Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-93, By Paul Bowles

Michael Jacobs@michaelujacobs
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:16

Whether or not, as some people believe, the American author Paul Bowles was one of the greatest writers of the late 20th century, he was certainly one of that century's most restless travellers. Merely to read about his comings and goings is enough to induce exhaustion. Bowles's life involved not only friendships and encounters with what seems at times like most of the great cultural figures of his day, but near-continual changes of home, and lengthy and repeated stays in places often oceans apart from the Tangier with which he is perennially associated.

The prodigious energy needed to maintain such a nomadic existence was reflected in a massive creative output that extended into all kinds of writing, as well as into musical composition. However, despite famously conveying in his Sahara-based novel The Sheltering Sky the psychologically dislocating effects of the exotic and unfamiliar, his lifetime of journeys did not produce a single major work of travel literature. Bowles's gifts as a travel writer are to be judged almost entirely on his travel journalism, a large selection of which has now been put together by his devotee Mark Ellingham, whose Rough Guide to Morocco was praised by Bowles for its accurate appraisal of Tangier as a town "with an enduring capacity for craziness".

This anthology, with its excellent introduction by Paul Theroux and useful biographical outline, might have benefited from greater selectiveness and from being arranged by place rather than chronologically. Nonetheless it is a volume which will surely be a revelation to those who are either discovering Bowles for the first time, or else have hitherto dismissed him purely as a romantic American escaping from the reality of the modern world.

Bowles was a writer of brilliant descriptive powers, and almost unequalled in his evocation of the Sahara, with its mesmerising vault of sky, and induction of a feeling of solitude in which "nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating". But Bowles is also revealed as a traveller open to all types of experience. Driven often by whim, scornful of formal tourism, addicted to cannabis in all its forms, sensitive to social injustices to the point of becoming almost sympathetic to the Mau-Mau, as much at home in the poorest African and Asian slums as in the absurdly lavish parties given by the Tangerine socialite Barbara Hutton, Bowles was capable of modifying his deep-rooted romantic tastes so as appreciate, say, the ugly modernity of Casablanca, and what he called the "zany Costa del Sol".

Zaniness was a quality very attractive to Bowles. Drawn far more by the people and life of a place than by museums and monuments, Bowles was a master at conveying with deadpan humour an individual's idiosyncrasies, his own included. The book contains several pages dedicated to the strange life on his private Sri Lankan island, and to his changing collection of parrots. Almost every article is enriched by memorable pen-portraits, including of such celebrated personalities as Gertrude Stein (who first encouraged Bowles to move to Morocco), and of the countless eccentrics lured to his beloved Tangier, a city whose appeal for him outlived drastic social changes.

But underlying all the superficial colour is a profoundly reflective quality, directed sometimes at a place's politics and history, but, more interestingly still, at the mentality which forces people to travel, and at the lasting impact of a traveller's memories. As Theroux observes, one of the best articles is about travel writing itself. In this 1958 piece, Bowles voices concerns only too relevant today.

At a time when "in theory anyone can go anywhere", he saw the genre as having shifted in emphasis "from the place to the effect of the place upon the person". However, he thought that the sort of people likely now to travel would be generally unsympathetic towards subjective impressions and prefer a work containing practical information. Bowles believed that a travel book should be nothing more than "the story of what happened to one person in a particular place", but he feared "such books form a category which is doomed to extinction".

Personal travel narratives, though greatly outnumbered today by guidebooks, continue to thrive, if dominated by an aspirational and generally lightweight variant of a kind of book characterised by Bowles as "the intimate account of a writer's life during his prolonged residence in one particular place abroad". The survival of a more serious travel literature has become ever more dependent on blurring the boundaries that once divided travel from history, memoir, philosophy, and reportage.

Meanwhile, the leisurely travel journalism in which Bowles specialised is now truly under threat. Today's travel editor, often more interested in practical suggestions than in inspirational prose, is frequently obliged to accept the sponsorship of hotels and travel agencies. Today's travel writer has rarely the time or money to follow Bowles's example and disappear for weeks on end when preparing an article.

Nostalgia for the sort of life Bowles led is likely to be tinged by sadness on reaching the concluding lines of the unpublished poem that serves as a coda to Travels: "There continued to be more and more people in the world./ And there was nothing anyone could do about anything". Bowles last years, spent in a phone-less flat in a Tangier, visited by enthusiastic young foreigners, but criticised by some Moroccans as a "robber of tales", belonging simultaneously to everywhere and to nowhere, suggest that the fate awaiting the uncompromising travel writer is that of the ultimate stranger.

Michael Jacobs's new book is 'Andes' (Granta)

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