writing about great writers often describe their subjects
through geography. Sometimes this is justified. What
would a Hemingway description be without a reference
to Paris or the Michigan woods?
Bowles isn't so simple.
Born in New York to an overbearing
dentist and an overindulgent socialite, he spent
his childhood bouncing miserably between his parents'
conflicting whims. Sent into the backyard by his
mother and ordered to entertain himself, he would
be told immediately by his father to quit making
noise. According to Bowles, he wasn't allowed to
see another child until he entered school. Not surprisingly,
he was quite happy to leave home for college courses
at the University of Virginia. Then something strange
happened: in the middle of his second semester and
with the suddenness and apparent inexplicability
readers have come to associate with his fiction,
Bowles simply disappeared.
Naturally, his parents, or rather
his mother, panicked. It wouldn't be long before
they discovered his hideout, though. He'd taken
a boat to Paris and was working various menial jobs
while trying to compose music. It was only with
extreme reluctance that Bowles returned to the U.S.,
and he was soon to leave again not merely for Europe,
but North Africa as well.
It was the beginning of a nomadic
life that would lead him restlessly around the globe
not as a tourist but rather, as Bowles would say
in his first novel, as a traveler:
Whereas the tourist generally
hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or
months, the traveler, belonging no more to one
place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods
of years, from one part of the earth to another.
Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell,
among the many places he had lived, precisely
where it was he had felt most at home.
In this sense, an editor would
be hard-pressed to find a better title than the
one chosen by Daniel Halpern for his excellent 1993
selection of Bowles's work: Too
Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles.
would be false to suggest that Bowles never settled
down. He did. But the place he chose—Tangier—couldn't
have been further removed culturally or geographically
from his parents' New York (or just about anything
else in the U.S.). The fact remains, though, that
it was here, in North Africa, that Bowles finally
discovered a place he (and future essayists) might,
without great discomfort, call home.
In 1931, when Bowles first visited
Tangier (at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein and
in the company of Aaron Copland), it was a busily
exotic international city. (Tangier's history is
intricate. In this century, it was controlled by
Morocco until 1912, when it became a French protectorate.
Then, in 1923, its governance was passed to a commission
of representatives from Britain, France, Portugal,
Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and
the United States. In 1956, it was returned to Morocco.)
It held a small enclave of expatriates, and as Bowles
discovered after settling in, most of them wanted
to stay isolated from the West. Unfortunately, the
permissiveness that attracted the crowd-hating expatriates
was too attractive to keep the Tangier community
exclusive for long.
At first, it was a wave of artists
and expatriates. Bowles politely entertained Beat
stars like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg,
as well as more conventionally accepted writers
like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Over
time, though, Tangiers's reputation as a sex-and-drugs
wild zone became more important than its reputation
as a writer's colony, and the artistic integrity
of the visitors grew more questionable. Ever dapper
and immaculate, Bowles looked down on the new generation
of hippy expatriates and fringe-tourists as "lesser
beats," but he never turned them away.
Perhaps if he'd had more energy,
he might have pulled up stakes and moved to yet
another remote spot, one whose obscurity would promise
more isolation and silence. But Bowles had aged
enough to settle down and ignore how neighborhoods
must inevitably change. Even with Tangier's official
absorption into Morocco and the ensuing reactionary
crackdown on the expatriate colony in the 1960s,
he stuck it out. Bowles, wanderer extraordinaire,
had settled solidly, if belatedly, home.
Sheltering Sky (1949), Bowles's first
novel, was initially rejected by Doubleday, on the
grounds that it was a nonfiction account of Bowles's
tours of North Africa. It's not a completely unfounded
concern. Like many writers, Bowles drew on his personal
experiences for material, and since North Africa
was new territory for American publishers, it certainly
seemed autobiographical. At heart, though, The
Sheltering Sky is a novel that ultimately denies
that referents exist for words like 'character'
and 'personality,' and the notion that it is merely
recounting the events of real-life 'characters'
and 'personalities' thus becomes problematic.
men and a woman, or to define them differently,
a husband, a wife and a family friend who is "astonishingly
handsome in his late Paramount way"—have
agreed for various dysfunctional reasons to tour
North Africa together. The husband hopes the friend
will give him the physical distance he needs from
his wife; the friend hopes to take advantage, in
a chivalrous way, of the wife, to whom he is whoppingly
attracted; the wife hopes to use the friend's attraction
to get jealous attention and ultimately reconciliation
(and sex) with her husband.
Naturally, none of these schemes
works entirely correctly, and in the end, each of
the characters must face a nightmarish version of
their longing. Having contracted typhoid fever in
a distant outpost, the husband dies isolated and
misunderstood; his wife wanders blindly into the
desert and becomes an Arab's sex slave; the friend
does have sex with the wife but ultimately devolves
into a bumbling clown who must return home (ever
the tourist), empty-handed.
