Monday, October 10, 1994

In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles

I wrote this for the Boston Book Review in Fall 1994. Bowles died in 1999; I'd visited him in Tangier in 1986 and 1987. Both times he was lordly and welcoming and made fun of his own reputation. 

Edited by Jeffrey Miller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
604 pages

This country can be very hard on its originals, and on none does the distrust fall more heavily than the expatriate. Those who flirt with voluntary exile but always come home, like Hemingway, are forgiven;  those like Henry James or Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, who choose to stay abroad, remain deeply suspect as Americans even as they are glimpsed overseas growing immeasurably as artists.

At 83, permanently settled in Morocco, Paul Bowles is one of the great originals that our country has produced this century, in part because his deepest influences are so resolutely un-American. The usual simplification of his life runs thus: from being one of the most important American composers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, he became one of the most important authors of the 60s and 70s. (If today his audience is largely literary, the backward-looking eye of the compact disc may gradually balance the situation.) Still, to many American readers Paul Bowles remains peripheral and semi-known, a “cult author," or worse still, an expatriate—that exotic foreign bloom. Who is he really, our white-haired man in Tangier with a traveller’s ease and a transparent, gentlemanly gaze?

Now this huge, incomparable volume of six decades of letters finally allows us a chance to set his work, both writing and music, in perspective against his life as one unbroken flow. Until now, apart from a good book about the expat life in Tangier, we've had only an uneven biography in English, a superb biography in French, and Bowles’ own autobiography, Without Stopping, which William Burroughs called “Without Telling.” But the present huge (600 pp.) book gives us much that the autobiography and the novels cannot: the larger personality of the private Bowles. For those not lucky enough to enjoy a few hours’ conversation with the man himself, they offer a reader the rich incessant sunlight of his company.

Bowles (born in New York December 30, 1910) is that American rarity: an artist who has chosen to live abroad and been able to soak up several distant cultures and turn them to deep creative use, not merely as "local color” but as an original homeland of the imagination. The extra-American influences are as prominent in his music, with its French and Central American intonations, as in his writing. Another similarity is his genius for the small forms.

Bowles’ most famous books—The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House, Let It Come Down, and The Delicate Prey—are set mostly in North Africa. The result has been a myth of “Paul Bowles, decadent in Tangier” that has much to do with popular notions of Morocco and a general tendency to confuse the writer and the work.

And indeed, the first impression in following his letters is of someone who had to stay abroad, ever on the move: from earliest travels to Paris as escapee from the U. of Virginia, to sojourns in 30s Morocco (where, sharing a house, he studied harmony with Aaron Copland), to Mexico, where many pieces were written; back to New York with his ex-wife, the writer Jane Bowles, composing for Orson Welles’ theater company and The Glass Menagerie; to an almost permanent move to Tangier, with forays to the small island he once owned on a shoestring in Ceylon. Over the decades he became one of the great North African travellers, with odysseys devoted to collecting an unequalled set of recordings of Moroccan music for the Library of Congress. He has also been a tireless translator, from Sartre's No Exit in 1944 to, currently, the works of Moroccan author Mohammed Mrabet and Rodrigo Rey Rosa, a Guatemalan.

One dominant theme in his writing is the intense sensations, and consequences, of experiencing people and cultures different from one’s own. Thus it is deeply pleasurable, in letter after letter, to encounter the delight such experiences have given Bowles since an early age. By twenty this refined, subtle sensibility seems nearly formed. Here he is meeting Jean Cocteau in Paris in 1931: “He rushed about the room with great speed for two hours and never sat down once… He still smokes opium every day and claims it does him a great deal of good. I daresay it does… the fact that it is considered harmful for most mortals would convince me of its efficaciousness for him." He meets Falla, Pound, and Gide; Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein become invaluable mentors. He meets Desnos, Revueltas, Dali; he meets everyone. “I can't believe you find a similarity between my letters and a seed catalog. Still, why not? Or a telephone directory." In Tangier, in later years, they all (Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc.) come looking for him.

