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Paul Bowles: A Life, by Virginia Spencer-Carr
He ushered in the end of civilisation
Sunday 06 November 2005
Bowles's own life, as Virginia Spencer Carr's new biography makes clear, was an attempt to suspend the norms of bourgeois existence and to find a sense of timelessness in a lifestyle based on the easy availability of drugs (chiefly kif and hashish) and an attitude of sexual openness. He was a drifter who nonetheless left his mark on a wide range of diverse artistic and critical forms. A composer of ballets, orchestral music, opera, and a prominent figure in the world of Broadway and film music (including scores for Orson Welles's theatre company and for the stage productions of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire), Bowles was also an influential music critic, as well as being a novelist, short-story writer and translator. He remained an exile by choice from the United States for 25 years, and for the second half of the 20th century (he died in 1999) established himself in Morocco where he became one of the most mythologised and venerated characters in Beat culture.
He was born in Jamaica, New York in 1910. His father Claude, whom he loathed, was a dentist, who trained his son in the process known as Fletcherisation. This required that each bite of food should be chewed 40 times and not swallowed until it was reduced to a liquefied mass. If Claude detected that his son was swallowing prematurely, he would slap his face with a damask napkin. Educated at the University of Virginia, Bowles twice ran away to Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein, who was shocked by his complacency "in rejecting all values", and was taken up by Aaron Copland, with whom he studied and who attempted to seduce him. One of Bowles's poems had been published in transition, the modernist journal, when he was 17, but his reputation in the 1930s was founded on his music. It was only following his marriage to the writer Jane Auer in 1938 that he was inspired to embark upon a literary career. Although Jane Bowles's novel, Two Serious Ladies, received a critical drubbing on publication in 1943, its experimental qualities quickly made it a cult work.
Spencer Carr's book is at its best in its portrait of this unconventional marriage. Husband and wife were both fundamentally homosexual and lived apart for long periods. Both became entangled with Tangier natives, Jane with Cherifa, a sinister "savage girl", Paul with a youth called Yacoubi. Yet despite the strains of separation and personal difficulties, the couple were devoted to each other, and after Jane's death Paul described his "degree of interest in everything" as "diminished almost to the point of non-existence".
Spencer Carr is a conscientious chronicler of the external events of Bowles's life, but is unable to rise to the challenge of a deeper exploration of this most enigmatic of men. So we never get a clue why, for instance, the bright, witty surface of Bowles's music lies in contrast to the dark, unsentimental nature of his prose. In the process of cutting this book from a considerably longer text, some salient details have gone missing. Christopher Isherwood is here, but not the fact that he borrowed Bowles's name for his most famous character, in Goodbye to Berlin. The actress Debra Winger is mentioned in passing as attending Bowles's memorial service. However, there is no explanation of why she was there and no reference to her portrayal of Kit in Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky, nor any detailed description of the making of the film itself, in which Bowles played a minor role.
Norman Mailer once described Paul Bowles as having "opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square, the call of the orgy, the end of civilisation." That's quite an achievement for one lifetime, but one on which this latest biography sheds little light.
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