www.PaulBowles.org

 
 
 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BOWLES (1970)

by Daniel Halpern

 

DANIEL HALPERN: Why did you first come to Morocco?

PAUL BOWLES: Gertrude Stein suggested it. She had been here three separate summers, staying at the old Villa de France, and she thought I'd like it. She was right. And I still love it. Less, naturally. One loves everything at my age; also it's a little less lovable than it was forty years ago.

HALPERN: What is it that keeps you in Tangier?

BOWLES: It's changed less than the rest of the world, and continues to seem less a part of this particular era than most cities. It's a pocket outside the mainstream. You feel that, very definitely, for a few days or a few weeks, and you come back here, you immediately feel you've left the stream, that nothing is going to happen here.

HALPERN: You were eighteen when you first left America. What lured you to Europe?

BOWLES: Everyone wanted to come to Europe in those days. It was the intellectual and artistic center. Paris specifically seemed to be the center, not just Europe. After all, it was the end of the twenties and just about everybody was in Paris.

HALPERN: Did you know many writers and composers in Paris?

BOWLES: Practically no writers. I met a lot but I didn't know them. Composers? Naturally, Virgil Thomson, and Henri Sauguet and Francis Poulenc. . . . Not very many, no.

HALPERN: Did you see much of Gertrude Stein while you were there?

BOWLES: I did see a lot of her in 1931. She had read some of the poems I had published, and she didn't like them. I went around in 1931, and I remember she mentioned Bravig Imbs, a poet at that time who wrote for various magazines, and she said, "Yes, Bravig Imbs is a very bad poet, but you're not a poet at all." She also had things to say about my music. I played her my music in 1931 and she said, "It's interesting." And then I went back in 1932 to her country house in Belignin and played some newer music for her, and she said, "Ah, last year your music wasn't attenuated enough, and this year it's too attenuated." That's all she had to say. Except that she told me to go to Tangier. She was liking me at the time, which meant that I could trust her recommendation. The next year, when she was not liking me at all, she suggested I go to Mexico, adding after a pause, "You'd last about two days."

HALPERN: Was she in favor of your giving up writing and devoting more time to your music?

BOWLES: I suspect she thought I had no ability to write. I remember we were sitting in the garden at Bilignin and she said, "I told you last week what was the matter with your poetry. What have you done with it since then, with those particular poems? Have you rewritten them?" And I said, "No, of course not; they've already been published that way. How could I rewrite them?" And she said, "You see! I told you you were not a poet. A real poet would have gone up and worked on them and the brought them down and showed them to me a week later, and you've done nothing whatever."

HALPERN: What was it about writing that made you put composing aside?

BOWLES: I'm not sure. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I couldn't make a living as a composer without remaining all the time in New York. I was very much fed up with being in New York.

HALPERN: When did you begin to write?

BOWLES: At four. I have a whole collection of stories about animals that I wrote then.

HALPERN: But it was as a poet that you first published, in transition?

BOWLES: I had written a lot of poetry (I was in high school) and had been buying transition regularly since it started publishing. It seemed to me that I could write for them as well as anyone else, so I sent them things and they accepted them. I was sixteen when I wrote the poem they first accepted, seventeen when they published it. I went on for several years as a so-called poet.

HALPERN: What ended your short career as a poet?

BOWLES: I think Gertrude Stein had a lot to do with it. She convinced me that I ought not to be writing poetry, since I wasn't a poet at all, as I just said. And I believed her thoroughly, and I still believe her. She was quite right. I would have stopped anyway, probably.

HALPERN: Were there any important early literary influences?

BOWLES: Well, I suppose everything influences you. I remember my mother used to read me Edgar Allan Poe's short stories before I went to sleep at night. After I got into bed she would read me Tales of Mystery and Imagination. It wasn't very good for sleeping—they gave me nightmares. Maybe that's what she wanted, who knows? Certainly what you read during your teens influences you enormously. During my early teens I was very fond of Arthur Machen and Walter de la Mare. The school of mystical whimsy. And then I found Thomas Mann, and fell into The Magic Mountain when I was sixteen, and that was certainly a big influence. Probably that was the book that influenced me more than any other before I went to Europe.

HALPERN: Before you actually begin writing a novel or story, what takes place in your mind? Do you outline the plot, say, in visual terms?

