Obituary: Paul Bowles

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE MANY reputations of Paul Bowles have tended to obscure his real stature. He was known as a musician before he became a writer, and his early career was forgotten as he moved into literature, but even then he was known as a travel writer before he was accepted as a novelist, and that acceptance was never very great until his later years. There were two reasons for this: one was his reluctance to live or ever spend much time in the United States, and his remoteness from the general literary scene, and the other the uncomfortable nature of his writing.

Like Kafka and Canetti he created his own, semi-mythological aura and wrote about a dark, cruel world where passions, vices and obsessions ruled the lives of his characters. His originality and the power of his imagination was only beginning to be understood at the end of his career, although his importance had become clear. He will be seen as a major 20th-century writer, but not as part of the American mainstream.

Bowles's early inspiration was Edgar Allan Poe, and it was for this reason that he chose to go to the University of Virginia where Poe had preceded him. This was far from his New England roots and the affluent Long Island home where he grew up, and where his parents quarrelled bitterly over his education, his mother imposing moral discipline as a defence against an evil world, but his artistic bent was encouraged by his father, a dentist whose own parents had prevented him from becoming a violinist. He was writing stories at four, and at nine produced an opera about a bigamous opium dealer. Even then he was inventing his own worlds; one included an imaginary planet, Araplania, where no adult was allowed.

He left Virginia in 1928 before his freshman year was finished, and went to Paris, where his poems were published in Transition, the outstanding English-language literary journal of the day. He spent a free and happy four months there before returning to his parents who had no idea of what had happened to him. He won them around, settled in New York and began to study music with Aaron Copland.

He became much excited by the music of Stravinsky, whom Stokowski was promoting, and his own style began to develop similar colouring and rhythms which blended well with what he had learned from his teacher. Returning to Paris in 1931, intending to tour with Copland and advance his studies in Berlin, he became the "prodigy" mascot of Gertrude Stein, who introduced him to Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, Ezra Pound and her circle of friends. Stein described him as "delightful and sensible in summer, but neither delightful nor sensible in winter" and suggested he move to Morocco.

He went there with Copland and they took a house together in Tangier, but Copland did not like the climate or the menacing Arab atmosphere, and left for Berlin. Bowles was convinced that Morocco was where he belonged, but financial circumstances and the international political situation forced him to return to New York, where he became active, with much help from Copland, as a composer, writing music for films and the theatre as well as concert music, and he quickly established a reputation.

His ballets included Yankee Clipper, Pastorela, Colloque Sentimental and his operas Denmark Vesey, The Wind Remains and Yerma, the latter two based on Lorca, but he also wrote chamber music, concertos and incidental music for, among others, plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Rostand and Tennessee Williams - who became a close friend. From 1942 to 1945 he was music critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

In 1938 he married Jane Auer, a novelist and playwright. The marriage shocked their acquaintances and they took a mischievous pleasure in doing so, because neither was by nature heterosexual. But the marriage lasted because it was based on compatibility, affection and mutual artistic respect. She was for very many years more successful as a writer than he, but there was no rivalry between them. But with the Second World War over he was restless, finding American life incompatible with his need for privacy, mystery and exotica and he described his native land as a prison from which he longed to escape.

In May 1947 Paul Bowles had a vivid dream that he was back in the Tangier he remembered, and felt an irresistible urge to return. He sailed on 1 July and Morocco became his permanent home. Tangier at the time had a large foreign colony of artists, remittance men, demi-mondains, international financiers, many of them shady, and others with scandalous pasts trying to avoid press attention, but it was also a playground for the rich and famous, for film stars, aristocrats and international society, offering freedoms for the affluent and opportunities to indulge unconventional tastes not found in European or American cities. Bowles moved little among the expatriate social set, but his wife Jane, when she joined him, was more outgoing and they became two of the best-known residents.

His first important novel, The Sheltering Sky, was written there in 1949. In it he developed his own brand of existentialism, describing the moral collapse of Westerners in a North African setting, catching perfectly the atmosphere of Arab towns and the Sahara and the situations created by clashing cultural patterns. Like Poe he was able to use a taste for cruelty with a cold, devastating effect.

