YOU ARE NOT I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles By MILLICENT DILLON University of California Press 340 pages $27.50 hardcover
No man is an island, but expatriate American author Paul Bowles comes closer than most. Over the years, so many people have flown out to Tangier to interview him that it's become a rite of passage, a journalistic haj. Decade after decade the visitors come, seeking a few drops of wisdom from the oracle's lips, even if his pen has run dry. How has Bowles managed to remain so fascinating? Well, there are some obvious reasons (the books, the friends, the locale), but there's one that's rarely mentioned: He never changes. In an age when people are buffeted by every passing media wind, and try on personalities like clothes, Bowles has become the embodiment of what used to be meant by "character." He continues to live in the same leaky apartment building, refers to his late wife as "Mrs. Bowles" and treats all his interlocutors, no matter how bizarre, with the same cool politeness.
There's something funny about this. I've often thought, in fact, that one could make a very amusing documentary about all the people who've interviewed Bowles. There are hints of this kind of comedy in Millicent Dillon's You Are Not I, an interesting but sometimes cripplingly sincere account of her own encounters with Bowles. At one point, during a session in Bowles' flat, a "tall European man" shows up. He's not a journalist; he just wants to ask some questions. Which he proceeds to do, rather like a detective interrogating a suspected terrorist. "Are you a nihilist?" is the first question, and others include "Don't you believe in the meaning of life?," "What will happen to you when you die?" and "Do you want to be cremated when you die?" "You keep imagining I think of death," Bowles protests, but politely, of course, very politely.
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Dillon first met Bowles in 1977, when she was working on a biography of his wife (A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles), who died in 1973. That book, a straightforward biography, was well-received and encouraged Dillon to take a crack at Bowles himself. This time, though, she wanted a less conventional approach: a book that would mix biography with snatches of autobiography, allowing the reader not only a portrait of Bowles, but also snapshots of the person drawing it.
Such an approach has its merits. Because it lets the reader in on the biographer's various doubts and struggles to understand her material, it can certainly make for a greater honesty. The biographer who uses it is less likely to commit the kind of sins cataloged in The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm's withering critique of the biographer's claim to objective "truth."
It also has its pitfalls, however. Chief among them is the danger that the biographer may simply be hitching her own necessarily less interesting story to the one people want to read about: her subject's. That is sometimes the case here. You Are Not I is a good read mainly because Bowles is a good read. He's a fascinating interviewee, and Dillon does a good job interviewing him. She also has some interesting things to say about the novels, relates the fiction to the life in new ways, and doesn't forget that, as well as being a great writer, Bowles is also a composer of distinction.
What mars the book, finally, is her earnestness. Bowles is an enigma; to treat him as a puzzle to be solved, as Dillon sometimes does, shows a lack of wit. His singularity is what makes him precious. This, after all, is a man who was so isolated as a child that (as he tells Dillon) he once fell in love with a mosquito.