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!
Bowles’s anxiety not to give offence developed early. In his autobiography Without Stopping (1972) – a self-portrait so unrevealing that William Burroughs renamed it Without Telling – Bowles describes some of the ruses and deceits he evolved so as to avoid the wrath of his near-psychotic father, Claude Bowles, whose methods of child-rearing seem to have derived from ancient Sparta: according to Bowles’s grandmother, one blizzardy midwinter night Bowles senior yanked his six-week-old son from bed, stripped him naked, and left him all night in a wicker basket outside on the window sill. ‘My father’s philosophy,’ Bowles explains, ‘was that you force the child to do what it doesn’t want to do. Whatever I liked, I must not get near. Whatever I hated, I must be thrown into. So I had to begin to pretend to hate what I liked, and to like what I hated.’ As he grew older he learned to think of himself as ‘a registering consciousness and no more. My non-existence was a sine qua non for the validity of the invented cosmos. I received and recorded; others were people and had lives.’
On the whole, though, Bowles’s recordings seem inspired more by places than by people. The desire for fresh locations is perhaps the most consistent theme of these letters. Bowles is always happiest when in transit, particularly on boats carrying him away from his native shores towards some untravelled region: Central America in the mid-Thirties, the nether reaches of the Sahara in the Forties, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the early Fifties, where he bought an island off the coast that could only be reached by wading across reeking mudflats at low tide. Even Tangier, where Bowles has mainly resided for the last four decades, figures in his writings less as home than as a neutral stopping-off place in which he has indecisively lingered. The first thing visitors to his flat there notice is a vast pile of tagged and battered suitcases, and a stack of luggage lurks in the background of the photograph of Bowles used on the cover of this book.
Such wanderings enable him to preserve and focus the alienated consciousness central to his fictional ideals; nearly all his stories evoke particular landscapes in a style of dispassionate precision designed to make human strivings look blinkered and hopeless. Many climax with an image rather too obviously symbolic of the world’s absurdity, and man’s instinctive cruelty to man. At the end of ‘A Distant Episode’, for instance, an idling French soldier takes a pot-shot at the fleeing professor for luck, then watches a while, ‘smiling, as the cavorting figure grew smaller in the oncoming evening darkness, and the rattling of the tin became part of the great silence out there beyond the gate’. ‘The Delicate Prey’ is more gruesome still. It describes the murder by a Moungari tribesman of three Arab leather merchants crossing the desert by camel. The youngest of his victims gets tortured as well; the Moungari cuts off his penis, slits open his belly, stuffs in the organ, rapes him, and the next morning saws through his windpipe. Then the Moungari foolishly attempts to sell the traders’ leather at a market. Handed over to their tribe for revenge, he is taken out to the desert and buried alive to the neck, where he soon succumbs to the standard Bowles delirium: ‘heat, thirst, fire, visions ... The next night he did not know where he was, did not feel the cold. The wind blew dust along the ground into his mouth as he sang.’ Bowles was especially flattered by Tennessee Williams’s response to this macabre narrative. ‘Oh, I think it’s wonderful, Paul,’ Williams declared: ‘But you mustn’t publish that story. People will think you’re a monster.’
It is clear that Bowles felt such stories conveyed undeniable truths about the world as clinically as possible, but his meticulously indifferent prose continually alerts one to the personal animus directing events. The more Bowles proclaims his own objectivity, the more uncomfortably conscious the reader grows of the constricting, over-determining aspects of his writing.
Bowles took up fiction relatively late in life, in his mid-thirties. He initially trained as a composer under Aaron Copland, with whom he travelled to Europe in the spring of 1931. Later that year his first composition, Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, was performed in London. Over the next two decades Bowles earned his living mainly by writing film scores, incidental theatre music (for such as Orson Welles, William Saroyan and Tennessee Williams), ballets and music reviews. His interest in fiction developed only after his marriage to Jane Bowles (née Auer), and specifically out of the experience of assisting her to shape her gloriously original novel Two Serious Ladies, published in 1943. The letters printed here don’t, alas, shed all that much light on the couple’s first years together, which were spent mainly in Mexico and New York, where they took up residence at 7 Middagh Street with Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Co. The book includes only a handful of letters from the period 1938 (when they married) to 1947, during which time Jane Bowles – immeasurably the greater writer – composed just about her entire oeuvre.
The marriage was not a conventional one: Jane was a highly active lesbian, while Paul appears never to have been particularly interested in sex, though on the whole inclined more towards men than women. Legend has it that the first time they met, Jane declared, ‘he is my enemy,’ and certainly their temperaments and lifestyles could hardly have been more antithetical: anecdotes, interviews and these letters reveal Paul as austere, watchful, disengaged, hardworking, whereas Jane emerges from Millicent Dillon’s biography of 1981 and from her correspondence (published in 1985) as a dangerously glamorous figure – charismatic, impulsive, always amusing, riven with anxieties, forever lurching from one alcoholic binge, minor trauma or unhappy love affair to the next.
