The last of the Bohemians
Paul Bowles, master of the cold styleBy John Ryle • 15 September 1989 • Times Literary Supplement • Unwelcome Words by Paul Bowles; An Invisible Spectator: A biography of Paul Bowles by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno • Revised with afterword • Posted 2016 • 3,400 words
At a time when the worlds of Islam press with special intensity on the political awareness of the West, the works of an American writer and composer who has lived for forty years in North Africa have a special claim on our attention. Not that Paul Bowles’s purpose is to make the popular culture of the Maghreb intelligible to unbelievers; in fact his writing tends to assume an unbridgeable gap of understanding between the West and the rest. He is not a convert to Islam, nor a scholar of Moroccan history. And though he has paid close attention as an ethnomusicologist to the performing arts in his adoptive country, his own musical compositions are barely affected by the indigenous music that he has collected from the peoples of the Sahara.
In the case of Bowles’ fiction, however, and his work as a translator, it is a different story. Here both the form and the content of his writing have been distinctively shaped by the indigenous North African moral worlds he has lived in for the past forty years. A biography and a new collection of his short stories throw some light on these and other paradoxes embedded in his work.
Bowles is the last and strangest survivor of the post-war Bohemian diaspora, a cultural apostate, rejecting America, finding a language and a rationale in the strength of another civilization for his alienation from his own. Even for a European audience he lies over the literary horizon, only half-visible, an eternal revenant. New books by him slip into the country incognito, often under unfamiliar imprints, not quite of the moment. This centrifugal impulse, the flight from the cultural centre, is fundamental in Bowles. He is drawn to the desert, to the edge of the world, to the dissolution of the self, of the very forms of writing in which he chronicles the passage away from his origins.
Between Bowles and the desert lie the cities of North Africa, where he has lived most of his life. Half a century of residence in Tangier has imbued him with the mystique of exile; and this former gilded youth of the 1930s, who turned heads in the Cafe des Westens in Berlin, has become, in his eightieth year, a sage, a sociable recluse. In the concrete apartment block, squat and prisonlike, where he lives in Tangier, Bowles continues to pursue his twin vocations as composer and novelist. At the same time, since the 1960s, he has been publishing, with increasing frequency, translations of spoken works by a number of his Moroccan protégés, tuning their wonder tales and autobiographical fragments to the music of his own tongue. It is this subtle infusion of an indigenous sensibility into Bowles’s work that distinguishes him from other expatriate writers. And it is this, it may be argued, that has rescued him from the existential wilderness described in his own writing.
The wild boys bite back
The few Moroccan and Algerian authors who have reputations abroad are generally those who write in French, or whose books are published in French translation, so that the English versions are themselves translations of translations (an example of the former is Abdellatif Laabi’s prison novel, Rue du Retour, recently published by Readers International), These Francophone writers are highbrow, cosmopolitan, conscious of the heritage of African literature in European languages. For political reasons, their books are seldom published in Morocco.
As midwife to a Moroccan literature in English, Bowles has helped create a body of work quite distinct from this Francophone school. Its authors are, on the whole, literally unschooled. They are urban and streetwise, but in literary terms naive, sometimes barely literate. They therefore owe much to their translator’s shaping hand. No published originals exist for most of these translations. There is a touch of mischief in Bowles’s project. Works translated—and perhaps instigated—by him include Mohamed Choukri’s shrewd and unawed observations on the sojourns of Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams in Tangier, and a fragment of autobiography by Mohammed Mrabet in which he describes a trip to California, which was published under the sardonic title “Like the Sahara, Only Dirty”. The narrative brio and quirks of sensibility in the works of Choukri and Mrabet give them a striking authorial presence, even in their polished English versions. Their writing draws on the tradition of North African market-place storytellers in order to adumbrate a local version of modernity. Under Bowles’s tutelage they turn the exoticism of western denizens of Marrakesh such as Brion Gysin and William Burroughs back on itself: the wild boys bite back.