BOWLES: Every work suggests its own method. Each novel's been done differently, under different circumstances and using different methods. I got the idea for The Sheltering Sky riding on a Fifth Avenue bus one day going uptown from Tenth Street. I decided just which point of view I would take. It would be a work in which the narrator was omniscient. I would write it consciously up to a certain point, and after that let it take its own course. You remember there's a little Kafka quote at the beginning of the third section: "From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back; that is the point that must be reached." This seemed important to me, and when I got to that point, beyond which there was no turning back, I decided to use a surrealistic technique—simply writing without any thought of what I had already written, or awareness of what I was writing, or intention as to what I was going to write next, or how it was going to finish. And I did that.

HALPERN: What about your second novel, Let It Come Down?

BOWLES: That was altogether different. I began to write that on a freighter as I went past Tangier one night. I was on my way from Antwerp to Colombo, in Ceylon, and we went past Tangier and I felt very nostalgic—I could see faint lights in the fog and I knew that was Tangier. I wanted very much to stop in and see it, but not being able to, since the boat went right on past, I created my own Tangier. I started by imagining that I was standing on the cliff looking out at the place where I was on the ship. I transported myself from the ship straight over to the cliffs and began there. That was the first part I wrote. I worked backward and forward, as it were, from that original scene.

HALPERN: Where Dyar and Hadija stand on the top of a cliff and see freighters going by.

BOWLES: That's right. Then on the ship, before I got to Colombo, I worked it out—the sequence of events, the patterns of motivations, the juxtapositions. Again I decided to use exactly the same writing technique I had used with The Sheltering Sky. To get it up to a place from which it could roll of its own momentum to a stationary point, and then let go and use the automatic process. It's quite clear where it happens. It's on the boat trip.

HALPERN: When you wrote the scene in which Dyar was high on majoun, the evening he had dinner with Daisy, were you yourself under the influence of kif?

BOWLES: No. The whole book was written in cold blood, up to that point. But for the last section of the book I went up to Xauen and stayed in the hotel there for about six weeks, writing only at night after dinner. After I had worked for half or three quarters of an hour, and it was going along, I would smoke. That made it possible for me to write four or five hours rather than only two, which is all I can usually do. The kif gave me a much longer breath.

HALPERN: Are you in the habit of using kif in order to write?

BOWLES: No, I don't think that would be possible. When I was writing Up Above the World I smoked when I felt like it, and worked all day wandering around in the forest with a pen and notebook in my hand.

HALPERN: To what extent does the ingestion of kif play a role in your writing?

BOWLES: I shouldn't think it has an effect on anyone's writing. Kif can provide flashes of insight, but it acts as an obstacle to thinking. On the other hand, it enables one to write concentratedly for hours at a stretch without fatigue. You can see how it could be useful if you were writing something which relied for its strength on the free elaboration of fantasy. I used it only once that way, as I say—for the fourth section of Let It Come Down. But I think most writers would agree that kif is for relaxation, not for work.

HALPERN: Does your work require a great deal of revision?

BOWLES: No, the first draft is the final draft. I can't revise. Maybe I should qualify that by saying I first write in longhand, and then the same day, or the next, I type the longhand. There are always many changes between the longhand and the typed version, but that first typed sheet is part of the final sheet. There's no revision.

HALPERN: Many critics like to attribute a central theme to your writing: that of the alienation of civilized man when he comes in contact with a primitive society and its natural man.

BOWLES: Yes, I've heard about that. It's a theory that makes the body of writing seem more coherent, perhaps, when you put it all together. And possibly they're right, but I'm not conscious of having such a theme, no. I'm not aware of writing about alienation. If my mind worked that way, I couldn't write. I don't have any explicit message; certainly I'm not suggesting changes. I'm merely trying to call people's attention to something they don't seem to be sufficiently aware of.

HALPERN: Do you feel trapped or at a disadvantage by being a member of Western civilization?

BOWLES: Trapped? No. That's like being trapped by having blond hair or blue eyes, light or dark skin. . . . No, I don't feel trapped. It would be a very different life to be part of another social group, perhaps, but I don't see any difference between the natural man and the civilized man, and I'm not juxtaposing the two. The natural man always tries to be a civilized man, as you can see all over the world. I've never yearned to be a member of another ethnic group. That's carrying one's romanticism a little too far. God knows I carry mine far enough as it is.

HALPERN: Why is it that you have traveled so much? And to such remote places?

