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Up Above the World

AP/Wide World
"I LIVE IN BED," PAUL BOWLES TOLD ME, SHUFFLING slowly with the aid of a cane down the dark passage that led to his bedroom. He'd never met me before in his life, had never heard of the magazine I claimed to be writing for, didn't know if I was a journalist or a murderer. But he let me in anyway. The maid was gone, the flat was empty, and the phone didn't ring because there was no phone, hadn't been one in years. It was a warm summer evening in Tangier, August '95, and, unexpectedly, I had Paul Bowles to myself.

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 too adventurous. (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."

"Six."

"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."

"At that time, did you think of yourself as a writer or as a composer?"

"I didn't think of myself. If anyone had said, 'What are you?,' I couldn't have answered." ã

TALKING WITH BOWLES WAS A BIT LIKE talking with a particularly glum oracle. He had been everywhere, done everything, and all at a time (one suspected) when it was a lot more exciting to do it. "Nothing is as it was," he said, and one had only to walk in the polluted, car-clogged streets of Tangier to know that, interesting as it was, it must have been a lot more interesting 50 years earlier. "I don't particularly like mechanization, pollution, noise -- all the things the 20th century has brought and scattered all over the world," he had been quoted as saying, and looking around Tangier, where the men in the cafés watched Roseanne in German with Arab subtitles and the streets were awash in trashy American T-shirts, one saw his point.

Bowles' gloom struck me as a sincere pose. Having established that everything was terrible and destined to get worse, he was free to extract maximum humor from the situation. You wouldn't guess it from reading his novels, but Bowles was a funny man with a quick, dry wit. He had a horror of sentimentality and obviousness; only once during my visit did he use the verb "love," and that was to describe his feeling for crows. But if you asked him about his late wife, he retreated into his shell.

Since the young Paul Bowles couldn't decide whether he was a writer or a composer, his mentors did it for him. Aaron Copland said he was a good composer; Gertrude Stein said he was not a good poet. As a result, Bowles stopped writing, and for the next 15 years he traveled and wrote music, eventually becoming one of the most sought-after composers in New York. Then, in his mid-30s, he began to write again, drawing on his travels in North Africa, Central America and elsewhere for material. One of his most famous stories was called "The Delicate Prey" -- and that was how Bowles seemed to see man: as delicate, vulnerable prey. Never a great inventor of character, he was best when he got someone alone and put him slowly to death. The effect was like a sudden gust of wind: You shivered.

"In a lot of your stories, the characters seem to deliberately court danger. Did you do a lot of that?"

"Probably, but I had no really sinister experiences."

"But you were willing to roam around and go places that very few Westerners ever went to."

"Well, I always felt that I was extremely lucky, and being lucky, nothing could happen to me."

"Did you feel that your life had to be interesting for your work to be interesting?"

"Well, I don't know, that's a very loaded question. What's interesting? I don't know. I had to work, or I wouldn't have had any books. I never liked to remain in one place. I had the feeling the world was very big and that I must see as much of it as possible."

JANE BOWLES WAS EVERYTHING PAUL wasn't: gregarious, promiscuous, neurotic and Jewish. Someone once said that meeting Paul and Jane Bowles was like meeting two halves of the same person. Visitors to their building would find the drinkers -- drunk, raucous, gossipy -- in Jane's apartment, and the kif smokers -- remote, silent, even comatose -- in Paul's. "This is Mr. _____," Bowles would say, introducing someone crashed out on the floor.

When they first met, Jane was the writer; Paul was still a composer. She was openly lesbian; he was asexual shading to gay, his sex life a star-studded record of all the people he could have slept with but didn't. Somehow, they fell in love. Why exactly this was so remains mysterious. "Too complicated" was all Bowles would say if you pressed him for an answer. But when I asked him if life had been more difficult for him since her death, his understatement was devastating.

 

"Oh yes, of course. Yes. Not difficult, it's just been without interest."

"Was she your muse?"

"I don't know. I think, while she was alive, I lived vicariously. I saw everything through her eyes. Afterwards, I saw through no eyes."

"You really felt that life was without meaning without her?"

"Very much, yes. Life, of course, is without meaning, and if you find something that gives it meaning you're very fortunate."

BOWLES' HEYDAY AS A WRITER, THOUGH not as an icon, passed decades before his death last week at the age of 88. His final novel, Up Above the World, was published in 1966, and the short stories became more sporadic. In the '60s, Tangier turned into a haven for hippies to score cheap drugs. Many of them showed up at Bowles' door. Unable to concentrate on fiction, Bowles began to translate the tales of illiterate Moroccan storytellers into English. Earlier he had spent several months on a Guggenheim grant traveling through Morocco recording every kind of local music he could find for the Library of Congress. That turned out to be important because most of this music exists today only on such recordings.

"The musicians die, and the young men who might have replaced them in other times are not interested in playing Moroccan music," Bowles told me. "They're much more interested in becoming mechanics. You find them in garages in Casablanca."

One sensed that, in a way, Bowles was disappointed with the Moroccans. He had thought that after kicking out the French colonists they would immediately go back to their traditional way of life, free of Western influence. But the opposite happened. The Moroccans wanted more modernization, not less. It was the French who wanted to preserve the native culture, not them.

In the preface to his novel The Spider's House, which dealt sympathetically with the Moroccan independence movement, Bowles wrote, "Not all the ravages caused by our merciless age are tangible ones. The subtler forms of destruction, those involving only the human spirit, are the most to be dreaded."

When I asked Bowles what he meant by that exactly, he said, "Well, the Europeanization of thought. The tendency of people in another culture to try to think the way Europeans think."

If Bowles no longer cared much for Tangier, he liked the rest of the world even less. Bertolucci's movie of The Sheltering Sky -- which he loathed -- brought him momentarily back into the public eye. Bowles didn't seem to care very much. In any case, he still had some tricks up his sleeve. A month after I saw him in Tangier, he made his first visit to New York since 1969, to attend a three-day festival of his music, some of which he had never heard performed. Most people, even those who considered themselves Bowles fans, were unaware that he had been a composer, and had a lot of catching up to do. The critics were impressed by the quality of the music -- which was played alongside Copland's and Stravinsky's -- and slightly bewildered. Light, airy and coolly romantic, Bowles' music was nothing like his writing. "What was the connection between the books and the music?" they wanted to know. "No connection," Bowles assured them cheerfully, "except that they come from the same addled brain."

Back in Tangier, I had one last question to ask: Was Bowles happy with the life he'd lived?

His answer was ruthlessly logical: "One had better be happy with the life one's lived, otherwise it would have been better not to live."


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