How we met: Claude-Nathalie Thomas and Paul Bowles

Michael Wood
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:52

The American writer and composer Paul Bowles (82) settled in Morocco in the Thirties. He and Claude-Nathalie Thomas (53) have been friends for 20 years; in the mid-Eighties, they embarked upon an intense literary collaboration when she became his French translator. Bowles's novels include The Spider's House and The Sheltering Sky, filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci. His wife, Jane Auer, also a gifted writer, died in 1973. Widowed with three children, Thomas, whose earlier work includes translations of Chekhov and Turgenev, divides her time between her homes in Paris and Tangier.

PAUL BOWLES: I hate so-called social life, never really did like it. Naturally, people are important; it's just that places have always meant more to me. That's why I've travelled so much in my life. I first came to Tangier in 1931, and felt that everything was foreign and liked that very much. I've stayed ever since and found many valued friends. Now, sadly, there are few left. They have a habit of dying, and it's somewhat difficult to keep in touch after that.

Nevertheless, a few remain, like Claude Thomas, who has been my French translator for some time. We met 20 years ago and immediately I found her to be both intelligent and sympathetic. I didn't know that she had a house in Tangier, but a little later I received an invitation to dinner. Since then, I've been a regular visitor to her home on the mountain.

I first became aware of Claude's skills when she translated a collection of short stories by my friend Mohammed Mrabat. I was struck by the high standards of her work and how conscientious she was. Then, in the mid- Eighties, I found myself in need of just such a person. I'd been let down by another translator who'd just completed a version of The Spider's House. I'd found that translation peppered with mistakes which the lady endeavoured to assure me were no more than fautes de frappe (typing errors). She had, though, misconstrued many of my phrases. On one occasion, she'd managed to translate 'a rooster's crow' as 'a flock of screeching parrots'. On another, 'most of the teenagers will be behind bars by evening' had been interpreted as 'all the young men will be bartenders by evening']

Well, of course, this wouldn't do. I refused to let the book be published in that form, because often the critical success of a novel is due in great part to the quality of the translation. Claude had read some of my writing and liked it, so I asked if she would undertake the translation of my work from then on. Luckily she agreed, and it's proved a great success.

Our first collaboration, Midnight Mass, was well received in France and soon there was a demand for Up Above the World and The Spider's House, which is our current project. Claude spends six months of every year in Tangier, so it's easy to confer with her and go over each sentence, if necessary. This kind of flexibility is essential, because a complex text often requires redefinition or, in some cases, rewriting by the author to fit the demands of translation.

However, Claude's work proved so reliable that I soon realised such day- to-day contact was unnecessary. Now she works from her home and brings me the relevant chapters at regular intervals. If there are any possible problems, I mark them out and we discuss how we can resolve them on her next visit. Sometimes we have to change the very structure of a sentence, but we always keep as close as possible to the original voice within the text. I do speak French but all our discussions take place in English - it's a habit we got into long before we ever worked together.

Though I try to set aside time for work each day, strangers who call by often disturb these plans. They arrive from all around the world and often come to get a book signed, talk, or just to check that I'm still alive. I usually try to prove I'm still around by offering them tea and answering their many questions. At other times, the stream of visitors becomes too much: I find it tiring and ask my maid to politely refuse them.

But I always look forward to seeing Claude, and depend on such friends to bring me everything from the latest news to spare parts for my ageing Mustang car. Her visits are essential, as I rarely leave my apartment and the postal service has declined in recent years. Half my mail goes missing, but maybe this is a mixed blessing: at my age, it's difficult to write. I often don't reply to letters anyway; my feeling is that it's just not necessary to keep in touch with everybody.

I don't possess a telephone, so if friends want to spend time with me, they have to call round on the off chance. Years ago this would have been a risky policy, but nowadays they are almost certain to find me in.

I never consciously decided to settle in Tangier. It's been a constant struggle with the Moroccan authorities to maintain my resident status, but somehow I hung on. I'm really just a traveller who got stuck.

CLAUDE - NATHALIE THOMAS: When I was a young girl, people used to say that there were two interesting American writers: Norman Mailer and Paul Bowles. I'd heard of The Sheltering Sky, but few of Paul's books were translated into French - my native language - so I had little access to them.

Then, in the summer of 1973, I came to Tangier, where my husband's family had a house. It was a surprise to find so many English- speaking people living in the town. Paul was one of them, and we met at a dinner party. I remember the clarity of his words and phrases; he was quite unlike anybody I'd ever known.

Paul is very reticent socially, but I invited him to my house on a number of occasions and we quickly became friends. I began to read his novels and short stories and loved them all. As I'd been working as a translator in Paris, I thought that perhaps I could get a publisher interested in his works, then completely unknown in France. Unfortunately I had little success: they all thought his work was charming, but not commercially viable.

My ambitions were realised at last in 1984, when a French journalist decided that he wanted to write an extended piece on Paul Bowles for the newspaper Liberation. He didn't know how to gain access to Paul, so he came to me to arrange an interview. The article was a great success, drawing the French public's attention to both his writings and person. This, together with Bernardo Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky, proved the catalyst for an explosion of interest in Bowles. Suddenly, French publishers needed translations of Paul's work. They couldn't get them out quickly enough, and the task fell to me.

Paul rises late, so I usually arrive around mid-afternoon. The lift seldom works, so I climb the stairs to his small, top-floor apartment. From the bed where he works, we check over the proofs. Paul offers suggestions in his gentle, lilting voice which still betrays his American upbringing. We work very closely because Paul is extraordinarily precise and his words have a musical feel which he is keen to maintain. It's a very long process, and one book can take as a year to complete. No matter how sad or depressing the subject matter we handle, the translation work itself is a tonic.

I often wish I'd been able to travel around with Paul, but he's now too old and seldom leaves his apartment. When he's well enough, Abdelouahaid, his chauffeur, drives him up to my home. We then go for a walk, or constitutional, as Paul calls it, take tea and talk all afternoon.

Despite our 20 years of friendship, Paul remains an intensely private person. His wife Jane had died after a long illness the year we met, but he never mentioned this at the time. Years later, I discovered the circumstances of her death, and, having learnt a little more about their relationship from mutual friends, I realised what a great loss this must have been to him. He often appears candid and responsive, but his carefully chosen words rarely reveal anything of the real Paul - there is a sense of detachment about him. But this is Paul's nature and perhaps the reason why so many people have been fascinated by him and his work. We can only guess at the man within.

(Photograph omitted)

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