BOWLES: I suppose the first reason is that I've always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. I'm always happy leaving the United States, and the farther away I go the happier I am, generally. Then there's another thing: I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not to just one part of it.

HALPERN: What is the motivation that prompts your characters to leave the safety of a predictable environment, a Western environment, for an unknown world that first places them in a state of aloneness and often ends by destroying them, as in the case of Port and Kit in The Sheltering Sky and Dyar in Let It Come Down?

BOWLES: I've never thought about it. For one thing there is no "predictable environment." Security is a false concept. As for the motivation? In the case of Port and Kit they wanted to travel, a simple, innocent motivation. In the case of Nelson Dyar, he was fed up with his work in America. Fed up with standing in a teller's cage. Desire for freedom. I suppose; desire for adventure. Why do people leave their native habitat and go wandering off over the face of the earth?

HALPERN: Many of your characters seem to pursue a course of action that often leads them into rather precarious positions, pushed forward by an almost self-destructive curiosity, and a kind of fatalism—for example, the night walks of Port, or the professor in A Distant Episode.

BOWLES: I'm very aware of my own capacity for compulsive behavior. Besides, it's generally more rewarding to imagine the results of compulsive rather than of reflective action. It has always seemed to me that my characters act naturally, given the circumstances; their behavior is foreseeable. Characters set in motion a mechanism of which they become a victim. But generally the mechanism turns out to have been operative at the very beginning. One realizes that Kit's and Port's having left America at all was a compulsive act. Their urge to travel was compulsive.

HALPERN: Do you think that these characters have an "unconscious drive for self-destruction"?

BOWLES: An unconscious drive for self-destruction? . . . Death and destruction are stock ingredients of life. But it seems to me that the motivation of characters in fiction like mine should be a secondary consideration. I think of characters as if they were props in the general scene of any given work. The characters, the landscape, the climatic conditions, the human situation, the formal structure of the story or the novel, all these elements are one—the characters are made of the same material as the rest of the work. Since they are activated by the other elements of the synthetic cosmos, their own motivations are relatively unimportant.

HALPERN: You have been accused of favoring neurotic characters in your fiction.

BOWLES: Most of the Occidentals I know are neurotic. But that's to be expected; that's what we're producing now. They're the norm. I don't think I could write about a character who struck me as eccentric, whose behavior was too far from standard.

HALPERN: Many people would consider the behavior of your characters far from standard.

BOWLES: I realize that if you consider them objectively, they're neurotic and compulsive; but they're generally presented as integral parts of situations, along with the landscape, and so it's not very fruitful to try to consider them in another light. My feeling is that what is called a truly normal person (if I understand your meaning) is not likely to be written about, save as a symbol. The typical man of my fiction reacts to inner pressures the way the normal man ought to be reacting to the age we live in. Whatever is intolerable must produce violence.

HALPERN: And these characters are your way of protesting.

BOWLES: If you call it protest. If even a handful of people can believe in the cosmos a writer describes, accept the workings of its natural laws (and this includes finding that the characters behave in a credible manner), the cosmos is a valid one.

HALPERN: Critics often label you an existential writer. Do you consider yourself an existentialist?

BOWLES: No! Existentialism was never a literary doctrine in any case, even though it did trigger three good novels—one by Sartre (La Nausée) and two by Camus (L'Étranger and La Peste). But if one's going to subscribe to the tenets of a formulated belief, I suppose atheistic existentialism is the most logical one to adopt. That is, it's likely to provide more insight than another into what attitudes to take vis-à-vis today's world.

HALPERN: But you do share some of the basic tenets of existentialism, as defined by Sartre.

BOWLES: He's interested in the welfare of humanity. As Port said, "What is humanity? Humanity is everybody but yourself."

HALPERN: That sounds rather solipsistic.

BOWLES: What else can you possibly know? Of course I'm interested in myself, basically. In getting through my life. You've got to get through it all. You never know how many years you've got left. You keep going until it's over. And I'm the one who's got to suffer the consequences of having lived my life.

HALPERN: Is this why so many of your characters seem to be asocial?

BOWLES: Are they? Or are they merely outside and perhaps wishing they were inside?

HALPERN: Do you think of yourself as being asocial?

BOWLES: I don't know. Probably very, yes. I'm sorry to be so stubborn and impossible with all this, but the point is I just don't know any of the answers, and I have no way of finding them out. I'm not equipped to dig them up, nor do I want to. The day I find out what I'm all about I'll stop writing—I'll stop doing everything. Once you know what makes you tick, you don't tick any more. The whole thing stops.

HALPERN: You are against Sartre's taking aspects of this life so seriously. Yet when you say about your life that you are just trying to get through it the best you can, it sounds to me as if you take living very seriously.

BOWLES: Oh, everyone takes his own existence seriously, but that's as far as he should go. If you claim that life itself is serious, you're talking out of turn. You're encroaching on other people's lives. Each man's life has the quality he gives it, but you can't say that life itself has any qualities. If we suffer, it's because we haven't learned how not to. I have to remind myself of that.

HALPERN: Then life is a painful experience for you?

BOWLES: You have to keep going, and try at least to keep a pleasant face.

HALPERN: Life seems to be inaccessible to many of your characters. By their going beyond a certain point, past which they are pulled by an unconscious force, they place themselves in a position where return to the world of man is impossible. Why are they pushed beyond that point?

BOWLES: It's a subject that interests me very much; but you've got to remember that these are all rationalizations devised after the fact, and therefore purely suppositious. I don't know the answers to the questions; all I can do is say, "Maybe," "It could be," or "It could be something else." Offhand I'd suggest that the answer has to do with the Romantic fantasy of reaching a region of self-negation and thereby regaining a state of innocence.

HALPERN: Is it a kind of testing to find out what it's like beyond that point?

BOWLES: It could be. One writes to find out certain things for oneself. Much of my writing is therapeutic. Otherwise I never would have started, because I knew from the beginning that I had no specific desire to reform. Many of my short stories are simple emotional outbursts. They came out all at once, like eggs, and I felt better afterward. In that sense much of my writing is an exhortation to destroy. "Why don't you all burn the world, smash it, get rid of everything in it that plagues you?" It is a desire above all to bring about destruction, that's certain.

HALPERN: So you don't want to change the world. You simply want to end it.

BOWLES: Destroy and end are not the same word. You don't end a process by destroying its products. What I wanted was to see everyone aware of being in the same kind of metaphysical impasse I was in. I wanted to know whether they suffered in the same way.

HALPERN: And you don't think they do?

BOWLES: I don't think many do. Perhaps the number is increasing. I hope so, if only for selfish reasons! Nobody likes to feel alone. I know because I always think of myself as completely alone, and I imagine other people as part of something else.

HALPERN: And you want to join the crowd?

BOWLES: It's a universal urge. I've always wanted to. From earliest childhood. Or to be more exact, from the first time I was presented to another child, which was when I was five.

HALPERN: And you were rejected?

BOWLES: It was already too late. I wanted to join on my own terms. And now it doesn't matter.

HALPERN: And so now you alienate your characters, the way you were alienated?

BOWLES: I don't think the judge would allow that question. Life is much harder if one is alone. Shared suffering is easier to bear.

HALPERN: Sartre says somewhere that a man's essential freedom is the capacity to say "No." This is something your characters are often incapable of. Do they achieve any kind of freedom?

BOWLES: My characters don't attain any kind of freedom, as far as I'm aware.

HALPERN: Is death any kind of freedom?

BOWLES: Death? Another nonexistent, something to use as a threat to those who are afraid of it. There's nothing to say about death. The cage door's always open. Nobody has to stay in here. But people want freedom inside the cage. So what is freedom? You're bound by physical laws, bound by your body, bound by your mind.

HALPERN: What does freedom mean to you?

BOWLES: I'd say it was not having to experience what you don't like.

HALPERN: By the alienation that your characters go through in their various exotic settings, are they forced into considering the meaning of their lives, if there is meaning to life?

BOWLES: I shouldn't think there is meaning to life. In any case, there's not one meaning. There should be as many meanings as there are individuals—you assign meaning to life. If you don't assign it, then clearly it has none whatever.

HALPERN: In L'Étranger, Meursault is put in jail, a form of alienation, and at that point he considers "the meaning of life."

BOWLES: Camus was a great moralist, which means, nowadays, to be preoccupied with social considerations. I'm not preoccupied in that way. I'm not a moralist. After all, he was a serious communist; I was a very unserious one, a completely negative one.

HALPERN: What was it about communism that appealed to you?

BOWLES: Oh, I imagined it could destroy the establishment. When I realized it couldn't, I got out fast and decided to work on my own hook.

HALPERN: Back to destroying the world. . . .