Yet they are still under occidental influence, it may be argued, in the form of the guiding hand of their translator. A critical question in assessing the significance of Bowles’ work is whether this influence been mutual. In Bowles’s writing there has been an intimate stylistic interchange between his translations and his own stories, a slow absorption of—and into—indigenous genres, an unpicking and reweaving of Western sensibility. From The Spider’s House (1955), his first novel with a non-Western protagonist, this trajectory has taken him away from the development of character, the principal source of meaning and feeling in the European and American tradition, and towards plot and the spirit of place. In Bowles’s work, the Islamic wonder-tale converges with the horror story. West and East meet, usually in an act of violence. His pursuit of a cold style, with its startling affectlessness—the purgation of sentiment, the meticulous avoidance of pathos—follows the same logic. It is hard to know if he is trying to move the reader to shiver, or shrug, or smile—or none of these things. The translator and the story-teller in Bowles have worked on each other to cleanse his writing of superfluities. The seven stories in his most recent collection, Unwelcome Words, are the most recent examples of this.
In the United States Bowles’s reputation is, if anything, more insubstantial than in Europe. The disengagement is mutual. He seldom writes about America and has not lived there since the 1940s. Of his entire fictional output—four novels and a dozen collections of short stories—no more than a couple of the stories are set in the country of his birth. American characters recur in his fiction, but, starting with the hapless travellers in The Sheltering Sky (1949), they usually have something seriously wrong with them. Troubled in spirit, enmeshed in alien cultures, ancient civilizations that are tougher and more nefarious than their own, they break down, fall apart, go mad, and die.
A reluctant subject
As Bowles’ self-appointed biographer, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno has not got much change out of him. In his introduction to An Invisible Spectator, he describes his negotiations with his subject. Bowles, he says, “both expressed resistance to the idea of a biography and encouraged my interest in him and his work”. His subject agreed, he says, to neither help nor hinder him (as Samuel Beckett, for example, also did with his biographer.) The resultant book, Sawyer-Lauçanno announces fawningly in the introduction, “is really for Paul Bowles”.
The understanding does not appear to have been mutual. In his journal for August 1988, which he recently published, prophylactically perhaps, in the literary periodical Antaeus, Bowles writes:
For three days L. has been coming here to spend the entire afternoon. Twice or three times a year he arrives from Boston, where he’s busy writing that biography which I rejected before he started. I’ve repeatedly told L. I won’t help him in any way ….
Conversation with him is like talking with the doctor immediately after he tells you: “You have cancer,” and then goes on: “But let’s speak about something else.” I wonder if he knows how deeply I resent his flouting my wishes. Probably not, since I say nothing, show nothing, and after all this time, even feel nothing ….
During the six afternoons he spent here Mrabet did all the talking. I think L. must be better equipped now to write on Mohammed Mrabet than on anyone else.
Unfortunately there is next to nothing in An Invisible Spectator about Mohamed Mrabet, or on Bowles’s relationship with him, despite the fact that there is clearly a bond between Mrabet and Bowles that has had a key role in both their lives for many years, starting well before the death of Bowles’ wife, Jane Bowles. Perhaps Sawyer-Lauçanno was frightened off by Mrabet’s reputation for violence. On Bowles’s early life he is more informative, but so is Bowles himself: most of the best stories in An Invisible Spectator are more elegantly told in Bowles’ own autobiography, Without Stopping, published in 1972.
Sawyer-Lauçanno’s dependence on this book is manifest, as also his debt to Millicent Dillon’s biography of Paul Bowles’ late wife, Jane Bowles, A Little Original Sin (reviewed in the TLS, December 16-22, 1988). Sawyer-Lauçanno’s penultimate chapter ends in 1973, the year of Jane’s death, a year after the publication of the autobiography. The subsequent fifteen years, during which Bowles has published dozens of stories and translations and a travel book, are dealt with in just ten pages.
Without Stopping is certainly an incomplete narrative of Bowles’ life, even by Bowles’ own austere standards. (He is perhaps the only autobiographer whose friends have complained not of what he wrote about them, but of his lack of indiscretion; William Burroughs referred to the book as “Without Telling”.) So it is not for lack of untold tales that Sawyer-Lauçanno relies so heavily on the twice-told. He has also learnt very little, stylistically, from his subject’s command of language; and he displays a minimum of critical acumen when it comes to the writing. Still, there is something to be learned from the story he sketches of Bowles’s early days, about the artistic milieux of the pre-war and immediately postwar period and the origin of Bowles’ alienation from American bourgeois life.
