An Introduction to Paul Bowles
In 1990 there were a lot of ads on TV for Sky Movies this and Sky Movies that. The ads were, more often than not, montages of exciting snippets from the upcoming films they were trying to sell. The Sheltering Sky was one such film. It was sold on it’s exotic premise; the mysterious unworldliness of Morocco. There was a whiff of erotica with it’s faintly North African music playing over desert sprawls. Debra Winger and John Malkovich looked effortlessly cool in their white and tan outfits, smoking, with almost vantablack shades. There were glimpses of hot clinches on the sand, the introduction of a third person. My interest was piqued.
It would be years before I read the book, but I remember finding the novel of The Sheltering Sky in a second hand shop and the rest was history. As I thought, and as I was soon to discover, Bowles’ work is very much ingrained in existentialism, our place in the world, our fraught connections with each other and his stories are never really what you would call straightforward. There’s a simmering violence, an alienation and anxiety in his work that, as odd as it sounds, I have loved since opening that first book. The darkest recesses of the human psyche have often been partnered alongside the terrain the protagonists find themselves in. The surroundings are an element every bit as important as the characters, so much so that soon it becomes a mitigating factor in the story and crucial to the development of the plot. Habitat and inhabitant become critical elements. I think this unique synchronicity drew me towards his work and others like him (Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory or any number of Carson McCullers novels). And so began my love of cult fiction and travel. And for that, thank you Mr. Bowles.
But Paul Bowles wasn’t always a writer. That came later, in 1945 at the age of 39 and only after his wife Jane had her one and only novel published in 1943, Two Serious Ladies (more on that later).
Bowles was born into a middle class family in New York City. In college he studied music and literature. Both came to him naturally. He was writing poems and reading obsessively from a very young age. In later years his studies encompassed music theory, singing and piano. By the 1930’s he was composing. After mixed results, he made several trips to Paris where he was brought into the artistic fold by Gertrude Stein. From here he made trips to Berlin where he met Christopher Isherwood and from there traveled across North Africa.
Once the travelling bug was out of the way, he returned to New York and to composing, where his reputation grew as a serious composer and collaborator. By 1938, Bowles had married Jane Auer. The marriage was an unconventional affair as, prior to this, both had only been in relationships with members of the same sex. Both remained, to some extent, free to live as they wished but they kept close ties until the end.
By 1947, Bowles had a contract for a novel and was living in Tangiers. Jane would follow a year later. While there, he traveled extensively and became a translator and ethnomusicologist of Moroccan music. Using these sojourns around Morocco and the Saharan desert as inspiration, he completed The Sheltering Sky and found literary success.
Bowles’ grasp of how to construct and build a short story is marvelous to behold.
One cannot discuss Bowles without including The Sheltering Sky. It has been dissected and analyzed ad nauseum, but it is integral to his oeuvre. In the book, married couple Port and Kit have traveled from New York to investigate the wider world for the foreseeable future in the hopes that they can resolve some of their marital issues. These marital issues come to the surface against the stunning Moroccan landscapes. What seems straightforward at first gradually becomes unsettling as a third person, George, inserts himself into the drama and Morocco itself begins to bear down on the couple, seducing them one by one with its air of disquiet and danger.
In 1950, Bowles published his first full collection of short stories called The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. It is not a book for everyone, but it is characteristically Paul Bowles as almost all of the stories level some form of violence - be it physical or psychological - at the characters therein. But for my money, this is one of the finest short story collections I’ve ever read. The scope of despair and fear, anxiety and bewilderment is vast and written so fluidly and simply. Bowles’ grasp of how to construct and build a short story is marvelous to behold. The reader is never entirely sure what will or could happen and that is to be applauded. His dedication to the art is no more prevalent than in his infamous story A Distant Episode. Once read, you may never forget it.
Bowles had three more novels and many more short stories and collections of poems, but I feel I must mention one more of his novels, from 1952, Let It Come Down. I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, this is about as dark and unforgiving as Paul Bowles gets and I have to admire the man for his uncompromising nature. He really knuckles down and delves into a situation, dragging his characters with him and putting them through the ringer every time, and often with surprising results that, I like to think, he doesn’t even see coming. When Let It Come Down introduces us to Nelson Dyer, the American looking for a new life in Tangiers, I like to think of the author himself on those nights alone, before Jane arrived, stalking the surroundings, uncovering the underbelly of the city. Dyar’s path however is chosen by his lack of understanding of this new country and perhaps this was how Bowles saw himself when he first arrived. Though I doubt he was ever so naive.
For many, Paul’s wife Jane Bowles was also a formidable author in her own right. An alcoholic all her life, her legacy was cut short at the age of 40 when she suffered a stroke which hampered her writing for a time. She overcame her difficulties to continue writing a number of shorts but never wrote another novel after 1943’s Two Serious Ladies. Unlike much of her husband’s work, Jane’s novel is infused with a wry sense of humour throughout as she introduces us to two quirky women Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield after they meet at a party and decide to throw caution to the wind and embark on a number of adventures. Bowles throws them in with a whole cast of equally quirky characters that is slightly reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry, Flannery O’Connor, or Carson McCullers.
Featured image via nybooks.com.