BOWLES: Well, who doesn't want to? I mean, look at it!

HALPERN: It's one thing to dislike something you see and another to want to destroy it.

BOWLES: Is it? I think the natural urge of every human being is to destroy what he dislikes. That doesn't mean he does it. You don't by any means get to do what you want to do, but you've got to recognize the desire when you feel it.

HALPERN: So you use your writing as a weapon.

BOWLES: Right. Absolutely.

HALPERN: And your music?

BOWLES: Music is abstract. Besides, I was writing theater music. It was fun but it's a static occupation. I always have to feel I'm going somewhere.

HALPERN: Has your desire to destroy the world always been a conscious one?

BOWLES: Yes, I was aware that I had a grudge, and that the only way I could satisfy my grudge was by writing words, attacking in words. The way to attack, of course, is to seem not to be attacking. Get people's confidence and then, surprise! Yank the rug out from under their feet. If they come back for more, then I've succeeded.

HALPERN: If they enjoy your work you have succeeded—in the sense that their minds have been infected.

BOWLES: Infected is a loaded word, but all right. They have been infected by the germ of doubt. Their basic assumptions may have been slightly shaken for a second, and that's important.

HALPERN: But you don't regard your goals as being negative.

BOWLES: To destroy often means to purify. I don't think of destruction as necessarily undesirable. You said "infecting." All right. Perhaps those infected will have more technique than I for doing some definite destroying. In that sense I'm just a propagandist, but then all writers are propagandists for one thing or another. It's a perfectly honorable function to serve as a corrosive agent. And there certainly is nothing unusual about it; it's been part of the Romantic tradition for the past century and a half. If a writer can incite anyone to question and ultimately to reject the present structure of any facet of society, he's performed a function.

HALPERN: And after that?

BOWLES: It's not for him to say. Après lui de déluge. That's all he can do. If he's a propagandist for nihilism, that's his function too.

HALPERN: To start the ball rolling?

BOWLES: I want to help society go to pieces, make it easy.

HALPERN: And writing about horror is part of your method.

BOWLES: I don't write "about horror." But there's a sort of metaphysical malaise in the world today, as if people sense that things are going to be bad. They could be expected to respond to any fictional situation which evoked the same amalgam of repulsion and terror that they already vaguely feel.

HALPERN: Are you, as Leslie Fiedler suggests, a secret lover of the horror you create?

BOWLES: Is there such a creature as a secret or even an avowed lover of horror? I can't believe it. If you're talking about the evocation of horror on the printed page, then that's something else. In certain sensitive people the awakening of the sensation of horror through reading can result in a temporary smearing of the lens of consciousness, as one might put it. Then all perception is distorted by it. It's a dislocation, and if it's of short duration it provides the reader with a partially pleasurable shiver. In that respect I confess to being jaded, and I regret it. A good jolt of vicarious horror can cause a certain amount of questioning of values afterward.

HALPERN: Is that what you hope to accomplish through the horror you evoke?

BOWLES: I don't use horror. If reading a passage of mine triggers the suspension of belief in so-called objective reality for a moment, then I suppose it has the same effect on the reader as if I had consciously used horror as a device.

HALPERN: I'd like to talk a little about your translating. Some critics are convinced that the stories from the Moghrebi are really yours.

BOWLES: I know, but they're not. They're translations. Each Moroccan writer has a different style in English because the cadence of each one's speech is different in Moghrebi. I keep the tapes. Anyone who listens to them and understands the language can hear the differences.

HALPERN: Has your writing been affected by the translations you've done?

BOWLES: A little. I noticed that it had been when I wrote A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. I was trying to get to another way of thinking, noncausal. . . . Those were experiments. Arbitrary use of disparate elements.

HALPERN: You did some translating of Borges' work, didn't you?

BOWLES: I did one short story, which I particularly liked, called Las Ruinas Circulares—back in 1944, I think it was. He was completely unknown in the United States. His cousin, Victoria Ocampo, was in New York. She was the editor of Sur, in Buenos Aires, and was the woman who eventually bought La Prensa and went to jail under Perón. She was a very spectacular woman. One afternoon she tossed me a book, which she said was a new work by her cousin (it was one that she herself had published). It was called El Jardín de los Senderos Que se Bifurcan. A marvelous book. Since then it has been translated as Ficciones. I had read some Borges four years before that, and already admired him. I think that was the first translation into English of a short story by Borges.

