www.PaulBowles.org

 
 
 

 

A TALK WITH PAUL BOWLES

by Phillip Ramey

 

 

PHILLIP RAMEY:  It has been several years since your last work of fiction, the short novel Too Far From Home, was published.  You are about to be eighty-seven.  Will you write more fiction?

 

PAUL BOWLES:  No.  Never.

 

Why is that?

 

Because of my eyesight.  It's got so bad that I can't see well enough to write. 

 

That's recent, isn't it?

Phillip Ramey and Paul Bowles, Tangier 1994

 

It's recent, but it's real. 

 

Do you still have ideas for stories?

 

It's the writing itself that gives me ideas.  Since I can no longer write, there are none.

 

What was your procedure in starting a story?  Would you write just any sentence? 

 

Yes.  The old Surrealist method.

 

Invent a sentence now.

 

"In those days he always walked by the pool, because he was not worried about what might be in it.  But now he felt different."

 

Spooky, and very Bowlesian.

 

Well, that could begin a story.

 

If your eyesight should improve, would you still feel you are finished as a writer? 

 

Yes.  I don't want to write any more.

 

You've had an unusual dual career as both a writer and composer.  Until fairly recently, your concert music had been pretty much forgotten.  But there has been a spate of new recordings, there was a three-day festival of your musical works in New York in 1995 and now there is to be a film about your career as a composer.  What's your reaction to that?

 

 

It's flattering—ego massage.  But I see my music as part of the past.  I'm curious to know how it holds up, but in the context of the 1930s, not the 1990s.

 

Do you still have the desire to write music?

 

Perhaps more than fiction.

 

Once a composer, always a composer.

 

Or, as Virgil Thomson used to say, "Once a deadhead, always a deadhead."  (laughs)

 

 
Paul Bowles in 1992  

You once noted that you thought that music and prose involved different parts of the brain.

 

Who knows how the mind is divided?  I always found it a great relief to write if I had been composing; and if I had been writing it was wonderful to sit down and compose.

 

Your fiction is notable for its nihilism and fascination with violence, while your music tends to be light and charming.  A real dichotomy there.

 

I suppose.  But perhaps I just didn't know how to compose "dark" music.  I only tried to do that once, in a piano piece that was lost for over fifty years and only recently discovered in a publisher's closet, called Tamanar.  The music was loud and sinister, by which I mean the harmony was sinister—dissonant and heavy.  When I worked at it, in Berlin in 1931, people would begin screaming, "Fenster zu!"—"Shut the window!"—across the courtyard, threatening to call the police. 

 

Ultimately, your serious side came out in your books.

 

Certainly not in my musical compositions.  Lenny Bernstein always said that my music sounded post-coital.

 

Aside from that dissonant piano piece, have you ever attempted to write any "serious", "impressive" music?

 

It would embarrass me too much.  I would be ashamed of it.  It would be like writing prose that seeks to impress.  In my music I never liked to raise my voice.  It was often more in the manner of an aside.  That's partly why I prefer French music to German. 

 

Your fiction is full of horrific incidents that might, in a sense, be considered gestural.  They catch the reader's attention somewhat in the way musical gestures catch the listener's.

 

But I don't think that's so shameful in prose because it's connected with the meaning of the story.

 

Musically, you are a self-confessed miniaturist.

 

For me, short, simple pieces were the most satisfying, perhaps because I didn't know how to appreciate long, complex ones.

 

Do you feel that applies to you also as a writer?  That your short stories are more successful than your novels?

 

 
  Tea with Paul Bowles, Farseewah, Morocco 1992

I think it's true.  I've written several books over the years, and I suppose that I'm least ashamed of some of the short stories, more so than any of the novels.  Among the stories I consider the most successful are "A Distant Episode", "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté", "Señor Ong and Señor Ha" and "Call at Corazón".  Those are all early stories, and they're probably better than the later ones.  They seem to be more compact:  in the material, in the way it's presented.  I don't know if that's a question of language, but of course in prose everything is.  When  people ask me which of my novels I prefer, I always say Up Above the World, because of the way things are expressed there in a very concise, rather terse fashion.

 

I notice your list doesn't include the notorious "Pages from Cold Point", which is perhaps your best-known story.

 

Since practically no one seems to understand it, it doesn't make much sense to cite it.  Critics and readers have regularly misunderstood it, for they have the impression that the father corrupted his son.  If they think that, they haven't understood the story, which means it doesn't exist.

 

I thought it was clear that Racky, the son, seduces the father in the process of blackmailing him.

 

I would think it was, but apparently it isn't.  People just can't believe that a child could seduce an adult.  It's the adult who has to do the seducing.

 

The idea of a corrupting child is too shocking for many readers?

 

I think so.  But, after all, plenty of children are corrupt.  When John Lehmann published my first collection of stories, A Little Stone, in England in 1950, "Pages from Cold Point" was excluded, because both Cyril Connolly and W. Somerset Maugham warned Lehmann that there might be problems of censorship with the printers' union.  The objection, if you can believe it, was not to the sexual element but to the idea of a child blackmailing his parent.

 

Had Racky been planning to blackmail his father?

 

I don't think so.  He was just having fun, going out and having sex with all the young men within ten miles.  On shady beaches, in coves, in boats.

 

The idea of reverse incest is rather bizarre, even in fiction.

 

Not really, is it?  I'm sure that, in life, it's not unheard of.  It seems such an obvious procedure for an adolescent to take.  But, of course, in the story it doesn't actually say that the boy had sex with his father.

 

I've heard people argue it both ways.  So:  did Racky and his father do it? 

 

I wasn't there.  (laughs)

 

Sure you were.  You were looking through the keyhole, a Peeping Paul.

 

Oh, all right.  I think sex did occur.  But just that one night.

 

What sort of sex?

 

Well, I think the boy let his father screw him.   It leads up to that in the description beforehand.  During all that time in bed, Racky is still, he never moves.  It says that he could have been asleep, but of course he couldn't have.  Whatever happened was what Racky wanted to have happen.

 

In one of his books, Ned Rorem strongly implied that he and his father, when they visited you a long time ago in Mexico, were the inspiration for "Pages from Cold Point."  Ned recently told me he believes it to be true, though he didn't expect you to admit it. 

 

I certainly won't, because it's completely wrong.  What makes him think that, I wonder?  It's so untrue it's funny.  Ned's so incredibly egoïste.

 

Why did you once refuse permission for "Cold Point" to be filmed?

 

Because the scenario was so bad.  It would take an extremely good scriptwriter to present that story accurately.

 

So, if someone came up with a screenplay that really followed the story, you'd allow a movie to be made?

 

Sure.  I think it would be fine.  Tell Ned next time you see him that Paul has finally found a film director who will do "Pages from Cold Point", and that Paul wants you to be in it.  He thinks you'll make a wonderful father.  (laughs)

 

There's nothing remotely similar to "Cold Point" in your output.

 

It's the only story of mine that treats of male homosexuality.

 

How do you feel about it being included in anthologies of homosexual stories? 

 

It's absurd.  As though that was why it was written.

 

What about being typecast as a "gay" author, primarily because of one story?

 

I don't like that at all.

 

Because the description is not relevant to most of your work? 

 

It's not even relevant to most of my life.

 

 
Paul Bowles on the Old Mountain, Tangier  

Your autobiography is entitled Without Stopping.  William Burroughs wrote that it should have been called Without Telling.

 

What he meant by that I don't know.

 

You know very well that he meant that you never say who was sleeping with whom.

 

Well, I wouldn't.  I didn't think it was proper.

 

Even if the people involved were dead?

 

Even so.  My idea of what's right isn't the same as someone else's, that's all.  It seems to me that it would be extremely bad taste of anyone to accuse X of having slept with Y in 1953.

 

Then you must have been displeased by your friend Ned Rorem publishing his confessional diaries.

 

I was appalled and disgusted that anyone would write such nonsense.  And he actually took those books seriously.

 

Did you let Ned know what you thought?

 

Yes.  I wrote him and told him that I couldn't understand why he would be interested in such details, and why he would use actual names in telling about his drunken orgies.  It was all right, I suppose, for him to describe what he did, no matter how abjectly he was behaving, but it wasn't all right to involve other people.

 

Curious that particular letter wasn't included in the recent volume of your and Ned's letters.

 

Not so curious.

 

Without Stopping wasn't especially well received when it came out in 1972.  I remember reading a negative review by Virgil Thomson in the New York Review of Books.

 

I didn't have time to write the book properly, that's the trouble.  My first contract with Putnam gave me a year, and when it was up I hadn't even finished my card system.  I had a card for every month of every year.  I had to know what was going on, for I had no documents.  I just had to remember everything.  Where was I in October 1928?  What was I doing in June 1933?  Writing that book was agony.

 

How do you feel about the result?

 

I more or less agree with a critic who said, "It's a shaggy book," by which he meant it was not carefully levelled.

 

I remember when I first visited you here in Tangier in 1982, you were correcting proofs of Points in Time, which was published later that year in England.  It is perhaps your most unusual book.

 

The American publisher called it a novel, but that's absurd.  When I wrote it I thought of it as a lyrical history of Morocco, although it's scarcely that.  Points in Time is a book taken from actual historical accounts, and it skips over centuries.

 

So it's not folklore or legend?

 

No, it's fictionalized accounts of actual occurrences, presented as though it were fiction.  For instance, the story of the Franciscan monks who came to Morocco and were encouraged to live in Fez.  They took so long getting here that the Sultan had changed, so that the person they had introductions to was no longer the ruler.

 

Did you invent any of the incidents in the book?

 

No.  I stuck to the accounts.

 

In addition to your own work, you've translated quite a few books of Moroccan storytellers.  Last summer, in an article in the Threepenny Review, you complained about the difficulties you have had with three of them, Mohammed Mrabet, Larbi Layachi and Mohamed Choukri, over money demands, and declared that you will never again collaborate with a Moroccan.  Did their ingratitude surprise you?

 

I never expected gratitude from them.

 

 
  Mohammed Mrabet visits Paul Bowles, Tangier, 1984

The one you've worked with most closely is Mrabet.

 

Yes, and I finally agreed to give him $1,000 for each book that had been published.  There were twelve.

 

He wasn't actually owed that money?

 

No.  It was just to shut him up.

 

You've sometimes been accused of writing Mrabet's stories and novels for him. 

 

That's ridiculous.  Tahar ben Jelloun started it all, in an article in Le Monde.  According to him, I took on Moroccan names and wrote books by, for instance, Mrabet, who, he said, doesn't exist.  And even if Mrabet does exist, he couldn't have "written" those books because he was a fisherman, which meant that he had no education.  It is quite true that Mrabet had no education, but it never occurred to Tahar ben Jelloun that Mrabet could construct a novel without education.  Still, he did.

 

You mean, he could make up stories and put them together into something resembling a novel.

 

Yes.

 

If the translator's first responsibility is to render the work accurately, what else is important?

 

To make it sound as though it were not a translation.  That's what is difficult:  you don't want the smell of translation sticking to it.

 

Some critics have claimed that your translations have a Bowlesian tone.

 

Naturally, if I translated, everything in English would be Bowlesian.

 

Have Moroccan storytellers had any influence on your own writing?

 

Yes.  A kind of symbiosis took place.  Mrabet, especially, was good for me because he'd never had any truck with adjectives and adverbs.  I liked that, and I realized that you could tell everything, really, with verbs and nouns.  Simple writing.  As we worked together, Mrabet discovered that I like to hear stories in which violence suddenly appears, so he started inventing such stories, because he found that I appreciated them.  But I didn't change his way of thinking or of telling a story.  I simply reacted better to the more attractively violent details. 

 

Interesting.

 

 
Paul Bowles at Martin Soames' Tangier home.  

You mean the give and take.  It changed my style in my own writing, and his material in his stories.  In a sense that explains why some people think that his stories are mine and my stories his.

 

What problem did you have with Larbi Layachi after you translated his novel A Life Full of Holes?

 

He went to two different lawyers in San Francisco and had them write to me, threatening lawsuits, because he said I'd stolen his ideas for my own books, all my stories were really his.  They had nothing to do with each other, of course.  He didn't know that anyone reading them both would immediately see that what he was saying was absurd.

 

Do you think he was sincere in his accusation?

 

Probably.  But he had a brain tumor and became very obsessed.

 

And died.

 

Well, it's not my fault that he died.

 

What about Mohamed Choukri, whose novel For Bread Alone you translated?  A couple of years ago, he published an article in a German newspaper with the headline "Paul Bowles Is an Exploiter"; then, he organized a public meeting in Tangier to denounce you, and began publishing a series of defamatory articles in an Arabic-language newspaper distributed all over the Moslem world.  Those articles appeared in book form in Arabic and, recently, in a French edition issued by Quai Voltaire in Paris, entitled Paul Bowles, Le Reclus de Tanger.

 

Choukri accused me of being a C.I.A. spy, a neo-colonialist, a racist, a dangerous criminal who should be thrown out of Morocco, a robber who had stolen royalties from Moroccan writers and a hater of the religion and the government, among other things.

 

I remember that each week those newspaper articles seemed to get worse and worse.

 

He was probably getting drunker and drunker.

 

Were you angry?

 

Yes, but not very.  I was more worried—about some maniac hearing or reading Choukri's nonsense and deciding to wipe me out.  After all, the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz had his throat cut by a Moslem fundamentalist.  And one night a maniac did visit me and began ranting about Islam, although I don't know that it had anything to do with Choukri.  Fortunately, my biographer Virginia Spencer Carr was here, and she got rid of him.  Now I have a night watchman who sleeps in the apartment.  Anyway, I think that poor Choukri has to be slightly unbalanced mentally.  Aside from his alcoholism. 

 

The one time I had a conversation with him, years ago, he was fairly drunk.  We were discussing the published memoirs of his friendships with Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams, and I asked him if he, like them, was homosexual.  He waved his fists in the air and shrieked, "No, I am not homosexual!  All other Moroccans are homosexual, but I am not!" 

 

It's like Mrabet saying that all Egyptians are Jews.  (laughs) 

 

Still, For Bread Alone is a rather memorable book. 

 

 

I thought Choukri was very talented.  That novel went into the kind of detail that no one else's writing did in this country.  The other books that existed were much more academic, or else they were romanticized.  In comparison to Choukri, a writer like Ahmed Sefrioui, for instance, was perfumed.  He put in only the pleasant things.  Barbara Hutton would have approved.  But Choukri had had terrible experiences in his life, and he wrote about them in For Bread Alone.  I liked his realism.

 

A Moroccan friend of ours met Choukri last year in a Tangier bar and asked him if the dirt he'd published about you was actually true, and he said Choukri admitted that it wasn't.  Then he asked Choukri why he had written such things....

 

And Choukri said:  "Because I got well paid."  That was what was reported to me.

 

There were so many outrageous accusations in Choukri's broadside—among them, that you arranged to have your wife killed. 

 

A mad idea.  And he wrote as if he knew Jane well, when so far as I know he never even met her.

 

Why did he say you don't know the difference between the sexes?

 

I had told him I didn't know there was a difference between male and female until I was in high school.  It's true that I didn't.

 

Isn't he saying you don't care whether you sleep with men or women? 

 

He makes it sound that way, but he must have known it was not what I meant.  Maybe he can't conceive that anyone could get beyond puberty without realizing there were two sexes.  (laughs)

 

But didn't you notice that ladies have breasts?

 

I didn't notice anything.  I was a very unobservant child and youth.  It never occurred to me that there was a real difference between men and women except a social one, that some individuals belonged to this sex, others to that, the difference between red or yellow.  I didn't realize the sexes might be different inside until we were dissecting frogs in biology class and I asked the teacher if these differences applied also to human beings.  She said:  "I'll see you after class", and everyone giggled and I didn't know why.  I remember that her name was Miss Vickers.

 

Did you assume both sexes had the same sensations and the same equipment for those sensations?

 

I did.

 

You thought women had penises?

 

Of course.  It seemed to me that all human beings were the same.

 

Hadn't you seen a picture of a naked woman?

 

Sure.

 

Didn't you notice there was nothing down there?

 

 

Yes, but I thought that was for aesthetic reasons, that they didn't want to disfigure the lovely female body the way the male body was disfigured.

 

Who's "they"?

 

The people in charge.  (laughs)

 

You were an absurd boy.

 

I'm afraid I must have been.

 

When young, were you vain about your good looks?

 

I never considered I had any.

 

Why was that?

 

Because it was I.

 

You had a reputation as a dandy.

 

That's ridiculous.  I always dressed the way I thought I should, that's all.  I don't consider it a blemish on my character.

 

Your old friend, the composer David Diamond, did.  He told me how annoyed he was by your white cigarette holder.  I imagine he thought you were putting on an act.

 

I don't know what he thought, but he had me all wrong.

 

Who were you out to please with your elegant wardrobe?

 

Myself.

 

You've lived in Morocco for half a century, and you've never gone native.

 

I never expected to.  I live like an American.

 

I wouldn't be surprised if you wore a necktie in bed.  (laughs)

 

That's not a sin, is it?  Still, if you live in a country long enough, you begin thinking the way the people there think.

 

But Moroccans are notoriously illogical, and you may be the most logical person I know.  You must mean that you get to understand how the people here think.

 

Exactly.

 

From where does their illogic stem?  Islam?

 

Not necessarily.  It could just come from a low form of culture.  Moroccans don't see that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.  They have no training for that.

 

But Islam demands absolute faith, which discourages logical thought.  Moslems are always saying "Inchallah", "God willing", meaning they assume no responsibility for anything.

 

I suppose that is summed up in the word mektoub, which means "it is written". 

 

Everything that happens is preordained.

 

But is that specifically Moslem?  Probably not.  It's also Animist, from black Africa.  They're connected to the Moroccans, all on the same continent.  If you listen to Berber music, from before the Arabs came here, you find it has a lot in common with West African music.  Why?  Because music is part of the unconscious expression of the beliefs and way of thinking of the people.

 

Mektoub means that no one is personally responsible for his actions? 

 

Of course.  Human beings can't be responsible.  Only God can.  Moroccans believe that. 

 

Do Moslems believe in guilt?

 

No.  Guilt has to do with logic, and responsibility certainly has to do with logic.  Perhaps Moroccans adopted the idea of mektoub because they weren't ready for a religion which provided logic and guilt and responsibility. 

 

Has Islam evolved from 1,000 years ago? 

 

It has probably degenerated from what it was 1,000 years ago. 

 

Has Islam adapted at all to the modern world? 

 

It's hard to think of its doing so.

 

That's a bad thing.

 

Well, a lot of things are bad here. But, culturally speaking, many Moroccans have more or less adapted to modern life.

 

You disapprove of that, don't you?  Because you like the primitive elements of Morocco. 

 

I don't approve or disapprove.

 

Unlike me, you are not judgemental.

 

No, because you feel something should be something, and I don't use that tense at all.  It is, or is not. 

 

I've noticed that you are perfectly happy with the filthy medinas and villages of Morocco because they are picturesque.  In that sense, you're a colonialist.  You don't care how people live. 

 

I wonder if they want to live in any other way.  I suppose some do. 

 

Don't you think people should have running water and electricity? 

 

Should have?  Yes, it would be good.  But if people are happy this way, if they accept what is, why bother them? 

 

You wouldn't like it if the primitive medinas and villages were torn down, would you? 

 

It would depend on what took their place. 

 

Modern housing. 

 

It would be hideous.  Everything they do here that's modern is. 

