the first stories of Paul Bowles appeared in New York at the end
of the 1930s critics noted the emergence of a remarkable new talent.
Subsequently Bowles was to make his reputation on only a handful
of books: four novels and five collections of stories. But what
novels and what stories! Stories that Gore Vidal considers "among
the best ever written by an American, with few equals in the 20th
century -- even though he is odd-man out for American academics
because he writes as if Moby Dick
never existed." Likewise
his friend of many years Tennessee Williams claimed that Bowles
was a better writer than Hemingway and Faulkner.
I had the good fortune to meet
Paul Bowles in a cold, rainy winter in the middle 1980s in Tangier.
I had just read his novels Under The Sheltering Sky
It Come Down
and his collection of stories in The Delicate
and was already a convert to his works. After an exchange
of several letters to establish the timing -- for years he had no
phones, no faxes or such, only a post box at Tanger Socco -- I spent
a week in Tangier for an extended interview with the mystical cult
I was as excited about meeting
him as the many others who traveled to Tangier had been during the
1960s. However, by the 1980s figures like Allan Ginsberg, William
Burroughs, Truman Capote, Jean Genet and the Rolling Stones no longer
crowded the Moroccan scene and young people no longer made the pilgrimage
to exotic Tangier to search for the strange man who lived in exile
among his Moroccan friends. The Tangier craze was over.
By then Bowles had been living
in Tangier since 1947, the last 30 years in the same apartment just
opposite the residence of the American Consulate on the hill of
Marshan over the old town. He had suggested in his last letter that
I drop by each afternoon after he had finished his day's work: he
was then transcribing a group of his early songs for publishing
in the United States.
When I arrived on the first
day at around six the tape of a piece for oboe by his friend Aaron
Copeland was playing. Paul Bowles was waiting at the door of his
fourth-floor apartment. A fire was blazing, the unpretentious Moroccan-European
salon inviting. The elegant maestro did not appear at all mysterious.
His warmth and simplicity contrasted with his exotic reputation
and the unreal world of his art. It was the aura around him that
was mysterious, not the person. In the United States he was considered
mysterious chiefly because little was known about him since he lived
his life abroad and wrote little about the American experience.
My host first proposed a cup
of tea, only to discover he had no cooking gas. But in that moment
his friend the Moroccan writer Mohammed Mrabet arrived, put in a
full bottle of gas, and water was soon boiling. His Spanish speaking
chauffeur then walked in and took a seat along the wall as if it
were his assigned place. He was followed by two servants who set
in cleaning rather ineffectually. Paul blithely didn't seem to care.
While we were drinking tea and
smoking kif -- fresh kif-filled cigarettes were always drying by
the fireplace as every afternoon in the Bowles household -- the
door banged open and another Bowles literary discovery entered:
Mohammed Choukhri, whose stories like those of Mrabet have been
published in various languages. Choukhri presented Bowles with his
latest essay on Jean Genet, which he on the spot dedicated to his
friend, drank a cup of tea, smoked a kif cigarette, and hurriedly
Unexpected entertainment was
then offered by a "jilala" musician, the quaspah player,
Abdalmalek, an illiterate for whom Bowles had promised to write
a letter. Bowles explained to me that when a sick or depressed Moroccan
says "I think I need to dance," it means he needs "jilala"
therapy. Abdalmalek provides it. His music-therapy group plays the
flute-like quaspah, bendir drums and bronze castanets called quarquaba
until the frenetically dancing patient falls into a trance and leaves
his body so that his saint can enter and clean house. Scenes like
that appear not infrequently in Bowles literature.
"Probably no worse than
many other treatments," Bowles commented at the end of the
impromptu 15-minute concert.
I never understood if Bowles
had staged this Moroccan theater to impress the visiting journalist.
I still doubt it.
Paul Bowles went to Morocco the first time in 1931 on the recommendation
of his new friend, Gertrude Stein. "I had spent that spring
in Berlin studying music with Aaron Copeland," he recalled.
"In Paris I told Gertrude that I planned to pass the summer
in Villefranche. She found that idea frankly absurd. Alice Toklas
said: Tangier!' And Gertrude said: That's the right
place.' So Aaron and I came here together and rented a house.
That summer he worked on his 'Short Symphony' and I composed my
first piece -- 'Sonata For Oboe and Clarinette' -- that was played
that winter in London."
Though that part of his life
is often forgotten by his literary admirers, music was always
important for Bowles. Yet contrary to some critics who noted the
influence of music on his literature -- the French critic, Marc
Saporta, mentions the influence of American music forms like jazz
and spirituals -- Bowles said that he never felt that. "I
don't have such highfalutin ideas. I just try to write as simply
and clearly as possible. I'm not thinking about rhythm or music.