As with the novels of Sartre, Bowles investigates philosophical and psychological dilemmas by describing the alienation of Man when put in a strange cage environment, but there is always a sinister twist to a Bowles novel: his subject matter fascinates and repels because he creates a world of intense reality that is always on the verge of nightmare and he does not flinch from depicting horror. His second novel, Let It Come Down (1952), was in the same vein, describing Europeans lost in an alien culture, the tension rising to an orgiastic conclusion.

The nature of corruption, heightened senses of awareness, the effects of hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs are all part of Bowles's world. He had used them himself in moderation, as a young man sniffing ether in New York, while in Morocco he regularly used kif and other non-addictive drugs. In a sense he had remained part of the Parisian literary culture he had encountered in the Thirties, continuing the exotic French romanticism of Huysmans and Villiers de l'Isle Adam and the decadence of Wilde's Dorian Gray and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Bowles brought a new feeling into modern Western fiction by introducing Arabian Nights elements and the Arab relish for the macabre.

This is even more obvious in The Spider's House (1955), The Delicate Prey (a collection of short stories written earlier in 1950) and Up Above the World (1966). Much of his writing depicts Arab life and he also tape- recorded several Arabic narratives - in some cases life stories of persons with eventful lives who were illiterate - and translated them; he took great offence when critics doubted their veracity.

Paul Bowles had travelled in South America in the Thirties, and in many other parts of the world in the Sixties, mainly to write commissioned travel books. He became proficient in the languages of every land where he spent time and he made many translations, mainly from classical and North African Arab dialects, but also from French, Spanish and Eastern languages. He accepted an invitation to teach modern literature in California in 1969 because by then his books were nearly all out of print and he needed an income. He eventually returned to Tangier.

Jane Bowles died in 1973, following over five years in psychiatric hospitals and a series of strokes. She had spent 20 years in Tangier, but complained that it ended her writing career, whereas it had given Paul the background he needed for his. Her constant companion for many years in the unconventional household was Cherifa, a Berber woman, widely believed to be a witch and to have cast a spell on Jane; their relationship attracted much interest.

A mythology has grown up around the Tangier of the 1950s, where Barbara Hutton held court at Sidi Hosni, a palace for which she had outbid General Franco. Wearing a tiara that had belonged to Catherine the Great, she gave lavish parties for the affluent Mountain district residents, and indulged every whim. When the beatniks came at the end of the decade (William Burroughs was surrealistically to document the scene in The Naked Lunch, 1959) because of cheap and abundant drugs, which could be legally obtained, the atmosphere changed. The nationalists came to power bringing fundamentalist laws and the police began to suppress the freedoms and licence of what had been an open city. This affected Bowles very little, but he became increasingly reclusive.

Although Paul Bowles will always be a special taste, his appeal being greatest to Europeans, his reputation, which has revived from the middle Eighties onward, helped by Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film of The Sheltering Sky, a succes d'estime, can only be viewed as that of a writer who will increasingly become required reading. Born the year of Mark Twain's death, he falls between different generations of American writing, having no immediate contemporary of note. His style is lucid and compulsive, elegant but not over-refined. The bulk of his creative writing is in the short story. He also published poetry and an autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), in which he tells little about his inner or private life (William Burroughs called it Without Telling).

At bottom Bowles was a mystic, a man of many abilities whose life was governed by self-discipline. He was friendly and hospitable, a good conversationalist with a wide knowledge of the world, but deeply reserved under the surface of an athletic and personable physique. His antipathy to his native country, where he was never comfortable, kept him out of the limelight and he was always suspect to the American authorities, who could not understand his absorption in alien cultures; they prevented his having any academic employment in the late Fifties and Sixties when he most needed it. Their files on him stressed his brief involvement with the Communist Party in New York in 1939, when he felt it would help his musical career.

In addition to four novels, 11 collections of short stories, four other books and his poetry, and his many translations, he collected through tape recording much now-lost Berber folk music. He left some 70-odd published compositions, some of which have been recorded.

Paul Frederick Bowles, writer and composer: born New York 30 December 1910; married 1938 Jane Auer (died 1973); died Tangier, Morocco 18 November 1999.