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The Stories of Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles
Ecco Press
657 pp.



Paul Bowles Comes Home

Essayists writing about great writers often describe their subjects through geography. Sometimes this is justified. What would a Hemingway description be without a reference to Paris or the Michigan woods?

Paul Bowles isn't so simple.

Born in New York to an overbearing dentist and an overindulgent socialite, he spent his childhood bouncing miserably between his parents' conflicting whims. Sent into the backyard by his mother and ordered to entertain himself, he would be told immediately by his father to quit making noise. According to Bowles, he wasn't allowed to see another child until he entered school. Not surprisingly, he was quite happy to leave home for college courses at the University of Virginia. Then something strange happened: in the middle of his second semester and with the suddenness and apparent inexplicability readers have come to associate with his fiction, Bowles simply disappeared.

Naturally, his parents, or rather his mother, panicked. It wouldn't be long before they discovered his hideout, though. He'd taken a boat to Paris and was working various menial jobs while trying to compose music. It was only with extreme reluctance that Bowles returned to the U.S., and he was soon to leave again not merely for Europe, but North Africa as well.

It was the beginning of a nomadic life that would lead him restlessly around the globe not as a tourist but rather, as Bowles would say in his first novel, as a traveler:

Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.

In this sense, an editor would be hard-pressed to find a better title than the one chosen by Daniel Halpern for his excellent 1993 selection of Bowles's work: Too Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles.


It would be false to suggest that Bowles never settled down. He did. But the place he chose—Tangier—couldn't have been further removed culturally or geographically from his parents' New York (or just about anything else in the U.S.). The fact remains, though, that it was here, in North Africa, that Bowles finally discovered a place he (and future essayists) might, without great discomfort, call home.

In 1931, when Bowles first visited Tangier (at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein and in the company of Aaron Copland), it was a busily exotic international city. (Tangier's history is intricate. In this century, it was controlled by Morocco until 1912, when it became a French protectorate. Then, in 1923, its governance was passed to a commission of representatives from Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States. In 1956, it was returned to Morocco.) It held a small enclave of expatriates, and as Bowles discovered after settling in, most of them wanted to stay isolated from the West. Unfortunately, the permissiveness that attracted the crowd-hating expatriates was too attractive to keep the Tangier community exclusive for long.

At first, it was a wave of artists and expatriates. Bowles politely entertained Beat stars like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, as well as more conventionally accepted writers like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Over time, though, Tangiers's reputation as a sex-and-drugs wild zone became more important than its reputation as a writer's colony, and the artistic integrity of the visitors grew more questionable. Ever dapper and immaculate, Bowles looked down on the new generation of hippy expatriates and fringe-tourists as "lesser beats," but he never turned them away.

Perhaps if he'd had more energy, he might have pulled up stakes and moved to yet another remote spot, one whose obscurity would promise more isolation and silence. But Bowles had aged enough to settle down and ignore how neighborhoods must inevitably change. Even with Tangier's official absorption into Morocco and the ensuing reactionary crackdown on the expatriate colony in the 1960s, he stuck it out. Bowles, wanderer extraordinaire, had settled solidly, if belatedly, home.

The Sheltering Sky (1949), Bowles's first novel, was initially rejected by Doubleday, on the grounds that it was a nonfiction account of Bowles's tours of North Africa. It's not a completely unfounded concern. Like many writers, Bowles drew on his personal experiences for material, and since North Africa was new territory for American publishers, it certainly seemed autobiographical. At heart, though, The Sheltering Sky is a novel that ultimately denies that referents exist for words like 'character' and 'personality,' and the notion that it is merely recounting the events of real-life 'characters' and 'personalities' thus becomes problematic.

Three Americans—two men and a woman, or to define them differently, a husband, a wife and a family friend who is "astonishingly handsome in his late Paramount way"—have agreed for various dysfunctional reasons to tour North Africa together. The husband hopes the friend will give him the physical distance he needs from his wife; the friend hopes to take advantage, in a chivalrous way, of the wife, to whom he is whoppingly attracted; the wife hopes to use the friend's attraction to get jealous attention and ultimately reconciliation (and sex) with her husband.

Naturally, none of these schemes works entirely correctly, and in the end, each of the characters must face a nightmarish version of their longing. Having contracted typhoid fever in a distant outpost, the husband dies isolated and misunderstood; his wife wanders blindly into the desert and becomes an Arab's sex slave; the friend does have sex with the wife but ultimately devolves into a bumbling clown who must return home (ever the tourist), empty-handed.

The Sheltering Sky is a remarkable first novel on several levels. First and most obviously, it contains many passages that are breathtakingly beautiful (though their subject matter may occasionally strike the reader as repugnant).

