Paul Bowles, obituary

Gary Pulsifer
Friday November 19, 1999
The Manchester Guardian

Much-travelled American writer and composer who made his home in Morocco, the setting for his best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles, who has died aged 88, found inspiration from a long association with Morocco and her peoples. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Sheltering Sky, filmed in 1990 by Bertolucci, was one of the seminal novels of mid-20th century American fiction, while his musical compositions, lighter in mood, were critical and commercial successes on Broadway.

It was Gertrude Stein who first suggested that "Freddy" Bowles should visit Morocco. "You don't want to go to Ville Franche. Everybody's there. And St Jean-de-Luz is empty and with an awful climate. The place you should go is Tangier. Alice and I've spent three summers there, and it's fine." In 1931, Bowles and his mentor, the American composer Aaron Copland, took a villa overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, but it was not until 1947 that Bowles and his wife Jane settled permanently in Morocco.

Paul Bowles was born on Long Island. Family legend had it that his father Claude, a successful dentist, placed his six-week-old only child in a basket before an open window during a snowstorm. Certain death was avoided by the discovery of the naked infant by his maternal grandmother. In any event, Bowles senior was a strict disciplinarian: the young Bowles was forced at mealtimes to chew each mouthful of food at least 40 times, following the practice of Horace Fletcher, the "Moses of Mastication". Bowles's mother Rena, on the other hand, read him works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe as bedtime stories.

Bowles cited Poe as a particular influence, even choosing to attend the university of Virginia in 1927, as this had been Poe's college. Although Bowles made the dean's list during his first term, he was not cut out for university life in a sleepy southern town and, without a word to his family, he set sail for France, travelling on an old Dutch steamer. In Paris he worked briefly as a switchboard operator at the Herald Tribune but soon returned to New York, taking a job at Dutton's Bookshop on Fifth Avenue.

Already Bowles's poetry was appearing in the Paris-based surrealist magazine, transition, alongside the work of André Breton, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. He began studying composition with Copland and guest-edited one issue of his university's magazine, soliciting a contribution from Stein. In 1931, when Bowles returned to Paris, he visited the legendary American author and art collector at her home at 27 Rue de Fleurs. "I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman of at least 75," said Stein. "A highly eccentric elderly gentleman," added her companion Alice B Toklas.

Through Stein's circle, in the space of two weeks Bowles met Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Virgil Thompson, Pavel Tchelitchew and André Gide, before going with Copland to Berlin. There, Bowles came into contact with Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and Jean Ross, Isherwood's model for Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin.

Back in Paris, Bowles took a studio in the same building as Virgil Thompson, who found him "a dazzling blond. We became very good friends... He started playing me his music as we got acquainted. It was absolutely charming, sweet, school of Ravel." Bowles was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris for some months, but his primary musical training was under Copland and Thompson.

The following year, Bowles trekked across the Sahara by camel. He then rented a house in Tangier, using it as a studio for piano composition. (Bowles shared the house with Djuna Barnes, who began writing Nightwood here.) His Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, inspired by a Kurt Schwitters poem, was heard at the Aeolian Hall in London, while his Sonatina for Piano had been performed in New York.

By 1935 he had met the choreographer George Balanchine, who commissioned Bowles to compose Yankee Clipper for his dance company. Bowles's increasing reputation as a composer led to lucrative work on Broadway and he would go on to compose the music for a number of Broadway productions, including Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine; the stage version of South Pacific; Jacobowsky and the Colonel, directed by Elia Kazan; and John Ford's Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. He wrote the incidental music for Tennessee Williams's plays The Glass Menagerie, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Sweet Bird of Youth and Summer and Smoke; while Williams got him a job as screenwriter on Visconti's film Senso (although the Italian director had Williams rewrite Bowles's sex scenes).

Altogether, Bowles created 150 original musical compositions. In 1943 his zarzuela The Wind Remains, based on a surrealist tragicomedy by Lorca, received its premiere at MOMA in New York, with choreography by Merce Cunningham and Leonard Bernstein conducting. Bowles also composed the music for a ballet based on Verlaine's poem Colloque Sentimental with sets by Salvador Dali. Commented Newsweek: "Paul Bowles's beautiful score was wrecked by Dali's usual outlandish weirdness."

It was in 1937 that Bowles met the Jewish lesbian writer Jane Auer, at a party in Harlem. Jane recalled: "He wrote music and was mysterious and sinister. The first time I saw him I said, he's my enemy." Nevertheless, Paul and Jane and another couple travelled by bus to Mexico; Bowles went on to Guatemala. (Before the trip, Bowles had printed 15,000 stickers bearing the legend "Death to Trotsky" which he distributed throughout Mexico, where the exile was living.)

On February 21 1938, Paul and Jane were married in a Dutch Reform Church in New York, on the eve of Jane's 21st birthday. They honeymooned in Central America, travelling to Panama on a Japanese freighter with two steamer trunks, 18 large valises and a gramophone - a parrot was acquired en route.

Their honeymoon continued in Costa Rica, where they stayed at a cattle ranch, before they set sail to France on a ship filled with German Nazi sympathisers. So began the years of travel for the Bowleses, sometimes together, often apart. That autumn found the couple back in New York at the Chelsea Hotel. They joined the Communist party; later, when Paul tried to leave, the organisation informed him he could only be expelled. By 1941, they were living in Brooklyn with WH Auden, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten; Britten kept his piano in the living room while Paul practised on his in the cellar. Bowles was awarded a $2500 Guggenheim fellowship to compose his opera Yerma, and Virgil Thompson offered him a job as assistant music critic on the New York Herald Tribune, a position he held for four years.

