Up Above the World
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.
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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?
I wasn't there.
Sure you were. You were looking through the keyhole, a Peeping Paul.
Oh, all right. I think sex did occur. But just that one night.
What sort of sex?
Well, I think the boy let his father screw him. It leads up to that in the description beforehand. During all that time in bed, Racky is still, he never moves. It says that he could have been asleep, but of course he couldn't have. Whatever happened was what Racky wanted to have happen.
In one of his books, Ned Rorem strongly implied that he and his father, when they visited you a long time ago in Mexico, were the inspiration for "Pages From Cold Point."
What makes him think that, I wonder? It's so untrue it's funny. Ned's so incredibly egoiste.
There's nothing remotely similar to "Cold Point" in your output.
It's the only story of mine that treats of male homosexuality.
How do you feel about it being included in anthologies of homosexual stories?
It's absurd. As though that was why it was written.
What about being typecast as a "gay" author, primarily because of one story?
I don't like that at all.
Because the description is not relevant to most of your work?
It's not even relevant to most of my life.
Your autobiography is entitled Without Stopping. William Burroughs wrote that it should have been called Without Telling.
What he meant by that I don't know.
You know very well that he meant that you never say who was sleeping with whom.
Well, I wouldn't. I didn't think it was proper.
Even if the people involved were dead?
Even so. My idea of what's right isn't the same as someone else's, that's all. It seems to me that it would be extremely bad taste for anyone to accuse X of having slept with Y in 1953.
Then you must have been displeased by Ned publishing his confessional diaries.
I was appalled and disgusted that anyone would write such nonsense. And he actually took those books seriously.
Did you let Ned know what you thought?
Yes. I wrote him and told him that I couldn't understand why he would be interested in such details, and why he would use actual names in telling about his drunken orgies. It was all right, I suppose, for him to describe what he did, no matter how abjectly he was behaving, but it wasn't all right to involve other people.
Curious that particular letter wasn't included in the recent volume of your and Ned's letters.
Not so curious.
Last summer, in an article in the Threepenny Review, you complained about the difficulties you have had with three of the Moroccan writers you've translated - Mohammed Mrabet, Larbi Layachi and Mohammed Choukri - over money demands, and declared that you will never again collaborate with a Moroccan. Did their ingratitude surprise you?
I never expected gratitude from them.
The one you've worked with most closely is Mrabet.
Yes, and I finally agreed to give him $1,000 for each book that had been published. There were 12.
He wasn't actually owed that money?
No. It was just to shut him up.
Have Moroccan storytellers had any influence on your own writing?
Yes. A kind of symbiosis took place. Mrabet, especially, was good for me because he'd never had any truck with adjectives and adverbs. I liked that, and I realized that you could tell everything, really, with verbs and nouns. Simple writing. As we worked together, Mrabet discovered that I like to hear stories in which violence suddenly appears, so he started inventing such stories, because he found that I appreciated them. But I didn't change his way of thinking or of telling a story. I simply reacted better to the more attractively violent details.
A couple of years ago, Choukri published an article in a German newspaper with the headline "Paul Bowles Is an Exploiter"; then he organized a public meeting in Tangier solely to denounce you, and began publishing a series of defamatory articles about you in an Arabic-language newspaper distributed all over the Muslim world. Those articles then appeared in book form in Arabic and, recently, in a French edition entitled Paul Bowles, Le Reclus de Tangier, issued by Quai Voltaire in Paris.
Choukri accused me of being a CIA spy, a neocolonialist, a racist, a dangerous criminal who should be thrown out of Morocco, a robber who had stolen royalties from Moroccan writers and a hater of the religion and the government, among other things.
I remember that each week those newspaper articles seemed to get worse and worse.
He was probably getting drunker and drunker.
Were you angry?
Yes, but not very. I was more worried - about some maniac hearing or reading Choukri's nonsense and deciding to wipe me out. After all, the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz had his throat cut by a Muslim fundamentalist. And one night a maniac did visit me and begin ranting about Islam, although I don't know that it had anything to do with Choukri. Fortunately, my biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, was here, and she got rid of him. Now I have a night watchman, who sleeps in the apartment.
There were so many outrageous accusations in Choukri's broadside - among them, that you arranged to have your wife killed. What could he have meant when he said you do not know the difference between the sexes?
I had told him I didn't know there was a difference between male and female until I was in high school. It's true that I didn't. I was a very unobservant child and youth. It never occurred to me that there was a real difference between men and women except a social one, that some individuals belonged to this sex, others to that, the difference between red or yellow.
Did you assume both sexes had the same sensations and the same equipment for those sensations?
Of course. It seemed to me that all human beings were the same.
Hadn't you seen a picture of a naked woman? Didn't you notice there was nothing down there?
Yes, but I thought that was for aesthetic reasons, that they didn't want to disfigure the lovely female body the way the male body was disfigured.
The people in charge. [Laughs]
You were an absurd boy.
I'm afraid I must have been.
In your fiction, you've tended to treat places rather than people or personalities.
Of course. The places suggest the people, and the personalities grow from my work on the places.
Do you consider any of your books important for posterity?
Don't you care if your books survive you?
No, I don't care. I don't believe anything lasts very long anyway. It's hard to imagine, people reading my books and I reduced to ashes or buried in the Tangier pet cemetery.
But the revival of interest in you during the last decade or so - all your books in print in many languages and selling well, Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky - must please you.
That ghastly film didn't please me. But the money makes me happy.
You sound rather mercenary.
Mercenary? But what is life about? It's about eating and having a place to live where the rain doesn't come in and buying clothes. Having a pleasant time. What else is there?
What about the high, uplifting purpose of art?
Don't give me those words. High. Uplifting. Onward and upward. Excelsior!
You don't buy that idea.
Of course not. That would imply that civilization is better than primitiveness.
Don't you think you've accomplished something, writing books that are so well thought of?
I doubt they will be well thought of for long. The interest may go on 10 years after my death, but, then, what difference does that make to me?
Leaving a body of work is a kind of immortality.
I'm not interested in immortality. A lot of people are, I know. That's what most religions are about. But all religions are absurd. Immortality is one sliver of their absurdity. They all seem to like the idea of living beyond death. I wonder why.
You really expect to be quickly forgotten?
Oh, I'm willing to admit that it's possible that people might remember me for some years after I die.
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