HALPERN: Did you have much difficulty in translating that story?

BOWLES: Well, Borges writes in classical Castellano, and the ideas are simply put; he's an easy man to translate. I should think the important thing would be to retain the particular poetic flavor of the prose in each story.

HALPERN: What do you feel is the importance of the Moroccan translations you've done?

BOWLES: I think they provide a certain amount of insight into the Moroccan mentality and Moroccan customs, things that haven't been gone into very deeply in fiction. I haven't noticed many good novels about Morocco, so in that sense they're of use to anyone interested in the country. Literary importance? I have no idea.

HALPERN: As an admirer of Paul Bowles, I can't help but wonder why you spent so much time on these translations instead of on your own writing?

BOWLES: Because Jane, my wife, was ill, and to write a novel I need solitude and great long stretches of empty time; I haven't really had that since 1957. The summer of 1964, of course, I did go up on the mountain, Monte Viejo, you know, and write Up Above the World.

HALPERN: Are you a great fan of Jane Bowles's work?

BOWLES: I am indeed. I've read Two Serious Ladies ten times—I think I can quote most of it. Also, it was going over the manuscript of Two Serious Ladies that gave me the original impetus to consider the possibility of writing a novel.

HALPERN: You met Jane before she started writing Two Serious Ladies, didn't you?

BOWLES: Oh, yes. She began writing Two Serious Ladies in 1938, in Paris, the year we were married. She wrote a few scenes that were later much modified, but still they were the nucleus. And then she went on writing it in New York and finally in Mexico.

HALPERN: Was it difficult living with another writer?

BOWLES: That's hard to say, since I've lived only with Janie. She was the only writer I've ever lived with, and also the only woman I've ever lived with, so I don't know which difficulties come from her being a woman and which come from her being a writer. Naturally, you always have some difficulties with your wife, but whether these had anything to do with the fact that she was a writer, I can't tell you.

HALPERN: Was there ever any question of competition?

BOWLES: Competition between us? Competition's a game. It takes more than one to play. We never played it.

HALPERN: Among your own books do you have a favorite?

BOWLES: Of published volumes I like The Delicate Prey the most. Naturally that doesn't mean I'd write the stories the same way now.

HALPERN: Do you have much contact with other writers?

BOWLES: When other writers come through Tangier and look me up, I see them, yes. And I knew a few before I settled here. One of the first was Bill Saroyan, who came to New York with the script of a play for which he wanted me to write music. It was My Heart's In the Highlands, and the old Group Theatre produced it. About that time I met Auden. I always held him in great respect: he was erudite, and he had an unparalleled ability to use the English language. An infallible, like Stravinsky. And of course I knew Isherwood and Spender. There was one spring when I used to have lunch with them every day at the Café des Westens in Berlin. Although I never felt that I knew them, because they were English, and enough older than I to be intimidating. It was only much later, long after he had gone to America, that I knew Isherwood better. And Tennessee Williams. Certainly I've seen a lot of him and in many different places: Acapulco, New York, Rome, Tangier, Paris, Hollywood. . . . It used to be I who was the traveler, but nowadays Tennessee moves around a good deal more than I do. This is probably because he doesn't refuse to take planes. Truman Capote was here for a whole summer, staying at the Farhar, and we ate our meals together every day during those months. Gore Vidal came, and Allen Ginsberg, and Angus Wilson, and Cyril Connolly. And of course Bill Burroughs lived here for years. Even Susan Sontag came, although she didn't stay very long.

HALPERN: What about Djuna Barnes?

BOWLES: Yes, Djuna came here to Tangier and took my house on the Marshan one year. She was writing a book she called Bow Down. Later she called it Nightwood. I used to see a lot of Carson McCullers when we lived in Middagh Street, and then we used to go and visit her up in Nyack—spend weekends up there. And of course Sartre, who came to America for a while. We'd have lunch together and then wander around the poorer sections of New York, which he wanted very much to see. That was the year I got the rights to translate No Exit. Later he was annoyed with me in Paris, so I don't know him any more.

HALPERN: Annoyed about what, if I may ask?

BOWLES: He was annoyed because I was unable to keep the director of No Exit from changing the script. He considered that my province, which it should have been, but the point was that I didn't have a percentage in the show and he didn't know how Broadway works. I was simply the translator, so I had no rights whatever. He sent telegrams of protest from Paris before we opened, and I was obliged to send back replies that were dictated by John Huston. His anger should have been directed against John, not me.