I just try to get it into proper English. French critics haven't
a clue," he added with a playful smile. "The French
can't play my music either."
Nonetheless, during the 30s
and 40s and occasionally afterwards Bowles was to compose a lot
of music. He did the music for Tennessee Williams' "The Glass
Menagerie," "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Summer
and Smoke," and "The Milkman Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,"
for William Saroyan's "Love's Old Sweet Story," Orson
Welles's "Dr. Faust" and others, for Arthur Koestler's
"Twilight Bar," for Jose Ferrer's film "Cyrano
de Bergerac." He composed a Mexican ballet and "Yankee
Clipper" for the American Ballet Theater, an opera based
on Garcia Lorca's "Asi Pasen Cinco Anos"  directed
by Leonard Bernstein in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and an
opera, "Yerma" . His compositions were performed
in that period at Lincoln Center, which was to be his last visit
to the United States.
Like a character from a classical
novel, his was a precocious biography. He was 21 on that first
visit to Tangier but he had already been exposed to the Old World
two years earlier. "I then thought Paris was the center of
the world and I wanted to be there. College in America was boring.
One way or another I had to get out. Since I was under age and
my parents refused to sign for my passport, I got one under false
pretenses and shipped out to France in 1929. I worked in Paris
as a telephonist and the only people I met were the surrealist
Tristan Tzara and his wife
. I was impressed by his wonderful
collection of African art."
The die was cast. Music studies
with Copeland in New York and Berlin, with Nadia Boulanger in
Paris. Young Bowles had already frequented an art school in New
York and written poetry in college. "I knew I wanted to be
in the arts but I didn't know in which art."
And in fact, until 1945, music
was the chief field of the future writer, precisely in the period
when critics were saying that music and literature should be combined.
Later Gore Vidal was to see that combination of arts in Bowles's
stories as "something most writers don't have, the result
of which are his disturbing stories like nothing in English literature."
In those years Paul Bowles remained the inveterate traveler --
North Africa, Latin America, Asia -- until his final escape in
1947 when he returned for good to his beloved Morocco. He returned
to Tangier with a literary reputation. He was a writer. Three
of his first stories in particular had caused a stir in the New
York literary world -- "Pages From A Cold Point," "The
Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode," which proposed
one of his main themes: how inhabitants of alien cultures regard
creatures of the civilized world. In those stories he tells Poe-like
stories of horror, told so gently that you hardly realize the
When I met him in Tangier,
Paul Bowles was certainly no guru. It was more a question of involvement.
And of a man torn between diverse worlds. He helped his friends
-- "I can never get enough of them," he said -- and
they helped him to bridge the gap between those worlds. Involvement
with Mrabet was a long-standing one. Bowles translated the Moroccan
writer's first collection of stories, "Love With A Few Hairs"
 and helped him with the six subsequent books. Mrabet spent
much time in Bowles' apartment where he had his work desk.
Another evening: from downtown the walk uphill along the Boulevards
Mohammed V Pasteur to the Marshan became as familiar as the warmth
chez Bowles. The same dogs were always barking opposite his house.
"Careful of those dogs," he often warned me, "Packs
of them right here in town." When I asked him about the presence
of dogs in his works he explained that he'd had a rabies scare
after one bit him.
The fire was right, the tea
pot full and a row of kif cigarettes ready on the hearth when
Bowles began recalling the old days in Tangier. "Morocco
was a magic land when I first came. But it had changed radically
when I returned in the 40s. It had become very Europeanized. After
the war artists came here because of the monetary advantages and
the cheap life.
Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac,
Gregory Corso, Alan Sillitoe, Cecil Beaton all passed through
post-war Tangier yet, there was never a real Tangier group. "It
was a fluid affair, with much coming and going. I was the only
constant and I simply observed that movement. I was never a beat
poet as some critics believe. I never felt close to Kerouac at
all. I saw that group in New York and they came here for visits
and I once took Allan Ginsberg to Marrakech but that doesn't make
me a beat poet. I knew them personally but I was not associated
with the movement."
Bowles seemed to enjoy reminiscing
about old friends and that fantastic Tangier period that still
has a limited literature. "Tennessee had lent his name to
be used on the stationery of some red network' organizations
and Senator McCarthy was breathing on his neck. In December of
1949 his agent asked me to get him out of the country, so we came
here. He brought his car and we traveled to Fez and to south Morocco
before he went on to Rome. He returned here many times though.
You know, Tennessee was always rootless, he didn't belong anywhere
and had to move about. But he wouldn't travel alone. Unlike me,
the only good way to travel is alone.