Their association lasted, nevertheless, through all vicissitudes until Jane’s death in a convent hospital in Malaga in 1973. Sixteen years earlier she had suffered a stroke that effectively ended her literary career, since it made reading and writing either impossible or painfully laborious. Despite the odd aside, no firm opinions are offered in these letters about the causes of Jane’s collapse, which it has often been alleged was the result of systematic poisoning by her Moroccan lover Cherifa, with whom she was involved for much of the time she was in Tangier. ‘Whenever I disappear Cherifa takes over with her potions, and Jane goes into a tailspin,’ Bowles notes in a letter of 1967. Cherifa was working in the grain market selling wheat when Paul introduced her to his wife in 1948. For many years she resisted Jane’s overtures, but after finally embarking on the relationship took to planting tseuheurs about Jane’s apartment – magic charms to attain power over one’s lover, consisting of antimony, pubic hairs and menstrual blood – and in due course Jane made over to Cherifa not only money and possessions, but the flat in the Casbah that Paul had purchased in the late Forties. It’s a pity Cherifa didn’t cast a spell to ease the writer’s block which undoubtedly did poison Jane’s existence in Tangier: ‘In the twenty years that I have lived here,’ she observed towards the end of her life, ‘I have written only two short stories, and nothing else. It’s good for Paul, but not for me.’
Whereas Paul’s pitilessly contrived narratives serve always to illustrate his nihilistic premonitions of doom, Jane Bowles’s best writing is exhilaratingly unpredictable; her prose somehow creates the sense that at almost any moment life may turn mysteriously exciting, or, conversely, be drained of possibility altogether. The short story ‘Looking for Lane’ concerns two sisters who in childhood played a particularly intense form of hide-and-seek that is in many ways analogous to the plain – and not so plain – pleasures of her own fiction:
Finally the search extended over the countryside and Dora allowed her imagination to run wild. For example, she imagined once that she would find Lane’s body dismembered on the railroad tracks. Her feelings about this were mixed. The important thing was that the land became a magic one the moment the search began. Sometimes Lane didn’t hide at all, and Dora would discover her in the nursery after searching for nearly a whole afternoon. On such occasions she would become so depressed she wouldn’t eat.
The grand project on which she was at work – or not – during her Moroccan years was to be called Out in the World, which itself indicates the overall direction in which her protagonists generally move, or at least attempt to. While the plots of Paul Bowles’s fiction tend to climax in some ultimate expulsion or isolation – a father seduced and then blackmailed by his own son (‘Pages from Cold Point’), a bank clerk driven first to theft, then flight, and finally murder (Let it Come Down) – many of Jane Bowles’s central figures seek means of connecting with the world beyond, though their methods are often bizarre in the extreme. In Two Serious Ladies, Mr Copperfield (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul Bowles) sets off alone for the jungles of Central America, while the formerly rather genteel Mrs Copperfield takes up lodgings in a Colón brothel, gets permanently drunk, and initiates an all-consuming affair with a teenage Panamanian prostitute called Pacifica. The even more extraordinary Miss Goering – the other serious lady of the title – develops, despite her fabulous wealth, into the most unlikely gangster’s moll ever. The two friends meet again towards the end of the novel in a New York restaurant as Miss Goering waits for her thuggish paramour to conclude some shady deal.
‘But you have gone to pieces,’ Miss Goering exclaims, ‘or I do misjudge you dreadfully.’
‘True enough,’ said Mrs Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. ‘I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.’
The fragments of Out in the World that survive indicate that as a writer Jane Bowles was aiming at a similar kind of ‘authority’; her new book was to be ‘classical – 19th-century – in style and in structure’, but the more wide-ranging her outlook became, the more insuperable grew the problems involved in its expression:
‘It must be real to me, otherwise I can’t write it,’ she declares in a letter of 1950. Paul relates how one day she asked him exactly how a cantilever bridge was built. He answered as best he could, but four days later she was still stuck. Finally he asked: ‘Why do you have to construct the damned thing? Why can’t you just say it was there and let it go at that?’ To which she replied: ‘If I don’t know how it was built, I can’t see it.’
Paul himself suffered no such compositional agonies, once on his way; by the time of her death he had published four novels, dozens of short stories, a book of travel essays, his autobiography, and the first of the 13 volumes of oral tales that he taped and then translated from colloquial Moroccan. Their letters to each other are full of mutual encouragements and exhortations, but the fact is that she wrote when he didn’t, and then vice versa.
Their writings do share, however, the ability to attract small but fiercely dedicated followings. Jane appears to have been irritated rather than pleased by the cult status accorded Two Serious Ladies and her brilliantly intriguing play In the Summerhouse, both of which she hoped would end up mainstream commercial successes rather than collectors’ items. When In the Summerhouse closed after a two-month run on Broadway in 1954, she told an interviewer from Vogue: ‘There’s no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends. You have to reach more people.’
Paul seems always to have been more phlegmatic about such matters. Even when fame finally comes knocking on his door in the shape of Bernardo Bertolucci, John Malkovitch, Debra Winger, and a whole Hollywood camera crew, he remains resolutely sceptical – in the event, more or less correctly so.