HALPERN: What about contemporary writers? Are there any you enjoy reading?

BOWLES: Let's see, who's alive? Sartre is alive, but he did only one good novel. Graham Greene is alive. Who's alive in America? Whom do I follow with interest? Christopher Isherwood's a good novelist. They're mostly dead. I used to read everything of Gide's and Camus'.

HALPERN: Do you have an opinion on the writing being done in America today?

BOWLES: There are various kinds of writing being done, of course. But I suspect you mean the "popular school," as exemplified by Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon—that sort of thing? I don't enjoy it.

HALPERN: Why not?

BOWLES: It's simply that I find it very difficult to get into. The means it uses to awaken interest is of a sort that would be valid only for the length of a short piece. It's too much to have to swim around in that purely literary magma for the time it takes to read a whole book. It fails to hold my attention, that's all. It creates practically no momentum. My mind wanders, I become impatient, and therefore intolerant.

HALPERN: Is it the content that bothers you or the style of the writing? Or both?

BOWLES: Both. But it's the point of view more than anything else. The cynicism and wisecracking ultimately function as endorsements of the present civilization. The content is hard to make out because it's generally symbolic or allegorical, and the style is generally hermetic. It's not a novelistic style at all; it's really a style that would be more useful in writing essays, I should think.

HALPERN: Let me go back to the critics for a moment. Do you think they have missed the point of your writing?

BOWLES: They have, certainly, on many occasions. I've often had the impression they were more interested in my motive for writing a given work than they were in the work itself. In general, the British critics have been more perceptive; language is more important to them than it is to us. But I don't think that matters.

HALPERN: One thing that particularly interests many who meet you is the great discrepancy between what you are like as a person and the kind of books you write.

BOWLES: Why is it that Americans expect an artist's work to be a clear reflection of his life? They never seem to want to believe that the two can be independent of each other and go their separate ways. Even when there's a definite connection between the work and the life, the pattern they form may be in either parallel or contrary motion. If you want to call my state schizophrenic, that's all right with me. Say my personality has two facets. One is always turned in one direction, toward my own Mecca; that's my work. The other looks in a different direction and sees a different landscape. I think that's a common state of affairs.

HALPERN: In retrospect, would you say there has been something that has remained important to you over the years? Something that you have maintained in your writing?

BOWLES: Continuing consciousness, infinite adaptability of human consciousness to outside circumstances, the absurdity of it all, the hopelessness of this whole business of living. I've written very little the past few years. Probably because emotionally everything grows less intense as one grows older. The motivation is at a much lower degree, that's all.

HALPERN: When you were first starting to write you were, emotionally, full of things to say. Now that has faded somewhat, what springboard do you have?

BOWLES: I can only find out after I've written, since I empty my mind each time before I start. I only know what I intended to do once it's finished. Do you remember, in A Life Full of Holes, the farmer comes and scolds the boy for falling asleep, and the boy says: "I didn't know I was going to sleep until I woke up."

 

Tangier, 1970

Copyright © 1970, Daniel Halpern and The Ecco Press, 1993. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

DANIEL HALPERN met Paul Bowles in 1968 when Bowles was teaching for one semester at California State University at Northridge. Bowles invited Halpern to visit him in Morocco, and in 1969 Halpern moved to Tangier where he was a neighbor of Paul Bowles in the apartment building Immeuble Itesa for two years. In 1970 he worked with Bowles to establish and co-edit the international literary journal Antaeus. Upon his return to the United States, Halpern established The Ecco Press in 1972, and the inaugural list of publications included a reissue of a collection of Paul Bowles' short stories, The Delicate Prey. He is editorial director of The Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. Halpern is the author of seven collections of poems, including Something Shining (Knopf, 2001); Selected Poems (1996); and Traveling on Credit, his first book of poetry. He has translated and edited numerous works and anthologies. Halpern has received many grants and awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He divides his time between New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and daughter. This 1970 interview, used with permission from the author, was taken from The Ecco Press edition of Too Far From Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles, edited by Daniel Halpern, with an Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. On May 6, 2010, The Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, the NYU Creative Writing Program, and HarperCollins Publishers presented "A Tribute to Daniel Halpern" at New York University, with readings and presentations by John Ashbery, Russell Banks, Anthony Bourdain, Janie Fink, Richard Ford, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Campbell McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, and others. 

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