The Sheltering Sky is a
remarkable first novel on several levels. First
and most obviously, it contains many passages that
are breathtakingly beautiful (though their subject
matter may occasionally strike the reader as repugnant).
Port went up the steps and in,
slamming the wooden door after him. It stank inside,
and it was dark. He leaned back against the cold
stone wall and heard the spiderwebs snap as his
head touched them. The pain was ambiguous: it
was a violent cramp and a mounting nausea, both
at once. He stood still for some time, swallowing
hard and breathing heavily. What faint light there
was in the chamber came up through a square hole
in the floor. Something ran swiftly across the
back of his neck. He moved away from the wall
and leaned over the hole, pushing with his hands
against the wall in front of him. Below were the
fouled earth and spattered stones, moving with
flies. He shut his eyes and remained in this expectant
position for some minutes, groaning from time
But The Sheltering Sky
is also notable for the power with which it presents
themes that would become lifelong concerns for Bowles.
At least part of this power is due to the brilliant
use Bowles makes of the Sahara landscape.
In the desert, the world is stripped
down to two elements: the empty, endless sky and
the equally empty and seemingly endless desert.
Appropriately, Bowles assigns each of them a rather
stark meaning. The desert, he suggests, is a metaphor
for humanity's failure to connect, to build a world
of community and fecundity; as such, it represents
the collapse of humanism. The sky, if possible,
is an even bleaker metaphor, for it reveals the
empty, pitiless, wordless truth behind all
God, to quote, is in the details.
Without the details—trees, buildings, houses,
people—the world is little more than barren
sand and endless space. In this sense, the blue
sky shelters us from the final, dark truth of our
futility. And once we lose it, as the husband does
in the days leading up to his final hallucination,
we are stripped of the last detail that makes us
hope for something beyond.
"You know," said Port,
and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely
to do after a long pause in an utterly silent
spot, "the sky here's very strange. I often
have the sensation when I look at it that it's
a solid thing up there, protecting us from what's
Kit shuddered slightly as she
said: "From what's behind?"
"But what is behind?"
"Nothing, I suppose. Just
darkness. Absolute night."
It's Bowles's willingness to show
the absence in these two worlds—the peopled
earth and the god-filled heavens—that rightly
classifies him at least partly as an existential
writer. But Bowles isn't so easily pigeon-holed.
Existentialism was certainly popular in the fifties
and sixties, but the vocabulary of the North African
desert was more influential for Bowles's work than
any trendy school of thought. Bowles's childhood
and his subsequent denial of all it stood for prepared
him for what he found in the desert, and the world
was simply lucky enough to have the existentialists'
vocabulary to understand what he was talking about.
was thirty-six years old when he finished The
Sheltering Sky, and by then he had become a
successful composer whose works ranged from theater
music to serious, modernistic concerti. He was to
continue writing music for several more years, but
with time, it was his fiction that became most important.
The Sheltering Sky was
followed a year later by The Delicate Prey and Other Stories,
a mix of brilliant and mediocre pieces that rightly
drew comparison to the short stories of Edgar Allen
Poe. Two years later, in 1952, Let
It Come Down, another novel, appeared.
Like The Sheltering Sky, it is set in North
Africa, but its immediate landscape—Tangier's
International Zone—is far less bleak. Its
plot is also less cohesive; as Bowles later wrote,
it is held together by the rather abstract notion
that "security is a false concept." The
Spider's House (1955) offers a more complex
plot (actually, two: one expatriate and one Moroccan),
and it was critically hailed as demonstrating the
maturation of Bowles's prose voice.
Through the 1950s, Bowles remained
exceptionally popular. With time, though, he fell
out of both critical and general popularity. His
fourth, best and—to date—last novel,
Up Above the World
(1966), was virtually ignored. The counterculture
of the 1960s was simply too radical for Bowles's
supremely icy prose, which seemed to exalt in a
lost world of colonialism. Somehow, with time, the
radical was redefined as a reactionary, and he was
rather abruptly discarded.
Bowles wrote four novels, twelve short story collections,
four books of poetry, four works of nonfiction and
twenty-two books of translation, and in recent years
he has finally returned to the prominence he deserves.
Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno's 1989 biography,
An Invisible Spectator,
helped Bowles's cause somewhat, but it was Bernardo
Bertolucci's 1990 film adaptation of The Sheltering
Sky that made Bowles a familiar, if not household,
name again (Bowles himself is the film's narrator).
He has even been the subject of two documentaries—Let
it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles(1998)
and Paul Bowles: The Complete
For the Bowles novice, Ecco Press's
The Stories of Paul Bowles is a nice place
to start exploring. Released in 2001 to celebrate
Ecco's thirtieth anniversary, it is the first complete
ediction of Bowles's short fiction. The Sheltering
Sky should also be an obligatory stop, as well.
Then a little Bowles music, perhaps?