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Issue 58

Just Deserts

The life of Paul Bowles

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Profiles | 05 MAY 01

In the first few months of 1948, while he was in Fez grappling with his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles found the impetus to continue writing in a Franz Kafka quote. He ended up using it as the epigraph to the book's final section: 'From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.'

For Bowles, who had left New York and a successful career as a composer behind him, Kafka's words were a kind of creative mantra, allowing him 'to shift from manual to automatic'. But they apply equally well to his restless life. He left his New England upbringing far behind him, starting off in Paris in the 1930s, and going on to Mexico, Latin America and Ceylon before finally settling in Tangier, where he remained for over 50 years.

Artistically, he's just as hard to place. A glance at the index of his autobiography, Without Stopping (1972) - which is so notoriously reticent that Burroughs mischievously renamed it 'Without Telling' - reads like a Who's Who of the 20th-century cultural vanguard. In Paris he came into contact with Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and André Gide, before moving to Berlin under the apprenticeship of the composer Aaron Copland. Later on, he formed close friendships with Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams... the list goes on. A decade later he was to meet William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg when they relocated to Tangier.

But for all his celebrated acquaintances Bowles doesn't quite fit in. His writings seem both central and marginal at the same time - probably owing largely to the fact that during his literary career he never wrote a word outside Africa or Asia. Even the traces of his early influences - Edgar Allan Poe, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus - are tempered by something utterly other. He always insisted that he was a traditionalist, but the traditions he mined became increasingly ancient and arcane.

While most of his contemporaries were trying to write the Great American Novel, Bowles delved further and further into the culture of the country of his self-imposed exile. His later projects included travelling over 30,000 miles in an attempt to record Moroccan music, as well as numerous translations of stories tape-recorded from Moroccan oral storytellers. Many of these, such as Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi's 'A Life Full of Holes' (1964) and Mohammed Mrabet's 'M'Hashish' (1969), are superb.

Since his death in 1999 Bowles' own place in the canon has undergone the inevitable shift inwards from the margins. Last year saw the re-release of his first two novels, The Sheltering Sky (1949) and Let it Come Down (1952), as well as a volume of short stories as Penguin Classics. His wife, Jane, is also getting the treatment, with her novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) coming out in the same series. And now we have The Paul Bowles Reader (2000), a selection of his stories as well as excerpts from the novels, travel writing and autobiography.

Judging from the timeless nature of his subjects, Bowles should be well suited to 'classic' status. His work is dominated by elemental, empty landscapes upon which the sinister actions of out-of-depth humans are often merely a minor aberration. His plots usually involve the descent of an American character into an unfamiliar - often fatal - world. In The Sheltering Sky the unknown takes the form of the Sahara. In Let it Come Down, Tangier. In the stories it's usually some other exotic locale, replete with occult occurrences. The constant theme is not so much the meeting of cultures as the void that occurs when you slip between two worlds.

In Bowles' later work it seems as if his own identity began to be lost in translation. His stories from the late 1960s onwards occupy a unique cultural fissure. The alienated American characters begin to drop out of his narratives altogether, and his tales become more and more like his Maghrebi translations, dealing solely with Moroccans. His American readership dwindled: he had almost become just another 'foreign' writer.

When the Western world does show up in the later stories, it is seen through the eyes of a stranger. The story 'Here to Learn' (1979) follows a Moroccan girl who journeys first to Spain, then Paris, before ending up in the alien world of America. When she returns to Morocco, her house has been erased. It's a back-to-front mirror image of Bowles' own trajectory through life; perhaps a realization that he had finally reached the point of no return.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.