His v. Hers

Mark Ford

  • In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles edited by Jeffrey Miller
    HarperCollins, 604 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 00 255535 2

The final section of Paul Bowles’s most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky, is prefaced by a quotation from Kafka that encapsulates the narrative trajectory of just about everything Bowles has ever written: ‘From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’ With obsessive frequency Bowles’s short stories and novels feature characters propelled beyond the boundaries of their own cultural milieux towards realms they can neither control nor comprehend, and in which even their sufferings become meaningless. In one of his earliest stories, ‘A Distant Episode’, a professor of linguistics investigating Arabic dialects is captured by a band of Reguibat nomads, who beat him, cut out his tongue, and drape him with strings of empty tin cans. He is forced to perform a ridiculous dance for their amusement, and in time grows accustomed to his role as the tribe’s jester. When he finally escapes, rather than attempting to return to Western civilisation, he immediately flees back into the wilderness.

‘A Distant Episode’ was published in Partisan Review in 1947, and caused quite a stir. On the strength of it Bowles was offered an advance on his first novel, and set off for the Sahara. There he wrote The Sheltering Sky, in which the heroine Kit suffers a similar derangement of the senses; on the death of her husband Port from typhoid fever she joins a caravan of Arabs crossing the desert, is raped, imprisoned, brutalised, and ends up as crazy and alienated as the tongueless professor.

Behind Kafka’s quest for the point of no return, there always seems to be some metaphysical, even religious impulse, but Bowles’s protagonists are stripped of dignity and identity in a manner calculated to depress the reader on as many fronts as possible. ‘My own design has been to re-create reality in such a way that it becomes unreal, impossible wouldn’t you say?’ he suggests in a letter to Alec France, a young graduate student who began a dissertation on Bowles’s fiction in the early Seventies, but, a note informs us, committed suicide midway through his research.

The compulsion to prove existence ‘impossible’ seems to lie at the heart of Bowles’s aesthetics; his ideal artist is a purely negative force, an undercover agent whose mission is to undermine all forms of living: the writer ‘doesn’t exist – he’s a cipher, a blank. A spy sent into life by the forces of death. Then he can be given a mythical personality: “He spent his time among us, betrayed us, and took the material across the border.” ’ Though the artist may appear to engage with the quotidian and the circumstantial, these involvements are only false fronts masking a supreme detachment; the true writer ‘never participates in anything; his pretences at it are mimetic.’

Such comments – made in a letter of 1966 – are best understood in the context of French Existentialist writing, and reveal a particular debt to the novels of André Gide, whose Faux-Monnayeurs inspired Bowles when still in his teens to abscond from college and make off for Paris, where he spent a few appropriately vagabondish months. Other early literary enthusiasms disclosed here include the violent Gothic figments of Lautréamont, the pre-war writings of Sartre (whose Huis Clos Bowles translated in 1946), and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, just about the only American writer Bowles appears to value at all.

Unfortunately, Bowles’s concept of the writer as untraceable spy operates throughout his correspondence as well as his fiction. ‘If you get a letter from Paul, it’s about what he had for breakfast,’ Gore Vidal once complained. Bowles more or less agrees:

I can’t believe I ever wrote an ‘interesting’ letter. It seems to me a good letter has to have the smell of the personality of the one who writes it. And I think my eagerness to avoid leaving any such smell is the same, whether it’s a letter or a novel or whatever. Don’t risk giving offence with halitosis or BO!

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