This story, originally published in 1997 in L.A. Weekly, was reposted here upon Bowles' death on November 18, 1999.
Paul Bowles is the author of novels (The Sheltering Sky) and many short stories, the translator of Sartre's No Exit and several Moroccan works, and a composer of note. Now 87, his eyesight failing, the longtime denizen of Tangier no longer writes. Nor does he give interviews. But his friend Phillip Ramey, a composer and writer who divides his time between New York City and Tangier, was recently able to corner Bowles for a conversation about music and writing, his troubles with Moroccan writers, the "truth" about his most infamous story, and posterity.
L.A. WEEKLY: You've had an extraordinary dual career as both a writer and composer. Until fairly recently, your concert music had been pretty much forgotten. But there has been a spate of new recordings, there was a three-day festival of your musical works in New York in 1995, and now there is to be a film about your career as a composer. Is this important to you?
PAUL BOWLES: It's flattering - ego massage. But I see my music as part of the past. I'm curious to know how it holds up, but in the context of the 1930s, not the 1990s.
Do you still have the desire to write music?
Perhaps more than fiction.
Once a composer, always a composer.
Or, as Virgil Thomson used to say, "Once a deadhead, always a deadhead."
You once noted that you thought music and prose involved different parts of the brain.
Who knows how the mind is divided? I always found it a great relief to write if I had been composing, and if I had been writing it was wonderful to sit down and compose.
Do you still have ideas for stories?
It's the writing itself that gives me ideas. Since I can no longer write, there are none.
What was your procedure in starting a story? Would you write just any sentence?
Yes, the old Surrealist method.
Invent a sentence now.
"In those days he always walked by the pool, because he was not worried about what might be in it. But now he felt different."
Your fiction is notable for its nihilism and fascination with violence, while your music tends to be light and charming.
Perhaps I just didn't know how to compose "dark" music. Lenny Bernstein always said that my music sounded postcoital.
Have you ever attempted to write any "serious," "impressive" music?
It would embarrass me too much. I would be ashamed of it. It would be like writing prose that seeks to impress. In my music I never liked to raise my voice. It was often more in the manner of an aside. That's partly why I prefer French music to German.
Your fiction is full of horrific incidents that might, in a sense, be considered gestural. They catch the reader's attention somewhat in the way musical gestures catch the listener's.
But I don't think that's so shameful in prose, because it's connected with the meaning of the story.
Musically, you are a self-confessed miniaturist. Do you feel that applies to you also as a writer? That your short stories are more successful than your novels?
I've written several books over the years, and I suppose that I'm least ashamed of some of the short stories, more so than any of the novels. Among the stories I consider the most successful are "A Distant Episode," "Pastor Dowe at Tacate," "Senor Ong and Senor Ha" and "Call at Corazon." Those are all early stories, and they're probably better than the later ones. They seem to be more compact: in the material, in the way it's presented.
I notice your list doesn't include the notorious "Pages From Cold Point," which is perhaps your best-known story.
Since practically no one seems to understand it, it doesn't make much sense to cite it. Critics and readers have regularly misunderstood it, for they have the impression that the father corrupted his son. If they think that, they haven't understood the story, which means it doesn't exist.
I thought it was clear that Racky, the son, seduces the father in the process of blackmailing him.
I would think it was, but apparently it isn't. People just can't believe that a child could seduce an adult. But, after all, plenty of children are corrupt. When John Lehmann published my first collection of stories, A Little Stone, in England in 1950, "Pages From Cold Point" was excluded, because both Cyril Connolly and W. Somerset Maugham warned Lehmann that there might be problems of censorship with the printers' union. The objection, if you can believe it, was not to the sexual element but to the idea of a child blackmailing his parent.
The idea of reverse incest is rather bizarre, even in fiction.
Not really, is it? I'm sure that, in life, it's not unheard-of. It seems such an obvious procedure for an adolescent to take. But, of course, in the story it doesn't actually say that the boy had sex with his father.
Yes, that's the tantalizing, ambiguous aspect. So: Did Racky and his father do it?