Paul Bowles was a uniquely-gifted author. He had a wild and macabre imagination, and a great deal of what he wrote was autobiographical. He began composing music as well as writing at a very early age, and had his first poetry published in the French literary magazine transition when he was 17 years old.
His father was a dentist – a cold and forbidding parent. His mother doted on him and provided the encouragement he needed to find an outlet for expression. He was an ambitious and curious boy – fascinated by music and poetry. He was also extremely sensitive. He could read when he was three years old, and could write rather than speak stories only a year later. He was fascinated with jazz and blues, but more with the construction of the music than the melody. The sound coming from a gramophone intrigued him, as did the power of the printed word on his expansive imagination. Stravinsky’s The Firebird at Carnegie Hall pumped some hidden ambition into the 15-year-old youth. Two years later, he went to the University of Virginia but after only11 months he bought a one-way ticket on a steamer to Paris without having any idea what he was doing or what he was going to do when he got there. His parents knew nothing of his impulsive decision.
It was in Paris that Bowles really harnessed himself to writing. As luck would have it, he somehow managed to talk himself into an editorial job with the Paris Herald Tribune. He had found an outlet for his self expression. Then, perhaps seeing the folly of his decision to leave America, and after some pressure from his parents, he returned to the University of Virginia. His resolve to resume his studies was however short-lived and after only a single semester he returned to Paris where he became a student of Aaron Copland the composer. He was also introduced to Gertrude Stein and became involved in the fringes of her literary and artistic circle which included Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Ezra Pound. He met Picasso, Chagall and Modigliani. Paris gave Bowles the impetus and encouragement to expand his creative gifts.
In 1931, Bowles made his first visit to Tangier in Morocco with Aaron Copland at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. It was a momentous visit to an exotic-depraved town where he would later live for the greater part of his life, but this would not happen for another sixteen years. In the years between 1931 and 1946 he travelled extensively in North Africa but returned to New York in 1937 where he established a considerable reputation as a composer for the stage. In 1938, he married Jane Auer – already an established author and playwright. The unconventional marriage tolerated relationships with people of their own sex. The couple were permanent members of the New York literary set, and Bowles worked for some years as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
Jane Auer was an enormous influence on Paul Bowles’ literary career and encouraged the resumption of his writing in 1945. Her own fictional book Two Serious Ladies had been published in1943, and she urged her husband to start writing fiction. He began by writing short stories – among them A Distant Episode. Another work Without Stopping was never finished although, much later, an autobiography was published in 1972 by Ecco Press using the same title.
In 1947, the publisher Doubleday offered Bowles a contract to write a novel. With the proceeds of a relatively small advance Bowles moved permanently to Tangier where eccentricity was regarded as a social asset and started work. His wife Jane joined him the following year. Travelling alone he entered deep into the Algerian Sahara writing about personal experiences and journeying from place to place and room to room. The result and account of these travels, and autobiographical happenings, became the perverse and visionary fiction The Sheltering Sky. However, when he delivered the manuscript to Doubleday they rejected his work. The book was eventually published by John Lehmann in England. Bowles had to return his advance to Doubleday who watched in amazement as sales of The Sheltering Sky escalated. The relatively unknown New Directions Publishing put out the American edition and The Sheltering Sky was not only featured in the New York Times best-seller list, but experienced three printings in two months. Tennessee Williams, the playwright, stated that the book “pulsed with interior flashes of fire”. It was the story of an American couple and their friend journeying through the Algerian desert meeting Arab pimps, prostitutes and disaster along the way. Eventually Bernardo Bertolucci produced his cinematic classic of the book in 1990.
Paul Bowles’ first collection of short stories- A Little Stone- was published the following year (1950) also by John Lehmann. However, the book omitted two of Bowles’ most famous and disquieting stories Pages from Cold Point and The Delicate Prey – about incest and gruesomely descriptive murder. They were warned that the stories might cause the book to be censored. The Random House American edition included the two stories and titled their book The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. Bowles’ second fictional novel- Let It Come Down- also set in North Africa, was published by John Lehmann in 1952.
Then, while travelling in South East Asia with his wife, Bowles saw the tiny island of Taprobane in Weligama Bay off the south coast of Sri Lanka. He fell in love with it immediately. “…. it was scarcely more than a hummock of black basalt rising above the waves of the Indian Ocean … I had never seen a place that looked so obviously like what I was searching for.” I know this island well – because our family used to holiday on it before I left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1947 for England. It was discovered by Count de Mauny Talvande in 1912 who christened it Taprobane (the ancient Greek name for Ceylon), and then built an octagonal villa on the island that allowed for verandahs in every direction. Rooms revolved outward from a grand central space and the landscaped gardens spilled over stepped terraces to the ocean. It was indeed an island paradise and when in 1952 Bowles learned that the island was for sale he immediately wired the funds and bought it. For the next four years Bowles lived on the island in the winter months (January to June) returning to his home in Tangier for the rest of the year. He wrote lyrically “…. life on Taprobane was trouble free … the catamarans bearing fishermen streamed past the island before sunrise and returned en masse at sunset, oars and sails giving them speed.” Life on the tiny island, once a cobra dump for the area, was idyllic – but Jane Bowles hated the humidity and the tropical existence and longed to return to Morocco. Four years later, in 1956, they sold the island. The last two chapters of his novel The Spider’s House were completed in the peaceful solitude of the spare bedroom which Bowles had turned into his study.
Sadly, the following year in 1957, Jane Bowles suffered a stroke – which heralded the beginning of a long and painful decline in her health and preoccupied Bowles for the next 16 years. She was diagnosed as a manic depressive psychotic. Despite their independent marital arrangement Jane was to Bowles his muse and critical mentor. It was a sad period in both their lives. She died in a psychiatric hospital in Spain in 1973 after which he returned to his modest and humble apartment in Tangier where he lived for the rest of his life. After her death, he produced no further novels. During his final 26 years Bowles also worked on translating Moroccan authors, as well as recording traditional Moroccan music. Before he died in 1999, he had written four novels: The Sheltering Sky, Let it Come Down, The Spider’s House, and Up Above the World. This was in addition to a book of poetry, an autobiography, many travel essays, and over one hundred short stories – many of which were about extreme and chilling situations. Although recognized as one of the most masterful authors in the second half of the 20th century, he nevertheless remains one of the most disturbing ever to have written in the English language.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Hemingway in Africa and Woolf in Ceylon.
Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada