www.PaulBowles.org

 
 
 
PAUL BOWLES: A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
by Allen Hibbard
 
 
 

Paul Bowles in the medina of Tangier, Morocco in 1987

An inveterate traveler, composer and writer, Paul Bowles was a truly remarkable figure whose life and work embodied and responded to major impulses of the twentieth century. His life would be of considerable interest even had he not produced numerous musical scores, four novels, more than sixty short stories, many travel pieces, an unrevealing autobiography and dozens of translations of stories by Moroccan storytellers. His autobiography, Without Stopping, published in 1972, reads like a who’s who of twentieth-century arts and letters. Among those whose lives intersected with Bowles’ are Aaron Copland, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Kurt Schwitters, Claude McKay, W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Patricia Highsmith. During the thirties, forties, and fifties Bowles journeyed—always by ship or overland—relentlessly, almost frantically, to and from New York, into the heart of North Africa’s deserts, into the depths of the tropical forests of Latin America, and around the globe to the small island of Taprobane off the coast of Sri Lanka, an island he bought and owned for a number of years.  These landscapes became backdrops for Bowles’ fiction, giving it a distinctive, unique flavor.

Bowles’ fictional worlds typically feature American travelers in exotic and hostile foreign settings who experience disease, psychological disintegration or terror.  Man is adrift in an endless existential quest to piece together meaning in an increasingly chaotic, ugly, barbaric, horrifying world. 

Bowles’ music, on the other hand, is more cheerful and benign.  In his collection of essays Setting the Tone, the composer Ned Rorem (who first met Bowles in Mexico in the forties) contrasts Bowles’ literary and musical styles, observing that while Bowles’s fiction is "dark and cruel, clearly meant to horrify in an impersonal sort of way," his music is "nostalgic and witty, evoking the times and places of its conception."

 
In 1952 Paul Bowles bought Taprobane island, off the coast of Weligama Bay near Galle, in southern Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Here Bowles wrote the final chapters of his novel The Spider's House. (Taprobane island sustained only minor damage from the tsunami disaster that occurred on December 26, 2004.)

An only child, Paul Frederic Bowles was born in New York, in Jamaica, Queens, on December 30, 1910, to Rena and Claude Bowles. Bowles fondly remembers his mother reading Poe to him in his early years, while he chiefly remembered his father, a dentist, as a strict disciplinarian.  In his autobiography, Bowles recounts hearing his grandmother tell him that his father had tried to kill him when he was a baby, by leaving him virtually naked in a basket by an open window in the dead of winter.  True or not, these impressions and feelings certainly had a profound effect on the artist as a young man and can be felt on occasion in his writing.

Bowles began drawing maps and spinning fictions in notebooks when he was quite young. At age seventeen, one of his poems, "Spire Song," was accepted for publication in the twelfth volume of transition, a literary journal based in Paris that served as a forum for some of the greatest proponents of modernism—Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and others. In his late teens Bowles enrolled in the University of Virginia, conscious that Edgar Allan Poe had studied there nearly a century earlier. In 1929, without telling his parents, he set sail for Europe on the Rijndam, taking with him a copy of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters (1926).  Thus began a life of travel and expatriation that places him in a long tradition of American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and so many others.

 
Paul Bowles had first met Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1931. This photo shows Thomson and Stein in 1934 examining a manuscript of Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera composed by Thomson using texts written by  Stein.

After this first, short visit to Europe, Bowles returned to New York where he met the composer Henry Cowell who referred him to Aaron Copland for studies in composition. When Copland announced plans to go to Europe, Bowles was quick to follow.  In Paris, Bowles received advice on his life and career from both Copland and Virgil Thomson.  While in Paris the young Bowles, impeccably dressed and boyishly charming, found that doors opened easily before him. Among those he called upon was Gertrude Stein, who had set up residence in Paris two decades earlier and lived, with her lover Alice B. Toklas, on rue de Fleurus.  This meeting and subsequent association with Stein was to have considerable effect on Bowles’ life and work.  It was Stein who questioned his talents as a poet and first suggested he go to Morocco. Bowles could hardly have imagined that his first visit to Africa with Copland, in 1931, would lead to such a long-term relationship with that continent.  In North Africa Bowles found a place where magic, storytelling, djenoun (genies), the power of the curse and a kind of primitive spirit were alive and vibrant.

Throughout the thirties and the early forties Bowles lived nomadically, using New York (a city for which he often expressed his disdain), as a base.  During this time he did a considerable amount of composing. His early compositions include: a sonata for oboe and clarinet; a sonata for flute and piano; a cantata for soprano, chorus, and harmonium, Par le Détroit; a chamber work, Scènes d’Anabase, based on a piece by the French poet Saint-John Perse; the score for Lincoln Kirstein’s ballet Yankee Clipper; various songs including "Letter to Freddy" that set words from a letter Stein had written to him (she had determined that the name "Freddy" suited him better than Paul); and music for Orson Welles’ Federal Theatre Project production Horse Eats Hat.

In 1937 Bowles met Jane Auer, whom he married the following year. He was then twenty-seven; she was twenty. The ensuing marriage was, by all accounts, unconventional.  Each while maintaining close ties to the other, developed intimate relationships with friends of their own sex. Jane herself was, at the time the two met, an aspiring writer. Her first novel, Two Serious Ladies, published in 1943, is still seen as an important and innovative work, along with her play In the Summer House and a handful of short stories.

During the first years of their marriage, Paul’s musical output was prodigious. One of his best-known works, Music for a Farce, came from another collaboration with Orson Welles, Too Much Johnson, in 1938.  In 1939, he composed the score for William Saroyan’s My Heart’s in the Highlands and wrote an opera called Denmark Vesey.  In 1940 he produced incidental music for productions of Saroyan’s Love’s Old Sweet Song and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as well as the score for a Soil Erosion Service film, Roots in the Soil. In 1941 he wrote music for Philip Barry’s production of Liberty Jones and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine; the same year he composed the score for Kirstein’s ballet Pastorela. Two years later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a performance of Bowles’ zarzuela, The Wind Remains, the libretto of which was adapted from a play by Federico Garcia Lorca; it was conducted by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Merce Cunningham.  In 1944 Bowles scored the film Congo and the ballet Colloque Sentimental, a ballet with sets designed by the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Bowles composed his Sonata for Two Pianos in 1946 and his Concerto for Pianoforte, Winds, and Percussion in 1947.  Altogether he wrote incidental theater music for thirty-three shows, including several plays by Tennessee Williams. Collaboration between the two began with Glass Menagerie in 1944, and later Bowles set Williams’ lyrics to music in a song-cycle called Blue Mountain Ballads (1946).  He also provided scores for Williams’ plays Summer and Smoke (1948) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).  As Virgil Thomson put it, "Paul had a unique gift for the theater.  It’s something you either have or you don’t, and Paul did."

 
Paul Bowles at work

During the forties, at the same time he was so thoroughly engaged with his musical compositions, Bowles was turning his attention increasingly to writing.  In 1942 he took the job of a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune arranged by Thomson, the paper’s chief critic. Over the next several years he wrote hundreds of reviews, on jazz and folk music as well as performances of classical music. In 1945 made what he later called "an undistinguished translation" of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (1944), a play better known to English readers by the title Bowles gave it:  No Exit.  His early experimental story "The Scorpion" was published by View in 1945, followed by "The Echo" in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946 and "A Distant Episode" in Partisan Review in 1947.  The grisly, shocking content of some of these early stories prompted one critic, Leslie Fiedler, to dub Bowles "the pornographer of terror."

Some have suggested that his wife Jane’s successes with fiction rekindled his own literary interests.  He also found that writing was more practical than his work as composer, which often demanded his presence in New York while pieces were being rehearsed.  No matter what the reasons, by the end of the forties Bowles was devoting more and more time to his literary career and gaining acclaim for his accomplishments.

 

Paul and Jane Bowles shortly after the publication of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, Tangier, 1949 (Photograph © by Cecil Beaton, 1949)

Following the conclusion of World War II, Bowles set sail again for Morocco, in 1947, with an advance from Doubleday for a novel.  On that trip he wrote a classic story, "Pages from Cold Point," depicting the seduction of a father by his son. Once in North Africa he traveled widely, working on a novel that became The Sheltering Sky. Still his best-known literary work today, this novel chronicles the odyssey of an American couple in the deserts of North Africa; it stayed on the best-seller list in the United States for eleven weeks in 1950 and four decades later was made into a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci.  On the heels of The Sheltering Sky came The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950). With these two books Bowles broke onto the literary scene full force. In the fifties Bowles wrote and published two more novels (Let It Come Down in 1952 and The Spider’s House in 1955) as well as his Picnic Cantata (1954), his opera Yerma (1958), incidental music for Jane Bowles’ play In the Summer House (1953), and for Edwin Booth (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).  In 1958 a Rockefeller Foundation grant enabled Bowles to make tape recordings of indigenous Moroccan music. He wrote about some of his experiences collecting such music in an essay titled "The Rif, to Music," included in his collection of travel essays Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World.  The Library of Congress houses tapes of these sessions, and Bowles’ contributions to the field of ethnomusicology are just beginning to gain the recognition they deserve.

Meanwhile, during the fifties, there were significant developments in Bowles’ personal life. In the early fifties his relationship with Ahmed Yacoubi, a young Moroccan painter he had met in Fez in the late forties, solidified. Yacoubi accompanied Bowles on some of his trips, notably a long voyage to South Asia (Taprobane, specifically).  Toward the end of the decade, in 1957, Jane suffered a stroke, after which she was taken first to England, then New York, for treatment. Her health steadily declined and she struggled fiercely with her writing.  "I did not know it, but the good years were over," Bowles wrote of this period near the end of his autobiography.

 
Paul Bowles visiting Chefchaouen, Morocco in 1988

By the end of the fifties, Bowles had been discovered by a number of figures associated with the American Beat movement who made pilgrimages to his apartment in Tangier. Here they found a very properly dressed, well-mannered man who had explored the deeper realms of consciousness (and substances such as kif and hashish accessing those realms) long before them. As Norman Mailer proclaimed in Advertisements for Myself (1959), "Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip.  He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square, the call of the orgy, the end of civilization."  William S. Burroughs had first come to Tangier in 1954, where he worked on his drug habit, wrote Interzone and enjoyed the company of young men. Brion Gysin was there as well. Within time, other Beats passed through, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and Ira Cohen.  It was in fact Ginsberg who helped engineer the publication of a collection of four Bowles stories by City Lights Books in San Francisco, under the title A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962). All four stories, set in Morocco, feature characters whose actions and thoughts are in some way affected by smoking kif. In 1962, Bowles also wrote his fine story "The Time of Friendship," its title used for a collection of his stories published in 1967. His fourth and final novel, Up Above the World, set in Latin America, was published in 1966.

Bowles continued to travel in the sixties, though his pace slowed somewhat.  In 1966 he went to Thailand, to research a book about Bangkok. Though he never wrote that book, he used Thailand as a setting for a memorable story, "You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus," written in 1971 and published in the collection of stories Things Gone and Things Still Here. Following a short stint teaching at San Fernando State University in late 1968 and early 1969, an arrangement worked out by his friend Oliver Evans, whom he met and traveled with in Thailand, Bowles made no trips to the U.S. for over twenty-five years. Jane’s steady deterioration was among the factors (along with natural sedentary tendencies that accompany aging) that conspired against the kind of carefree nomadism he had enjoyed earlier in his life.

 

Mohammed Mrabet's stories and tales were translated by Paul Bowles.

Bowles’ production waned somewhat in the late sixties and early seventies, particularly in the wake of Jane’s death in Màlaga, Spain, on May 3, 1973. Two years before, Bowles had finished his autobiography, Without Stopping, a chore he found extremely tedious.  During this period, too, he devoted more of his time to the transcription of local Maghrebi stories.  Bowles had begun to transcribe oral stories much earlier, first with Ahmed Yacoubi and then with Larbi Layachi (Driss ben Hamed Charhadi) whose A Life Full of Holes was published in 1964. Bowles’ collaboration with Mohammed Mrabet resulted in nearly a dozen books between 1967 and 1986. In those years, Mrabet was a constant companion of Bowles. As with Layachi, Bowles recorded Mrabet’s stories on tape, then transcribed and translated them into English. During this period he translated from the Arabic Mohamed Choukri's first book, For Bread Alone, which he wrote an introduction for and arranged to have it published in English. Bowles also translated from Spanish several books by the young Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa, who eventually became his literary heir.

During the early eighties Bowles stayed put in Tangier, teaching in a summer program sponsored by New York’s School of Visual Arts. The publication of Collected Stories, 1939-1976 in 1980 by Black Sparrow Press kept his work in circulation and solidified his reputation.  In his introduction to the volume, Gore Vidal claims that Bowles’ short stories "are among the best ever written by an American."  After the publication of this collection, Bowles published two more volumes of new stories, Midnight Mass (1981) and Unwelcome Words (1988), as well as a marvelous little book called Points in Time (1982) that contains a dozen or so historical anecdotes, lyrically rendered, most of which involve cultural clashes between Muslim, Christian and Jewish worldviews in North Africa. Many encounters end in violence.

Some sense of Bowles’ life in the last decades of his life is conveyed in Days: Tangier Journal, 1987-1989, which the author describes as "a record of daily life in today’s Tangier."  The tone in these journal entries is one of resignation and detachment, as he comments on his role in Bertolucci’s film of The Sheltering Sky; a lavish party thrown by Malcolm Forbes; visits from the travel writer Gavin Young, the novelist Gavin Lambert, the suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith and the composer Phillip Ramey; battling TV crews, translators, and biographers; the comings and goings of Mrabet and Bowles’ driver, Abdelouahaid Boulaich; his hernia operation; changes in life during the holy month of Ramadan; and the behavior of spiders in his apartment.

While his work tapered off noticeably in the eighties and nineties, as his own health deteriorated, critical appreciation of both his music and fiction grew. In September 1995, Bowles returned to New York for the first time in twenty-six years, to be on hand for a festival of his music performed by the Eos Ensemble under the direction of Jonathan Sheffer.  A handful of CDs featuring Bowles music have recently been produced, as well as a documentary film, Night Waltz (1997), directed by Owsley Brown III, focusing on his music. A number of other film documentaries on Bowles have appeared in recent years, including Mohamed Mohand’s An American in Tangiers (1993), Regina Weinreich and Catherine Warnow’s Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider (1994), Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Ghosts of Tangier (1996) and Jennifer Baichwal’s Let It Come Down (1998). Frieder Schlaich and Irene von Alberti’s movie triptych Halfmoon (1995) dramatizes three Bowles stories ("Allal", "Call at Corazón" and "The Story of Lahcen and Idir").  Cadmus Editions, in collaboration with Dom America, has reissued in CD Bowles’ reading of A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.  

 

Paul Bowles and Allen Hibbard, Tangier, 1987

Michelle Green’s The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier (1991) gives us a gossipy account of the modern expatriate experience in Tangier. Millicent Dillon’s The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (1994), Daniel Halpern’s Too Far from Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles, and The Stories of Paul Bowles (2000) provide useful, compact editions of Bowles’ writing, while Jeffrey Miller’s In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles gives us access to Bowles through his prolific correspondence. Greg Mullins’ Colonial Affairs: Bowles, Burroughs and Chester Write Tangier (2002), informed by postcolonial and queer theory, is but the most recent work of literary criticism devoted to Bowles. Cherie Nutting’s Yesterday’s Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles (2000), filled with photos of Bowles and the Tangier scene, provides visual stimulation and contains some of Bowles’ last writing. Scribner has just published Virginia Spencer Carr’s new biography of Bowles (Paul Bowles: a Life) to set beside accounts of his life penned by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, Gena Dagel Caponi, Robert Briatte and Millicent Dillon. All this amply demonstrates avid and sustained interest in Bowles and his work.

Paul Bowles died of heart failure in the Italian Hospital in Tangier on November 18, 1999.  His ashes were interred near the graves of his parents and grandparents in Lakemont, New York on November 1, 2000.  Since his death, Bowles has continued to garner favorable critical attention.  In 2002, The Library of America put out a two-volume edition of his works, placing him in a pantheon of American writers that includes writers James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway.  In this new century, his life and work will take on even greater significance, as we find ourselves immersed in what seems to be an extended and irreconcilable conflict with the Islamic Middle East.  Bowles lived more or less continuously in Morocco during the last half of the century.  No other American writer of any note has spent so long immersed in Arab/Islamic culture, and his experiences and insights are woven into the tapestry of his fiction.  Like Joseph Conrad and his narrator Marlow, Bowles journeyed into the heart of darkness, saw the horror of it all, returned, and gave it exquisite aesthetic form.

Copyright © 2003, Allen Hibbard

 

ALLEN HIBBARD has written and lectured extensively on both Paul and Jane Bowles. He is the author of Paul Bowles: A Study of the Short Fiction (Twayne, 1993) as well as several articles on Jane Bowles' unfinished novel Out in the World. He has also edited a collection of interviews with William S. Burroughs (University Press of Mississippi, 1999). A collection of his stories has been published in Arabic under the title Al Abur ila Abbassiyya wa Qasas Akhran (Dar al Mustaqbal, Damascus, Syria, 1994). From 1992 to 1994 Hibbard was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Damascus, Syria, and from 1985 to 1989 he taught and lectured at the American University of Cairo, Egypt. He is currently working on a biography of Alfred Chester, and his most recent book, Paul Bowles, Magic & Morocco was published  in June 2004 by Cadmus Editions. Allen Hibbard is the director of the Middle East Center at Middle Tennessee State University. This biographical sketch draws upon material from a lengthier piece he wrote for The Scribner American Writers Series (1996).

 

Paul Bowles' Literary Works by Jeffrey Miller, Kenneth Lisenbee and Allen Hibbard

Paul Bowles, Composer by Irene Herrmann

Paul Bowles' Musical Works by Irene Herrmann

Chronology of the Life of Paul Bowles

Galleries of Photographs

The Funeral of Paul Bowles (at Lakemont Cemetery in New York State)

Buy Books by or about Paul Bowles

 

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