Monday, May 24, 2010

Paul Bowles: Exile on Maghreb Street

2010 marks the centenary of the birth of Paul Bowles (1910-1999). Writer, composer, traveller and musicologist, self-imposed Moroccan exile and cult figure of American letters, he's perhaps best known for his first novel, The Sheltering Sky (filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990), which he didn't write until aged forty.

I've liked his writing, and especially his short stories, since first visiting Morocco in the mid-90s. His fiction often depicts Americans out of their depth in foreign climes, more often than not leading to violent, terrifying consequences (there is no happy ending in a Bowles story). Enigmatic, spare, detached, brutal and mysterious, his short stories are what Gore Vidal called "among the best ever written by an American". Later stories would feature mainly Moroccan characters, and were influenced by kif, which he took regularly, and tales of magic, folklore and superstition. As well as his short stories, he wrote four novels, travel stories, and translated Moroccan writers' work.

Bowles was an only child and an artistic prodigy. He sold paintings and had his surrealist poetry appear in magazines before the age of 20. He gave up poetry (perhaps because Gertrude Stein dismissed it – she also urged him to visit Morocco) and concentrated on music. He became a well-respected composer in New York in the 20s and 30s, studying under Aaron Copland. Now largely forgotten as a composer (in Alex Ross's excellent overview of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise, he gets but a few passing mentions), perhaps because he wrote 'frivolous', light music (in stark contrast to his later writing), for musicals, theatre and some films.

His social circle around this time was – and continued to be for most of his life – staggering. It reads like a who's who of 20th century artists, musicians and writers. He worked with, or was friends with, or met: Gertrude Stein, Kurt Schwitters, Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Leonard Bernstein, Max Ernst, Hans Richer, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazen, Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Truman Copote, Jean Cocteau, Patricia Highsmith, WH Auden, John Cale, Ezra Pound, Salvador Dali, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Miro, Francis Bacon, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg...

Since the 1930s he travelled constantly – to North Africa, Europe, Latin America, Sri Lanka, India. Even when he lived in New York he seemed to be moving apartments every couple of weeks.

Presumably homosexual (though possibly asexual), it's surprising to hear that he got married, to Jane Auer, a rampant lesbian, in 1937. It seemed to suit both of them, and they were great friends, even if they did tend to live separate lives a lot of the time.

He started writing music reviews – and then short stories – in the mid-40s. By 1949 he had published a collection of short stories and the novel The Sheltering Sky, which was a huge success. By now he had settled more or less permanently in Tangier, Morocco, where he would live for the rest of his life.

In the late 1950s, with the aid of an American grant, he toured Morocco with a tape recorder to record the indigenous music of the country. He amassed a huge and important collection of a dying art, only a fraction of which has been released.

By the 60s he had lost his (mainly American and European) public (his writing was never popular in his adopted Morocco); perhaps because his stories no longer featured American protagonists, and he spent so little time in the literary circles of Europe or New York. But the influx of beat writers to Tangier around this time, including Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al, rekindled an interest in his work.

By the 1970s and with the death of his wife, he produced less work. He began to translate Moroccan oral stories, which led to their publication and a greater understanding of Moroccan culture. In the 1980s he produced some fine new collections of short stories, including Midnight Mass and Points in Time, still displaying his by now trademark style of razor sharp prose, ice-cold detachment, foreigners out of their depth, and lashings of violence.

A superb introduction to Bowles as storyteller, composer and collector of traditional Moroccan music can be found in the free (and legal) hour-long 'audio portrait' at, called The Voices of Paul Bowles. It features Bowles reading several of his short stories, as well as extracts from his classical music and the Moroccan music he recorded in the 1950s.

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