"Then was Daisy Valverde!"
-- a character in his novel about Tangier in the 1950s, Let
It Come Down. "Daisy was mad. And very rich. Her wild
parties were famous all over Europe. For one party she installed
a whole Berber tribe in the ballroom and an entire village on
"After 1965 the hippies
arrived! They came chiefly to smoke kif or to look for LSD. Marrakech
was the big attraction. They were romantics and felt at one with
but they didn't really know anything about them."
Let It Come Down is Bowles's most existentialist novel.
A young American swept up in that Tangier life is attempting to
establish his real identity in a world he sees as made of winners
and losers. Alienated, with no character, no authority, above
all no volition, he is a born loser. He commits a murder and that,
ironically, is by accident, not by choice. High as a kite on majoun
and kif, he confuses the ear of his sleeping friend with a banging
door and drives a nail into it.
"That really happened
in France," Bowles said. "Sounded like a good book ending.
Yes, I'm an existentialist, but not of the Sartrian type. [He,
by the way, was the translator of Sartre's play, "Huis Clos,"
which he entitled "No Exit," Daniel Halpern reports
because of that phrase written over a subway gate that blocked
his way.] I'm closer perhaps to Camus. I liked L'Etranger.
I believe that that which is to happen will happen. In the early
years I found it hard to write fiction because I couldn't identify
with the motivation of human beings. But then I don't see man
as naturally isolated, not any more than he wants to be."
Yet, despite the daily visitors
to his apartment that week, I thought of him as isolated. A hermit.
In a kind of a permanent, self-imposed exile. He didn't travel
any more. He said that he only liked to travel with huge amounts
of luggage, impossible today. So why move?
During those days I kept wondering
where his ideas came from. Was he even an American writer? Or
simply a writer who by chance wrote in English? The only thing
he wrote about America was in his autobiography.
"Yes, I'm an American
writer," he claimed. "I loved the New York of the 1930s,
until the FBI and later McCarthy began pestering me about my 20-month
stay in the Communist Party in 1938-39. I always wanted freedom
chiefly freedom from my parents. Like many things in my
life, I joined the Communist Party to spite my parents. That was
the worst thing I could have done to them, except go to jail!
I was never a Marxist. It was all a personal matter. No, I'm not
de-Americanized. I'm delighted to be an American. Still I don't
write about American themes. What I remember of America is of
three decades ago. But I can write about expatriated Americans
because they don't change much. Anyway I've never thought autobiographical
material proper for fiction! My idea is to write about things
I've never experienced."
The Bowles artistic world
is thus non-American. Alien. The setting is primitive, in the
jungle or in the desert or on the edge of Europe. His tension
results from the clash between civilized man and an alien environment.
The Westerner is inevitably defeated by primitive man. For Bowles,
modern man is lost. And therefore he is searching.
But in the jungle or in the
desert he is not only lost but also a victim of the primitive
environment. Like the sage linguistics professor in The Delicate
Prey: savages cut out his tongue and make of him a dancing clown
for their entertainment. Or in the novel The Spider's House the
15-year old Amar of Fez wins out over the American writer. Natural
man is superior and defeats the neurotic product of technological
society. Someone called Bowles's modern-man protagonists "fellow-travelers
of primitive society": they search it out, love it, need
it, but in the end are defeated by it. For Bowles they are two
incompatible cultures. And that is his theme.
"Perhaps this has no
significance," he said and reached for another of the kif
cigarettes that seem to keep him going. "I simply want to
show how badly prepared the average Westerner is when he comes
into contact with cultures he doesn't know -- or only thinks he
knows. The more he tries to penetrate it, the worse it gets. Primitive
man has retained things that western man has lost and can operate
in natural surroundings. Americans are less prepared than Europeans
in such circumstances because they think everyone must do it the
American way. Therefore it's hard for them to establish real contact
with others. It's a paradox that self-subsistent primitive man
is more adapted for communal life than is dependent western man,
whose attempts at communal life are disasters.
"Primitives have a communal
life. No one owns anything. Everything belongs to all. This couldn't
work in advanced societies. As soon as personal property appears,
you have to invent another system. Before arriving in the desert,
Port -- in Under The Sheltering Sky -- said he didn't need
a passport to prove he is a member of mankind. But when he loses
his passport traveling around in the desert: he loves and needs
the primitive world and seeks salvation in it, but he is demolished
by the loss of his passport. He is lost. He says he is only half
a man without it, that he no longer knows who he is. Like his
wife, who likes to spread her things around the room and look
at them; by observing familiar objects she regains her identity."
