By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
I was a little nervous about it. Bowles, after all, was the man who, in Norman Mailer's words, introduced American literature to the "world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest . . . the call of the orgy, the end of civilization." That was in the 1940s, when Bowles was writing inimitably sinister short stories about Americans who go to North Africa looking for exoticism and adventure, but end up being just a little tooadventurous. (In one, a linguist suffers a hideously personalized fate: His tongue is cut out.) It's a long way from Fifth Avenue to the Sahara, Bowles seemed to say, and if you go in too far, you may not be able to find your way back. Civilization is fragile; out of his familiar context, modern man is apt to fall to pieces.
Ironically, Bowles' tales of Americans falling to pieces in North Africa proved a big draw. A lot of Americans thought that falling to pieces in North Africa sounded pretty interesting. Bowles' first novel, The Sheltering Sky, was a best-seller, and a New Yorker cartoon of the day had a child saying, "Mom! I want to go to Morocco like Paul Bowles and get my tongue cut out!"
Bowles moved to Tangier for good in 1947. At the time, Morocco was under French rule and Tangier was under international rule, its notorious "International Zone" a refuge for criminals, drug addicts and sexual renegades. The International Zone came to an end in 1956, when the French pulled out of Morocco, and the glamour and danger gradually dwindled away. Nonetheless, Bowles stayed on, even after the death of his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1973.
WHILE WE TALKED, BOWLES LAY IN BED, PROPPED UP on pillows. Books, letters and photographs were scattered across the coffee table and piled up on the floor. Stacks of cassettes and CDs served as reminders that Bowles was well-known as a composer before he became famous as a writer. Bowles stared straight ahead for the most part, only occasionally stealing a quick, observant look in my direction. He had been ill for some time, but his mind remained as accurate as a quartz watch. His sentences were lapidary, and he enunciated every word beautifully.
"Your childhood was rather unusual," I began. "You didn't meet another child until you were 5 or 6."
"That must have been strange."
"I didn't think it was strange. I took it for granted. But a child takes everything for granted, of course. I assumed that other children would be something my parents wouldn't want me to know, meaning bad. That meant everyone was bad, except me. And I was right, because when I finally met my peers by going to school, I didn't like them. I thought they were mad. I wasn't happy going to school at all. And it took years, of course, because going to school takes many years."
"It's a long haul," I said.
"It's a long torture. It only got better when I went to high school and I was no longer treated like a slave."
Bowles may not have cared for his peers, but they were clearly mesmerized by him. By the age of 10, he had turned his classmates into eager devotees:
"I wrote all the time, and I used to read stories in school to the class. And the teacher would say, 'Those who wish to remain and hear Paul Bowles read may do so. The rest may now go.' Strangely, almost all of them stayed."
Or not so strangely. The stories Bowles was writing were not what you would expect from a 10-year-old in 1920. They featured characters with names like Bluey Laber Dozlen, cities like Wen Kroy (New York spelled backward) and a mysterious drug known as the "postage hypodermic," not to mention opium addicts, bigamists and vengeful maids. (A musical prodigy as well, Bowles was also writing an opera about wife-swapping -- not bad for a kid who was still unaware that there was any difference, anatomically, between the sexes.)
"You ran away from college when you were 19 . . . "
"I was 18."
" . . . 18, sorry, and went to Paris, where you met people like Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein, which for a young writer would have been the height of excitement. But then you went on. You went to Tangier, and then pretty soon you were crossing the Sahara. Most people would have just stayed in Paris."
"Well, I was very curious. And each place I saw I found more exciting than the places I had seen before. So naturally I continued."