Bowles was led back to Morocco in 1947 by a vivid dream of Tangier. In the wake of the war, Tangier was an "international zone" governed by seven Western powers, and the city was notorious for its lax morals and louche lifestyle. The Bowleses' marriage, however, was curious even by the standards of jaded Tangerines. Jane established a number of affairs with women friends, most notably with Cherifa, an 18-year-old grain-seller. Many people (her husband included) saw this illiterate peasant woman as a malign influence. Bowles interested himself in a number of young Moroccan men, whose oral fiction he went on to translate from Maghrebi and classical Arabic. For one young Moroccan protegé, Ahmed Yacoubi, he arranged exhibitions of his paintings.

Eventually the Bowleses took separate apartments in a building near the American consulate, leading semi-independent lives but usually meeting for dinner. While Paul found creative inspiration in his Moorish surroundings, for Jane, cut off from her American roots, Morocco became a cultural wasteland. She did not complete any new work while in Morocco; indeed her output was limited to a couple of highly praised novels, one play and one or two other writings.

Instead, she threw her sparkling personality into a Tangier social scene orchestrated by the Hon David Herbert. Too many evenings spent drinking at the Parade Bar, mixed with a careless use of prescribed medicines, resulted in a stroke in 1956; she was eventually confined to a nursing home in Malaga, where she died in 1973. After Jane's death, Paul's output was to dwindle. "Her death was a terrible ordeal, as it was half of myself that I lost. I no longer wanted to do anything at all."

Paul Bowles became interested in writing fiction when he went over the manuscript of Jane's novel Two Serious Ladies prior to its US publication. The plot of his most celebrated novel, The Sheltering Sky, came to him while on a bus in New York. It was published in 1949 by New Directions and became an immediate bestseller. (It was originally commissioned by Doubleday, who then turned it down as "not a novel".)

Bowles described the novel to his American publisher James Laughlin as "an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously; in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit... The occasional oasis provides relief from the natural desert, but the sexual adventures fail to provide relief." Many readers, including Jane, saw the central characters of Port and his wife Kit as based on the Bowleses themselves.

The following year, a short-story collection by Bowles appeared under the title The Delicate Prey (US) and A Little Stone (UK). The British edition, published by John Lehmann, was notable for its omission of two stories, Pages from Cold Point, later described by Norman Mailer as "a seduction of father by a son and one of the best stories written by anyone", and A Distant Episode, which climaxes in a chilling castration. Tennessee Williams told Bowles that the latter was "a wonderful story but if you publish it you're mad. Everyone is going to think you are some sort of horrible monster." Cyril Connolly and Somerset Maugham advised Lehmann not to include either story on the grounds that they would not be passed by the censor.

Bowles's next novel, Let It Come Down, charts the disintegration of Nelson Dyer, a bank clerk from New York who has settled in Tangier. Where The Sheltering Sky focused on the Saharan desert, Let It Come Down centred on the Moroccan capital and the corruption of life under the international zone. Bowles had taken majoun, a jam made from cannabis, to write Port's death scene in The Sheltering Sky and in his second novel he has Dyer descend into Spanish Morocco and a madness induced in part by a "kif" haze.

The Spider's House, set in the medieval city of Fez, is the most overtly political of Bowles's novels. It examines the relationship between Amar, a 15-year-old Moroccan boy, and three foreigners, an American writer (with overtones of Bowles), a rich English painter and an American divorcee. Bowles used the novel, which opens in 1954 during the holy month of Ramadan, to explore the shifting relationship between the colonial power of the French and the rising tide of Moroccan nationalism. Up Above the World, his final novel, concerns the doomed trajectory of an American couple in an unnamed Central American country. Bowles compared it to the writings of Graham Greene and Gide, calling it "light" entertainment, which it is not.

He went on to publish several short-story collections, including A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, set in Morocco and with an underlying theme of kif smoking. Other works include the travel writing of Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue; Points in Time, a journey through the Moroccan centuries; and an enigmatic autobiography, Without Stopping, dubbed "Without Telling" by William Burroughs. A novella, Too Far From Home, set in Mali, was well received on publication in 1994.

In later years, when his own creative output had diminished, Bowles translated a number of Moroccan oral storytellers including Mohammed Mrabet, Mohamed Choukri, Abdeslam Boulaich and Larbi Layachi. Some western critics accused Bowles of writing these tales himself, an accusation he always strongly denied. One or two of these storytellers, with an exaggerated sense of the sales potential of their books, would later allege that Bowles was pocketing their royalties. In fact, Bowles was always a soft touch when it came to his close Moroccan male friends - although less so to others on occasion.

Other translations included Sartre's play Huis Clos (Bowles came up with the English title, No Exit); The Oblivion Seekers, by Isabelle Eberhardt; and several novels by the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa.

Decades earlier, Bowles was the recipient of a Rockefeller grant to record Moroccan folk music; the tapes are in the Library of Congress in Washington. Bowles was to travel some 25,000 miles around his adopted country, making 250 recordings of a diverse range of local music.

Paul Bowles was an intensely private man, possessed of a dry New England sense of humour and a capacity for friendship which was at odds with his public persona as a detached, often aloof, observer. Much of late 20th-century human behaviour frankly baffled him.

Through his books he created a vision of Morocco uniquely his own. In old age he continued to live in the same run-down Tangier apartment block, the Immeuble Itesa, receiving visitors and fans from around the world (and the world came to Bowles) with little complaint. Having lived for many years without a telephone, his last concession to technical intrusion was the installation of a fax machine, the number of which was made available to a select group of intimates. Having travelled little in later years, he flew to Paris for the opening of The Sheltering Sky and returned again for a concert of his music, lunching with President Mitterrand at the Elysée palace.

Paul Frederick Bowles, writer and composer, born December 30 1910; died November 18 1999

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

Paul Bowles web site


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