Dinner at Bowles'. He cooked roast chicken and rice in a non-American
kitchen, haphazardly, distractedly but with great delicacy, claiming
that he cooks only to survive. I believed he liked the preparation
and the intimate ceremony more than the actual consumption. Thin,
wiry, resilient and underneath tough, he only nibbled at his food.
"I've had about every
disease," he claimed, "from typhoid to hepatitis to
dysentery but I think I'm healthy. I don't even want to think
about illness for there are no doctors here and little medicine.
I'd have to go abroad if I fell ill. If it comes, it comes, I
don't worry about it." Let it come down was his philosophy.
He was sitting on the floor
with his back to the fire while we dined from a low Moroccan table.
The room was half dark, the logs crackled and we could hardly
hear the rain, for me omnipresent in his literature -- which he
denied. Instead we talked about the desert, the setting of his
first novel, Under The Sheltering Sky.
"I had written poetry
about the desert before I visited it the first time. I had a feeling
for it. It has always provided me with many materials. The desert
for me is exciting, more romantic than the sea, hard to encompass
in words. I had always imagined the desert with dunes every place;
it isn't like that at all. Few dunes, mostly wasteland."
His desert is endless. In
the same novel about an American couple in the Sahara, each is
seeking -- the minor characters, too -- himself in that primitive
world. "They made the fatal error," Bowles said rather
distantly as if it no longer concerned him, "of treating
time as non-existent. They imagined that nothing would ever change,
that it didn't matter if you did something this year, or in ten
years. Perhaps those who live here a long time begin to think
"But what can we do
about time? It goes very fast and I'll soon be dead. [He was in
his late seventies then and passed away froma natural causes on
November 18, 1999.] I regret that our life span is limited but
I can do nothing about it. When you get to the end you have to
"Despite the grim endings
in my stories I'm not interested in death except in that it puts
an end to life. Everyone shares that fate. I can't really think
about it because for me it is non-existence. I'm only interested
in what can be seized by consciousness. Once that's gone, there's
nothing left. If you think there is life after death then you
can fear death. If not, then there is nothing to fear except the
act of dying. You can hope for a quick death. That's the moment
when you're most alone. Of course if one is not certain there
is nothing afterwards, it's another matter. You believe what you
want. A matter of volition. I just think about how long it will
"I've never been tempted
by suicide but I have thought about it. My wife Jane -- the writer
Jane Bowles -- was sick for a long time before she died. She begged
me to end it all for her. And I would have done it if there were
no law against it, for I believe in euthanasia."
Volition is a word Bowles
used frequently. However, not didactically. His existentialism,
he said, derived from instinct rather than from active intellectual
search. Yet he was not anti-religious as such. "Although
religious ideas permeate everything, they have played little role
in my life. I never had religious instruction as a child since
my parents and grandparents were agnostics. I'm not even anti-Christian
and I don't think Christianity is negative; all religions offer
something. Christianity interests me in the same way as do Judaism,
Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. Islam is no better than Christianity.
"I think each religion
is made for certain people. Religions, unlike invented political
ideologies, sort of grew along with man. Religions are part of
man. But if I say that all religions are interesting, in general
I would say it's better to leave them alone."
I remember my feelings of nostalgia and a certain sense of incompleteness
when I left Bowles' apartment the last day. Nostalgia for the
former times he experienced in his life; incompleteness for the
little I had learned about this complex man. Paul Bowles, outwardly
exquisitely polite and considerate, was distant from the world.
He didn't need it any longer.
I read from a faded draft
of my interview with Paul Bowles: "It's dark and drizzling
walking down from the Marshan. A light fog hangs over the rooftops
of the elegant El Minzah Hotel on Rue de la Liberte, one of Bowles'
locales. But he doesn't go to such places anymore. No more trips
to the desert. No more walks through the old cities. His life
is now quiet and meditative. The Bowles path leads across the
Zocco Grande into the labyrinth of his Tangier medina, to the
Cafe Tingiz, ringed by a maze of passages, the Casbah above, the
port below, the setting of Let It Come Down. Bowles knows
every nook and corner of it. He doesn't have to visit it anymore.
Nor does he visit the great Fez medina, the background of The
Spider's House. They somehow belong to him."
A Note from the Author:
At the time I published the interview with Paul Bowles on the
cultural pages of the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad,
under the title "Stranger In A Strange Land," and later
in a shorter version in the Rome weekly magazine, Espresso.
Since then books and many articles, like "The Last Existentialist"
by the poet Daniel Halpern in the New York Times Book Review,
have been published about this still mysterious American writer.
If the totality of Paul Bowles'
literary production is not voluminous, his works taken together
nonetheless constitute a consistent statement about life -- an
accomplishment for any artist.