Port went up the steps and in, slamming the wooden door after him. It stank inside, and it was dark. He leaned back against the cold stone wall and heard the spiderwebs snap as his head touched them. The pain was ambiguous: it was a violent cramp and a mounting nausea, both at once. He stood still for some time, swallowing hard and breathing heavily. What faint light there was in the chamber came up through a square hole in the floor. Something ran swiftly across the back of his neck. He moved away from the wall and leaned over the hole, pushing with his hands against the wall in front of him. Below were the fouled earth and spattered stones, moving with flies. He shut his eyes and remained in this expectant position for some minutes, groaning from time to time.

But The Sheltering Sky is also notable for the power with which it presents themes that would become lifelong concerns for Bowles. At least part of this power is due to the brilliant use Bowles makes of the Sahara landscape.

In the desert, the world is stripped down to two elements: the empty, endless sky and the equally empty and seemingly endless desert. Appropriately, Bowles assigns each of them a rather stark meaning. The desert, he suggests, is a metaphor for humanity's failure to connect, to build a world of community and fecundity; as such, it represents the collapse of humanism. The sky, if possible, is an even bleaker metaphor, for it reveals the empty, pitiless, wordless truth behind all human delusions.

God, to quote, is in the details. Without the details—trees, buildings, houses, people—the world is little more than barren sand and endless space. In this sense, the blue sky shelters us from the final, dark truth of our futility. And once we lose it, as the husband does in the days leading up to his final hallucination, we are stripped of the last detail that makes us hope for something beyond.

"You know," said Port, and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely to do after a long pause in an utterly silent spot, "the sky here's very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it's a solid thing up there, protecting us from what's behind."

Kit shuddered slightly as she said: "From what's behind?"


"But what is behind?"

"Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night."

It's Bowles's willingness to show the absence in these two worlds—the peopled earth and the god-filled heavens—that rightly classifies him at least partly as an existential writer. But Bowles isn't so easily pigeon-holed. Existentialism was certainly popular in the fifties and sixties, but the vocabulary of the North African desert was more influential for Bowles's work than any trendy school of thought. Bowles's childhood and his subsequent denial of all it stood for prepared him for what he found in the desert, and the world was simply lucky enough to have the existentialists' vocabulary to understand what he was talking about.


Bowles was thirty-six years old when he finished The Sheltering Sky, and by then he had become a successful composer whose works ranged from theater music to serious, modernistic concerti. He was to continue writing music for several more years, but with time, it was his fiction that became most important.

The Sheltering Sky was followed a year later by The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, a mix of brilliant and mediocre pieces that rightly drew comparison to the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Two years later, in 1952, Let It Come Down, another novel, appeared. Like The Sheltering Sky, it is set in North Africa, but its immediate landscape—Tangier's International Zone—is far less bleak. Its plot is also less cohesive; as Bowles later wrote, it is held together by the rather abstract notion that "security is a false concept." The Spider's House (1955) offers a more complex plot (actually, two: one expatriate and one Moroccan), and it was critically hailed as demonstrating the maturation of Bowles's prose voice.

Through the 1950s, Bowles remained exceptionally popular. With time, though, he fell out of both critical and general popularity. His fourth, best and—to date—last novel, Up Above the World (1966), was virtually ignored. The counterculture of the 1960s was simply too radical for Bowles's supremely icy prose, which seemed to exalt in a lost world of colonialism. Somehow, with time, the radical was redefined as a reactionary, and he was rather abruptly discarded.


Altogether, Bowles wrote four novels, twelve short story collections, four books of poetry, four works of nonfiction and twenty-two books of translation, and in recent years he has finally returned to the prominence he deserves. Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno's 1989 biography, An Invisible Spectator, helped Bowles's cause somewhat, but it was Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film adaptation of The Sheltering Sky that made Bowles a familiar, if not household, name again (Bowles himself is the film's narrator). He has even been the subject of two documentaries—Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles(1998) and Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider(1994).

For the Bowles novice, Ecco Press's The Stories of Paul Bowles is a nice place to start exploring. Released in 2001 to celebrate Ecco's thirtieth anniversary, it is the first complete ediction of Bowles's short fiction. The Sheltering Sky should also be an obligatory stop, as well. Then a little Bowles music, perhaps?

—Article by Charlie Onion

Posted June 17, 2003



About the Author

Paul Bowles was born in New York in 1910, but after leaving America during his college years, he became an exaptriate writer and composer known for his existentialist-tinged themes. His prolific career included musical compositions as well as novels, short stories and works in translation. He died in Morocco in 1999.



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