The first news came on a Tuesday morning. A friend called about a Reuter’s dispatch saying Paul was in a coma at the Italian Hospital in Tangier. Later in the day, another friend, having heard from Tangier, called to say that the Reuters dispatch was wrong: Paul was not in a coma. He was in the hospital, but for a minor infection.
Thursday morning another call came. Paul had died the night before.
Something in this sequence—threat, then reprieve, then fulfillment of the threat—reminded me of a Paul Bowles story. But, of course, this was no story.
When I thought of his apartment in Tangier, dark, low-ceilinged, filled with papers and books and records, populated by a crowd of visitors—journalists, writers, musicians, and readers—and of him, sitting up in his bed, frail but welcoming, smiling, greeting—all that now seemed to be becoming story.
What made them all come? I wondered, and still do wonder. Perhaps they all came for different reasons, and yet, it was as if each one was on a quest, as if they believed that they would get from him the answer to what they were seeking.
I remember one visitor who came to Paul’s one afternoon in 1992. “Are you a nihilist?” he began. Paul said he didn’t understand the word.
“Don’t you believe in the meaning of life?”
“No,” Paul said politely.
The visitor followed one question with another. “Do you smoke kif?” “What is your life like here?” “Do you go to cafés?” “Why are you famous?” Paul answered briefly, almost noncommittally.
“Did you survive because you were detached?”
"I don’t know why I survived,” Paul said. “Because I was lucky.”
“Are you afraid of dying?”
“No, I’m not. I don’t want to suffer.”
“What do you think will happen when you die? Do you have a concept of death?”
“It’s a completely negative thing,” Paul said, “so how can you have a concept of it?”
“People feel what a shit this life is,” the visitor said.
“I never felt that,” Paul answered.
What made this man ask Paul about death? Certainly death is present in all of the novels and in most of his stories, usually a violent death, yet contained, made safe somehow in the finely crafted form. As to questions about his life, all his visitor had to do was look at him and his history. He had set out early on his own path, and created a life for himself, the one he wanted, the one he chose.
At the same time, he always said he hadn’t chosen. He said he merely “followed a scent.” So “following a scent,” he had come to Morocco and stayed, a stranger in a strange land, at ease with his strangeness.
He first came to Morocco in the early Thirties at the urging of Gertrude Stein. He was stunned by the landscape, by the silence in the desert, by the sounds in the marketplaces, and, above all, by the religious brotherhoods, which incorporated violence into their rituals.
Returning to the United States, he established himself as a composer of chamber music and songs, and of incidental music for the theater. He and his wife, the writer Jane Auer Bowles, a most attractive and extraordinary couple, in an extraordinary marriage—one of deep devotion, but not one of sexuality—lived at the center of the New York artistic and musical world of the time.
But life in New York and success in the musical world were not enough for him. By 1945, inspired by Jane's novel Two Serious Ladies, he began to write fiction again-he had given it up some years before—and produced in a very short time a series of terrifying and beautiful stories. And then, one day in 1947, he had a dream of a wonderful city of tunnels and gliding figures. He awoke to the realization that it was Tangier he had dreamed of. Soon after he set sail for Morocco.
On his way to the place which would become his permanent residence, he wrote “Pages from Cold Point.” Of this story Norman Mailer would later say, “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…”
Paul himself said that Mailer’s remark was nonsense. He didn’t feel he’d open the world of Hip or any other world. He simply wrote what he had to write, following wherever he felt he was led.
As a composer he had worked primarily in short forms. He knew his limits, he knew what he wanted to do, pieces that would above all please the listener. Much of his music has the quality of improvisation, even though it is not improvised. It is charming and delightful, often incorporating African and South American rhythms. Listening, you feel yourself wanting to dance.
As a writer, on the other hand, he had a very dark vision of the world. He wrote of betrayal and of isolation, of being lost in a hostile universe. His four novels—beginning with The Sheltering Sky—and his many stories are suffused with violence and cruelty, confined within an almost classical narrative form.
The ease and confidence with which he could accept his own dichotomies was astonishing. When you were with him, you would somehow forget about these dichotomies, and then suddenly they would surface in him, in a most mysterious way. You would see his vulnerability, for example, side by side with his enormous self-confidence.
Since learning about Paul’s death, I have found myself thinking back to what he said about death and dying.
When he spoke of Jane's death, sometimes he seemed almost detached; at other times he seemed to have great difficulty uttering the words. The one thing he insisted on fervently was that he didn't believe in cemeteries, that he didn't want a marker on her grave. One moment he said that he didn’t want to mourn, and in the next breath he said that he would never get over her death.
One day in 1992, when I arrived at his apartment, the first thing he said to me was that he had just received a letter that his old friend Edouard Roditi had died. "I'm very sorry," he said, "to think that I won't see him again."
Abdelouahaid, Paul's driver and helper, came into the room, and on hearing of Roditi's death, he told a story about a man dying and a horse dying. He ended with the statement, "We all die."
When he left, I said to Paul that Abdelouahaid was a philosopher. Paul laughed and said, "We all die.” That’s not philosophical. That's just stating a banal truth." "Of course we know people die, l said. "But when someone dies, it's still hard to believe it."
"Oh, we believe it," Paul said, and laughed again.
Now, thinking of his death, I hear again the laugh that accompanied those words. There was a layering in that sound, a doubling as well as a canceling. It was as if for an instant he had taken a stance against himself as well as others. It was like a play upon the word “we,” a version of the play upon “I” that is at the heart of his remarkable story “You Are Not I”.
Did I think of that then?
No. If I was thinking of anything, perhaps I was thinking of Paul’s death, or of my own. But even that thought was compromised, hidden. And so I simply persisted, repeating the remark I had made before about the difficulty of thinking of a being who no longer is.
He was silent for a moment, and then said something palliative about the feeling that comes from the desire “people” have for immortality. We were back once again to a conjoined “we.”
Since hearing of Paul’s death, I have recalled the next to the last paragraph of Paul’s autobiography Without Stopping, written just as Jane was dying. He wrote that when he thought about his own death, he thought of himself without teeth, unable to move, wholly dependent on someone “whom I pay to take care of me and who at any moment may go out of the room and never return.”
It did not happen that way.
In his last year, though he was confined to bed by illness, he was attended by a stream of friends and visitors. He was not left alone. He was the one who left.
Copyright © 2000, Millicent Dillon
Used with the permission of the author. All rights reserved.
MILLICENT DILLON is the author of four books on the Bowleses, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles, Out in the World: The Selected Letters of Jane Bowles (editor) and The Viking Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (editor). Dillon is also a novelist and playwright. A native New Yorker, Millicent Dillon was trained as a physicist and worked in Oak Ridge, Princeton, and Kettleman Hills before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has lived for many years. Dillon has been a Guggenheim Fellow (1993) and a resident writer at Yaddo, at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, and at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California. A five-time O' Henry Award winner, she has published short stories in the Threepenny Review, the Southwest Review, and many other literary magazines. Her play "Prisoners of Ordinary Need" was part of the San Francisco Playwrights Festival in 1990. Dillon's novel Harry Gold (New York: The Overlook Press / Peter Mayer Publishers Inc.), published in 2000, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Ms. Dillon recently completed a book-length memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, an account of the time (1947) when she worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the NEPA project, (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft) She just completed a novel, The Evicted.
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