He keeps travelling. In Touggourt, Algeria, he finds “mad people, leprous things like spiders which crawl about eating the grasshoppers others toss them." In Guatemala, "the water was full of brown mud that took a half hour to settle." Back in Tangier after the war, he notes, “I've never yet felt a part of any place I've been, and I never expect to.” His writer’s eye and composers ear are ever alert: in Ceylon the occasional small breeze is "as hot as the breath of a man with fever. And the birds in the shadeless trees around the bungalow don't sing: they cough, choke, gurgle, grunt, hammer, sputter, croak and yell, a welter of ridiculous noises that have no right to come out of the throats of birds. There's one at the moment which sounds exactly like the telegraph in a country station buzzing out its Morse code." In Bangkok the populace "paddles by in sampans to see what the farangs are up to and their neon-flooded hotels where electric organs whine and bump.”

Not surprisingly, Tangier is the return address for many of the letters, and a reader can follow its hold on Bowles across sixty years. “The wind howls and the countryside is the color of a lion." 1948 Tangier, with its international zone, "belongs to nobody" and the entire city “is one large black market." All Morocco's cities are "very beautiful indeed: one feels removed in time rather than in space. Europe before the Middle Ages must have been very much like most of Morocco… you're sometimes invited to lunch in a house built in the 10th or 11th century by the forebears of your host… very little has changed since then… an inexhaustible country."

Expatriates can never take their friends for granted: visits are too infrequent. Bowles, to judge by this book, was a devoted, generous correspondent. (He still has no telephone.) "Although I didn't see Tennessee very often," he notes after the playwright’s death, "I thought of him as one of my closest friends, and of course I still do think of him in that way. Whether people die or remain alive, it's the same: if we were friends, we are friends. Someone always has to die first, and most of my friends have died before me."

Most touching of all, through the letters like a haunting strain that grows more and more prominent, there is the gradual decline of his wife. A marriage like theirs inevitably generates a great deal of gossip, but any dip into this book makes it clear how much Bowles loved and still misses her. (Jane Bowles died in 1973.) He is customarily (and unfairly, I suspect) unforgiving in judging his behavior—seeing himself "a kind of idiot looking on approvingly, even collaborating, while Jane forged ahead with her self-destruction.”

And Bowles keeps working, year after year. To an editor he writes, "I doubt that I have ever been in a ‘relaxed,’ not to say ‘cerebral’ state for more than two minutes, without feeling the ever-present doubt, disbelief and vague angst that has kept me going. Only in action is there a possibility of belief, but what action can a writer engage in save writing—that is, what meaningful action?"

Possibly because of the atmosphere in some of his work, Bowles has a reputation (to this writer, inaccurate) of being cold, aloof. Yet this collection, taken as a whole, is one of the most intimate looks we've had at any great American artist. Those in search of bedroom gossip will not find much here; those seeking what Bowles thought throughout a long, productive, and wholly original life will find it vivid on every page. Here he is in Xauen, Morocco in 1951:

"The streets and walls look as if someone had poured tons of white cake-icing over them—resplendently white, and sometimes light blue, but by moonlight it all looks brilliantly, blindingly white… The main street is merely a long tunnel of green, being completely covered by ancient grapevines whose thick trunks twist up the walls of the little white buildings like great snakes before they become the vault of foliage and fruit that hides the sky. In the ruined Casbah there are palms, oranges and roses, storks and peacocks, and, of course, the inevitable fountains. And the town is drenched in the musky smell of fig trees in summer, and slightly spiced with jasmin. By day the cicadas scream, and at night it is three toads and insects that sound like dry leaves… Two weeks ago I heard the most incredible Berber music I had yet heard—a full evening of it, accompanied by dances of self-immolation and a good deal of blood-letting… One must stay on and on.”

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