Hear the words “Paul Bowles” and you probably picture an unsmiling man hunkered down in a tiled Moroccan hall, possibly with a pipe in his mouth, deep in desert reverie, about to publish his first novel, The Sheltering Sky.
This is a reasonable image to hold. Bowles dearly loved his North African desert and his cannabis, as bits of Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993 make clear. In fact, there’s a story on the city of Fez here, published when the inebriate-laureate-to-be Hunter S. Thompson was 12 or 13, that includes this sentence near the top: “By the third glass of tea there is no doubt that the hashish has begun to take effect.”
But there’s a lot more to Bowles. This new collection (with an introduction by Paul Theroux) reminds us that, in and out of Morocco, Bowles saw and heard a great deal and put it on paper, creating the same strong sense of place that won his fiction many admirers. These 41 pieces resonate with more empathy and humor than you might expect (Bowles on the perils of parrot ownership!) but also show the deadpan precision of a scientist pinning up dead butterflies.
His eyes and ears — the ears of a musician and translator — are dagger-sharp. Even the introspection, of which there isn’t much, can sound chilling and clinical. Here’s Bowles confronting the immensity of the Sahara after dark:
“You leave the gate of the fort or the town behind, pass the camels lying outside, go up into the dunes, or out onto the hard, stony plain and stand awhile alone… Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.”
Bowles (1910-99) was born in New York and made his first trip to Europe (shortly followed by his first visit to Gertrude Stein) at age 19. By the ‘40s, he had launched careers as a composer for Broadway and a writer of fiction and nonfiction, with decades of work as a translator yet ahead. The timeline at the end of the book tracks many friendships (Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs) and many travels with and without his wife, Jane. But Bowles worked steadily.
He first moved to North Africa in 1947 (just before the commercial success of The Sheltering Sky), and many of his trips were against a background of growing anti-colonialism. (Morocco won independence from France in 1956.) Bowles was disgusted by the colonial mind-set but found plenty to scoff at in old Islamic habits, as well. If it looked like modernity or superstition, he was against it.
More than a dozen of the pieces were written for Holiday magazine between 1953 and 1966. In those accounts and many others, Bowles likes to withhold. He leaves out entrances, exits, explanations and his own complicated personal life (though Bowles was married for 35 years, he “had his male attachments,” Theroux notes). You have to wonder whether Bruce Chatwin (another desert-wanderer and elliptical writer, who was born 30 years later and died 10 years sooner) studied Bowles.
Besides the many pieces about Morocco here, we get accounts of Bowles’ early digs in Paris, trips to Spain and Madeira, and reminiscences about life on Taprobane, the 2.5-acre island he briefly owned in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and used as a seasonal residence. (Travelers take note: As recently as last year, that five-bedroom estate could be rented for $1,000 per night and up.)
The collection would be more satisfying if it ranged more widely — if Bowles had more to say about Europe or Mexico (where he lived briefly), or even the US, where he surely felt like an outsider. But who can complain about passages like this description of a journey by cattle-drawn cart to Kaduwela, Ceylon?
“The forest was not constant; it opened again and again onto wide stretches of green paddy fields where herons waded,” writes Bowles. “Each time we plunged again into the woods it was darker, until finally I could no longer distinguish areca palms from bamboo. People walking along the road were carrying torches, made of palm leaves bound tightly together that burned with a fierce red flame. They held them high above their heads, and the sparks dropped behind them all along the way. In one village cinnamon bark had been piled against the houses. The odor enveloped the whole countryside.”