A life before Africa
Bowles’s life before Africa, as recounted in An Invisible Spectator, has the lineaments of an origin myth for a Bohemian culture-hero. He was born in Queens, New York, in 1910, an only child. His mother was the daughter of a storeowner from Vermont, his father a dentist—and, by his son’s account, a monster. Bowles’ parents espoused a turn-of-the-century health fad called Fletcherization (said to have numbered among its devotees William and Henry James and the cornflake king, John Kellogg). Named after Horace Fletcher, the “Moses of Mastication”, Fletcherization involved a regime of chewing every mouthful of food at least forty times before swallowing. At mealtimes in the Bowles household second helpings were frequently refused on the grounds that the first had not been chewed properly; Bowles remembered that he would be flicked in the face with a napkin by his father as a punishment for a premature gulp.
Father and son, one somehow senses, did not get on. Bowles even claims that his father tried to kill him when he was a baby by leaving him uncovered in his cot in a snowstorm. The story, recounted by his grandmother, his father’s mother-in-law, has a touch of Grand Guignol about it: Daddy as the Demon Dentist, the Kronos of Long Island. We may note here that Paul Bowles’ bedtime reading as a child was Edgar Allan Poe; in his writing the gothic strain remains. Bowles père’s tyrannical mode of fatherhood apparently included forbidding his son to play with other children, so Paul took refuge, like other youthful solitaries, in elaborate make-believe worlds, creating fictional journals and unreal real-estate schemes, both of which Sawyer-Lauçanno describes at unnecessary length. In a number of Bowles’s stories sons wreak mayhem in the lives of their parents, starting with homosexual incest in “Pages From Cold Point” (1947) and culminating in the casual parricide of “Julian Vreden” in Unwelcome Words.
In view of the fate of the American characters in many of his stories, generally the hapless victims of other cultures, much of Bowles’s oeuvre can be seen as an elaborate act of revenge, both on father and fatherland. Nevertheless, the peculiarities of his upbringing do not seem to have hindered his life chances. To compress the tale: he graduated from Jamaica High, a school he chose himself, and the University of Virginia; he learned the piano; took composition lessons from Aaron Copland; submitted a poem at a venture to the Paris-based modernist periodical Transition; had it published; and ran away to Europe. Here he eventually met the whole modernist crew: Ezra Pound, Eugene and Marie Jolas, Virgil Thomson, Jean Cocteau and André Gide.
In Paris he was first taken up by Gertrude Stein. She didn’t like his poetry, but was intrigued by his character. In his pristine narcissism he was, she announced, the first example of the modernist personality type, a type that was to become, as Bowles himself later remarked, with non-narcissistic wryness, “the commonest of contemporary phenomena, the American child with its unrelenting spleen”. Aaron Copland, on the other hand, took Bowles seriously as a composer. And he fell for his student in a big way, comparing him to Satie and chaperoning him round the louche resorts of the Old World.
All this happened before Bowles was twenty-one. He was clearly a dazzling young man, for those who cared to be dazzled. Edouard Roditi, an American poet living in Paris, professed himself struck “like St Gregory in the slave market”, by Bowles’s angelic Anglo-Saxon appearance. The British aristocrat David Herbert, doyen of Tangerine expatriates, described him as a fallow-deer; Leonard Bernstein noted his “perfumed” voice. The composer Virgil Thomson, who is one of Sawyer-Lauçanno’s more unbuttoned sources, remarks on Bowles’s constant poverty and his survival skills.
“Paul always liked people with money and had an instinct for finding them”, Thompson is quoted as saying. “He loved being taken care of; he was a virtuoso at being taken care of.”
Of Bowles’s relationships with Aaron Copland and others, Thomson remarks: “Paul made like being queer and he got money out of that… But he was not really interested in the physical side.”
It was Copland who took Bowles to Berlin, where they socialised with Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. The fastidious Bowles was put off by Spender’s Byronesque open-necked shirt. “It struck me as unheard of,” he wrote. “that he should want to announce his status as a poet rather than dissimulate it,”
“Together”, he wrote of the two Englishmen, “they were overwhelmingly British, two members of a secret society constantly making references to esoteric data not available to outsiders.”
Perhaps, for once, he felt outshone. Later Isherwood borrowed Paul’s surname for Sally Bowles in “Goodbye to Berlin”. Bowles, for his part, misheard Isherwood’s—or claimed to have done—and referred to him subsequently as “Sherwood”.
It was with Copland also that Bowles made his first trip to Morocco, then a French colony, and to the international port of Tangier. Copland thought the place was a madhouse; for the world-wandering Bowles it was the answer to everything. After the war, now married, he returned there to live.
