowles I read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. An aspiring composer travels the world in the company of his artist friends, bucking conventual morality, becoming a novelist, and securing his own share of success as an expat in Tangier. One adventure involves him buying an island (1) off the coast of India with help from Peggy Guggenheim. Another has him driving across Morocco in a new Jaguar convertible with the backseats full of cannabis. Sadly though, William Burroughs was right to joke that the title should have been Without Telling. Anyone who has read the meatier biographies will see just how much of the interpersonal dramas Bowles passes over in silence (especially those involving his sexual relations with other men). It was common knowledge in the art circles of the era that even though Paul and Jane were married and had once had a fiery romance both came to prefer queer sexual companionship, living in separate houses for a time and seducing locals.

     Of all the biographies, An Invisible Spectator is the only one that really infuriated Bowles and the only one I would not recommend to anyone but the most devout Bowles’ fan and then only after reading the other three. Sawyer-Laucanno’s account follows the same general trajectory as the others with one notable exception. While the other biographers sympathize at some level with Bowles’ relationship with his wife Jane following her stroke and downward spiral into alcoholism, Sawyer-Laucanno sees a malicious if not outright sadistic streak. Bowles’ fiction may be full of outrageous cruelty but nothing else I’ve read (the testaments of countless friends and colleagues) backs up Sawyer-Laucanno’s characterization. I believe he either embellished the story to stir up controversy or, like so many literary biographers, couldn’t see the life except through the work. 

     Millicent Dillon’s You Are Not I, aside from having one of my all-time least favorite titles, is a readable, competent account. Unfortunately, she has nothing unique to say on the topic and a clunky prose style that did not benefit from the book’s hurried composition. Fortunately, I can highly recommend A Little Original Sin, her biography of Jane Bowles, not least for having a really wonderful title. Jane was clearly the subject Dillon wanted to cover, which she does with the care and attention and occasional grandiosity of the true acolyte. You Are Not I was her attempt to wring another book out of the same research notes. And yes, I know that You Are Not I is the title of one of Paul Bowles’ short stories. At least he had the decency to keep it off the cover. Which brings me to the last and best of the group. 

    Paul Bowles: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr will be the definitive work on Bowles until a new generation needs to reinvent him. The most recent of the four, it draws on the research of the other three and brings both a balanced perspective and a polished style. The book is long enough to do justice to its subject but not overlong (like Ellman’s Joyce or Atlas’ Bellow, to name only one-volume examples). Carr’s writing is vivid without sensationalizing and direct in the clear confident way of hard-earned expertise. As is the case with truly excellent biographies, I remember the life itself vibrantly and the experience of reading the book almost not at all. 

     If you read only two books on this page, you should read The Sheltering Sky and Paul Bowles: A Life.

(1) - Here’s a short essay by Bowles about Taprobane, the island he briefly owned and occupied: http://www.paulbowles.org/taprobane.html

Multimedia:

This is a short (2 min) clip of Bowles describing a Moroccan dance of self-mutilation he saw in a cafe during his travels.

This is a short (2 min) trailer for the documentary, Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open

     There are lots of other video clips about Bowles on YouTube that you can turn up with a quick search. If you're looking for something interesting to play in the background while you cook, you can find 30 min - 1.5 hr documentaries in English, Spanish, and French (which gives you some idea of just how international his influence has been).