It seems appropriate that we first met at the house of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy in Santa Monica, California; for Christopher and Paul had first met in Berlin in 1931, and Christopher chose Sally Bowles’s second name for two reasons—he liked the sound of it and the looks of its owner. Almost forty years later (autumn 1968), Paul had returned to the United States for a few months, as visiting professor at San Fernando Valley State College, lecturing on the modern European novel, and—as he added with a twinkle of horror, “something they call advanced narrative writing”.
The alert composure, and the wary ironic interest with which his eyes viewed the world, seemed very like his prose. He also had the aura of a profoundly displaced person—and not just because he was in a country where he had long ceased to feel at home. One other remark, but not its context, I remember from that evening: “The outsider always sees more than the man in the crowd.”
Some years later, when I was living in Tangier and saw a good deal of Paul, I read The Sheltering Sky again and was struck by the epigraph from Kafka that heads the last section: From a certain point onward there is no longer turning back. That is the point that must be reached. And for Paul, I realized, the point was way off the map, on the far side of pessimism, somewhere beyond despair and hope. Not easy to reach, and fairly bleak, but with a long and sometimes unexpectedly amusing view. Paul, like Kafka, has a marvelous sense of humor.
The apartment where he has lived for many years is on the top floor of a building that looks like any grim anonymous block you pass on the drive from any airport to any city. A pile of worn suitcases, mementoes of the once inveterate traveler, occupies most of the small hallway. In the living-room, ghostly daylight is filtered through a jungle of plants massed on the terrace outside. Time and neglect have made the whole building increasingly shabby, the elevator often breaks down, and once part of Paul’s living-room ceiling fell in. But Paul himself has remained quietly neat and elegant, untouched by the surrounding decay, even welcoming it—as confirmation of one of his reasons for staying in Tangier and hardly ever leaving the place. Tangier, he believes, has changed less than most parts of the world, and is just slowly, irreversibly running down. Persisting identity, however frayed, is always better than change, which can only be for the worse.
Another reason he gives for staying in Tangier is that he will never be able to understand Moroccans, who keep him suspended between alarm and amused surprise. This is particularly true of his closest Moroccan friend, Mohammed Mrabet, whose stories he has recorded and translated. “Perhaps what intrigues me most about him”, Paul said one day, “is that he’s always telling me about some extraordinary, fantastic adventure or experience he’s just had—and I never know whether to believe him or not.”
There is a charming Alice in Wonderland logic in the idea that the less you understand (and by implication) trust someone close to you, the more interesting he becomes. But it can have a reverse side as chilling as Paul’s stories “A Distant Episode” and “The Delicate Prey”. Concerning the eagerness of some Moroccans to sodomize male infidels, he once told me: “The pleasure they get from it is not, as the infidels believe, sexual. It’s the opportunity to inflict what they conceive of as the ultimate insult.”
Like all great travelers, Paul created his own country. Although he writes about it as North Africa, and sometimes as Central America, its real location is the Tropic of Magic. For Paul, “magic” is “a secret connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man”. It can be discovered only viscerally, not through the mind, so he has spent much of his life dreaming and imagining it, with fear and wonder, in the hope of cracking a secret that would give him “wisdom and ecstasy—perhaps even death”.
The quest of a highly civilized man for an anti-civilized “truth” has always given his work a dark yet lucid tension. It has also made him, as a person, uniquely and precariously free, indifferent to security, to moral judgements, even to regret, an emotion he finds “meaningless”. “You have to accept….” In 1990 he accepted an invitation to go to Paris for a TV interview in connection with the premiere of the movie of The Sheltering Sky. But he had no wish to reacquaint himself with a city he once loved. It had surely deteriorated, and in any case he didn’t care to be reminded of his youth. So he stayed less than forty-eight hours, long enough to discuss the interview, record it and then buy a new cashmere dressing-gown. I like to imagine him wearing it now, sitting in that twilit Moroccan living-room—or better still, lying in bed at night, listening to a familiar sound of Tangier after dark, the continual and unsettling rhythm of drums.
Copyright © 1992, Gavin Lambert
A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF GAVIN LAMBERT
GAVIN LAMBERT was born in Sussex, England on July 23, 1924 and he was educated at Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he co-founded the short-lived but influential journal Sequence. From 1949 to 1955 Lambert was the film critic and editor of the magazine Sight and Sound. In 1954 he wrote and directed an independently financed film, Another Sky, filmed entirely on location in Morocco. After seeing the film, Nicholas Ray (director of Rebel Without A Cause), invited him to become his personal assistant in Hollywood. Since that time, he lived much of his life there.
Gavin Lambert wrote seven novels, including the "Hollywood Quartet," Inside Daisy Clover, The Goodbye People and Running Time, and The Slide Area (a collection of short stories), all recently reprinted in paperback. Lambert's The Dangerous Edge: An Enquiry into the Lives of Nine Masters of Suspense (London: Barrie and Jenkins. 1975; New York: Viking Press, 1975) is a collection of essays and is dedicated to Paul Bowles. Other novels by Lambert are Norman's Letter (New York: Coward-McCann, 1966) and In the Night All Cats Are Grey (London: W.H. Allen, 1976). His non-fiction includes several biographies: On Cukor, Norma Shearer, Nazimova, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (London: Faber, 2000), and most recently Natalie Wood: A Life (Knopf, 2004) and The Ivan Moffat File—Life Among the Beautiful and Damned in London, New York, Paris and Hollywood (Pantheon, 2004). Among his screenplays are The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (from the Tennessee Williams novella), Inside Daisy Clover (from his own novel), and two that received Academy Award nominations, Sons and Lovers (from the D. H. Lawrence novel) and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (from Joanne Greenberg's novel).
From 1974 to 1989, Lambert lived mainly at Villa Tingitane in Tangier, a move suggested by Paul Bowles, when they first met in Los Angeles. His friendship with Bowles, and his love of Morocco, made the experience doubly rewarding. Gavin Lambert died on July 17, 2005, at age 80, from pulmonary fibrosis in a Los Angeles hospital. Lambert had planned to return to Tangier for the month of June 2005 until his sudden illness prevented that trip. His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of southern California.
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