A marriage of inconvenience
Bowles’ marriage in 1938 to Jane Auer clearly had little to do with what Virgil Thomson called “the physical side”. Her erotic interests had always inclined to other women and continued to do so. Nevertheless, it was a true marriage, a marriage of inconvenience, a mysterious dependency of incompatibles. The Bowleses were glamorous and odd, and they shared a taste for oddity in others.
In New York they lived first at the Chelsea Hotel, then at the celebrated house in Brooklyn where Wystan Auden acted as châtelaine. For several years on and off they travelled in Mexico and Guatemala; finally settling in Tangier in the 1940s, where they stayed more or less together until Jane’s death. It was Jane’s success in 1943 with her decidedly offbeat novel Two Serious Ladies (the story of the Bowleses’ honeymoon, according to Virgil Thomson) that set Paul writing his own first novel, The Sheltering Sky. And several of Paul’s female characters seem to be based on Jane. She and Paul were generous to each other about their writing. But after her first novel Jane wrote little of significance. She began a long slide into alcoholism and dementia that ended in a stroke and her death in a clinic in Malaga in 1971.
Bowles has lived in Tangier ever since. From here a steady stream of translations and short stories continues to flow from his pen. There are some suggestive comparisons to be made between Jane’s work and Paul’s. The strength—and perhaps the weakness—of both writers is that they write from the androgynous centre. There is no machismo, no posturing, and no gush. But in Jane’s case she had only her own eccentricity to sustain her; there is no external referent in her writing. With Paul Bowles, although his style and subject matter is more or less unchanged from his early, formative years, the authorial focus has been subtly diffused by the work of translation.
In his later years—the period that Sawyer-Lauçanno’s biography barely touches on—it seems that he has published more and more translations—perhaps they should be called re-creations—of stories by Moroccan collaborators, and fewer and fewer of his own. Practitioner though he is of the cold style, it seems that Bowles has saved himself—even healed himself—by extraversion to the culture that surrounds him, by the act of translation, by earthing himself in other people’s stories, by burrowing into the host culture, dispersing his authorial impulse in the task of bringing the lives of others to light, and others’ words to written form. ★
There is very little commentary on Bowles by scholars or writers from the Muslim world. An exception is Asad al-Ghalith’s “Paul Bowles’s Portrayal of Islam in His Moroccan Short Stories” (International Fiction Review 1992) which argues that Bowles’ work misrepresents key elements of Islam, including Islamic conceptions of justice, free will and fate.
“Through the portrayal of simple Muslims with a proclivity towards drug use and violence,” writes Asad al-Ghalith,
Bowles seemingly presents Islam as acquiescent to weakness and decadence. The picture given to Western readers is a disturbing portrait of the weak members of Islam misconstruing the interpretation of their faith to further their own desires and objectives.
In Bowles’ earlier short stories, he argues, the tendency is always to dwell on violence and cruelty:
Although undoubtedly the Morocco of Bowles’s short stories was a land beset by many violent acts due to excessive poverty and ignorance, the reader’s urge to equate the society with Islam is made very enticing through Bowles’s use of simple characters who appear to try to justify their cruel actions with invocations to Allah and repeated references to religious beliefs.
In an article in the 1997 issue of The Threepenny Review Bowles described the sometimes bitter disputes that developed between him and his three principal Moroccan collaborators: Mohamed Mrabet, Larbu Layachi and Mohamed Choukri. A subsequent article by Brian Edwards, based on interviews with some of them, adds useful information about the disputes. In this article and, later, in his Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express (Durham, NC: 2005) Edwards argues for a reading of Mrabet’s work with Bowles that accords Mrabet a more active role:
Reading Mrabet’s work with Bowles carefully, for what was in the text, I noted that Mrabet found ways to critique the very process by which he entered the American literary marketplace. I found their collaborations disruptive to the prevalent idea that Bowles was a simple Orientalist, recolonizing Moroccan culture the way colonial anthropologists had been accused of doing decades earlier. By giving Mrabet a voice—a voice that was illegible to Moroccan literary norms at the time because the Moroccan darija, or colloquial Moroccan Arabic, was not valued as a literary language—he provided the conditions by which Mrabet himself could utter a critique of his own society and of those Westerners (including Bowles himself) who lived there impervious to the strictures on middle and lower class Moroccans.