 

But, ugly or not, modern housing is more comfortable.  Shouldn't people have that? 

 

If they can get it, yes.  But I'm not going to help them.  (laughs) 

 

So, if all Morocco were modernized, you'd deplore it. 

 

I deplore any lack of beauty. 

 

How do you feel about the changes in Tangier during the last ten years? 

 

It's turned into a hideous and dangerous place, thanks to drugs.People have made fortunes selling hashish, and now they exchange hashish for hard drugs—crack and heroin.  So there's a lot more violent crime here. 

 

Why do you continue to live in Tangier? 

 

Where else would I go? 

 

Much of your fiction has been set here. 

 

I've had four principal subjects in my writing:  the desert, Tangier, Fez and Latin America. 

 

You've tended to treat places rather than people or personalities. 

 

Of course.  The places suggest the people and the personalities grow from my work on the places.

 

 

Do you consider any of your books important for posterity? 

 

Definitely not. 

 

Don't you care if your books survive you? 

 

No, I don't care.  I don't believe anything lasts very long anyway.  It's hard to imagine, people reading my books and I reduced to ashes or buried in the Tangier pet cemetery.  (laughs) 

 

But the revival of interest during the last decade or so—all your books in print in many languages and selling well, Bertolucci's film of The Sheltering Sky—must please you.  

 

That ghastly film didn't please me.  But the money makes me happy. 

 

You sound rather mercenary. 

 

Mercenary?  But what is life about? It's about eating and having a place to live where the rain doesn't come in and buying clothes.  Having a pleasant time.  What else is there?

 

What about the high, uplifting purpose of art? 

 

Don't give me those words.  High.  Uplifting.  Onward and upward.  Excelsior!  (laughing) 

 

You don't buy that idea. 

 

Of course not.  That would imply that civilization is better than primitiveness, which I suppose you believe. 

 

I do.  And you don't. 

 

Not really.  You can always make me say, yes, I like to have a bath where the water will flow hot, and so on, but that's not civilization, exactly.  That's just comfort. 

 

Are you able to be comfortable in a primitive place? 

 

No, because I'm not a primitive.  It's too late.  I was born in New York, and you don't remain a primitive that way. 

 

But don't you think you've accomplished something, writing books that are so well thought of? 

 

I doubt they will be well thought of for long.  People will forget them.  I don't think of them as partaking of a permanent situation.  The interest may go on ten years after my death, but, then, what difference does that make to me? 

 

Leaving a body of work is a kind of immortality. 

 

I'm not interested in immortality.  A lot of people are, I know.  That's what most religions are about.  But all religions are absurd.  Immortality is one sliver of their absurdity.  They all seem to like the idea of living beyond death.  I wonder why. 

 

You really expect to be quickly forgotten? 

 

Oh, I'm willing to admit that it's possible that people might remember me for some years after I die. 

 

You do care, a little? 

 

A little, yes.  I can't say I don't give a damn one way or the other.  That's just egocentricity though. 

 

Still, it took an hour to get it out of you. 

 

You mean, to make me admit I'm egocentric?  (laughs)   Well, congratulations! 

 

 

Recorded in Tangier on December 1, 1997

Copyright © 1998, Phillip Ramey

 

 

PHILLIP RAMEY is an American composer and writer and long-time friend and former neighbor of Paul Bowles, whom he first met in New York in 1969 through their mutual friend Aaron Copland. From 1977 to 1993, he was annotator and program editor of the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned and premiered his Horn Concerto to celebrate its 150th anniversary. He has written hundreds of essays for recordings, along with the biography Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time, published in December 2005 by Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress, which subsequently received the prestigious Deems Taylor / Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography. In March 2006, the British label Toccata Classics released a CD containing a forty-year survey of his piano music, performed by Stephen Gosling, available internationally (TOCC 0029). Ramey’s most recent large-scale works are J.F.K.: Oration for Speaker and Orchestra (with texts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy) and Piano Sonata No. 6. This interview originally appeared in the May 8, 1998 issue of the LA Weekly.

 

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