Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Stories of Paul Bowles

The author, composer, and translator Paul Bowles was raised on the stories of Poe and Hawthorne, and, like them, a not-so-subtle menace pervades his stories. Bowles exhibits no sentimentality in his writings but rather approaches the world as an outsider, an anthropologist of strangeness and cruelty. He is best in his stories of Morocco, which gives him an ideal stage for his dramas of fear and violence, the legitimate terror of the outsider in an inescapable downward spiral of detachment from identity. I think of the linguistics professor in one of Bowles’ most famous stories, “A Distant Episode”, whose western identity is severed when his tongue is violently (and needless to say, ironically) slashed from his mouth. Like Professor Unrat in the film “The Blue Angel”, his cultural persona flows from him like blood and he becomes less a man than a pathetic object of scorn and ridicule, wandering in incoherence, tin can lids jangling from his clothes for the amusement of ragged children. After many readings, the sudden and shocking violence of “The Delicate Prey” still gives rise to revulsion in the throat, and the deformed keeper of the underground pool in “By the Water” plays upon our age-old contempt for the grotesque. It is in the exploitation of the fearfully grotesque that Bowles found his m├ętier.

A true expatriate, Bowles had the means to travel widely, and locales as diverse as Mexico and Sri Lanka show up in his stories. There are rare touches of humor, such as in “You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus”, but there are also instances of true American gothic, such as the madman of “If I Should Open My Mouth”, a 1954 tale of product tampering and the perverse “Pages from Cold Point”, an almost Nabokovian tale of seduction.

Bowles long had a reputation as a writer’s writer, and for many years his novels such as The Sheltering Sky, Up Above the World, and The Spider’s House languished in hard to find editions, until they were revived in the 1980’s. For the Beats, Bowles was a link to the past and a certain sort of respectability, and Burroughs and Ginsberg played out some of their most memorable antics in Bowles’ Tangier, the Interzone of Burroughs classic Naked Lunch. Later on, lured by his reputation as a composer and musicologist who pioneered recordings of the musicians of the Rif Mountains, Jagger and Jones sought him out (see Bowles’ notes for “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka”). In truth, through recordings and translations, he did an invaluable service in attempting to preserve aspects of Moroccan culture before it became too contaminated by outside influences.

In documentary film and books such as Michelle Green’s The Dream at the End of the World, Bowles in old age became a pop icon, the dandy who traveled into the Sahara with a dozen trunks full of nappy suits and ties. The attention is deserved, but should not distract from the essence of Bowles: his novels, travel writings, memoirs, and short stories. Paul Bowles died in 1999.