Avoid the Orient
- Paul Bowles: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr
Peter Owen, 431 pp, £19.95, July 2005, ISBN 0 7206 1254 3
Long before the sin of Orientalism was discovered, Paul Bowles had frequently been guilty of it, in word, in thought and in deed. In his first stories, for example, the natives are shining examples of naked otherness, created partly to refresh our view concerning the mixture of simplicity, guile and sexual beauty available in remote places. The white heroes, on the other hand, are neurotic and complex. Against artless allure, they have technology and a gnarled consciousness. When left to their own devices, the natives are cruel and irrational, in need of guidance and tips and the wisdom of Western laws and the bright, clear line of Western narrative. Bowles’s trick as a narrator is to make each side as unreliable as the other. While one side merely look like animals, the others, travelling with money and attitude, act like animals whenever they can, or else feel sorry for themselves when opportunities to do so do not come in sufficient quantity.
‘Indians, poor things, animals with speech,’ Lucha says to her brother in ‘At Paso Rojo’, the first story in Bowles’s first book of stories, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, published in 1950. They need, she insists, ‘a strong hand and no pity’. When Chaliá, her sister, attempts to seduce one of them she notices that ‘his face had become an impenetrable mask; he seemed not to be thinking of anything, not even to be present.’ Later, when she watches him bathing naked, ‘wholly conscious of her presence at that moment’, she decides to have him fired. ‘The idea of vengeance upon the boy filled her with a delicious excitement.’ In ‘Call at Corazon’, from the same volume, the waiter on the boat with ‘his broad, somewhat simian face . . . gave an impression of purely animal force.’ The husband of a deeply neurotic honeymoon couple asks his wife: ‘How are the mosquitoes? Did my monkey man come and fix you up?’ Soon, of course, he will find his wife with a member of the crew, possibly even the monkey man himself. Sex in the tropics comes cheap and strange.
So strange indeed that two stories, both written onboard ships, had to be omitted from the English edition of Bowles’s first book, which was entitled A Little Stone. The first of these, ‘The Delicate Prey’, set in Morocco, is Bowles at his most deeply Orientalist. Two native brothers and their nephew in a bare North African landscape are met by a stranger who, despite their hospitality, feels free to murder the two brothers and castrate the nephew. Having done so, ‘a new idea came to him. It would be pleasant to inflict an ultimate indignity upon the young Filali. He threw himself down; this time he was vociferous and leisurely in his enjoyment. Eventually he slept.’ Eventually the murderer is found and murdered in turn.
The narrator of the other story, ‘Pages from Cold Point’, is equally leisurely, almost languorous, in his account of life after his wife’s death when he and his son Racky leave by Pan American for an isolated holding on an island off Cuba, a pure paradise. (‘The servants are clean and quiet, and the work seems to be accomplished almost automatically. The good, black servants are another blessing of the islands.’) All is perfect by the pool. (‘There too I like to lie in the sun; when I climb out of the water I often remove my trunks and lie stark naked on the springboard. I regularly make fun of Racky because he is embarrassed to do the same. Occasionally he will do it, but never without being coaxed.’) Racky, however, is not attending school; instead, he is coming to the attention of the local police, who visit his father to complain: ‘He has no shame. He does what he pleases with all the young boys, and the men too, and gives them a shilling so they won’t tell about it.’
In publishing these stories Bowles joined Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin as one of the pioneers of gay fiction in America. Williams read ‘The Delicate Prey’ while accompanying Bowles to Tangier on the SS Vulcania in December 1948. ‘It was a stormy crossing, and I stayed in my cabin most of the time,’ Bowles said.
I also wrote a story during the crossing, which I called ‘The Delicate Prey’, and gave it to Tennessee to read on the ship. The tale itself was based on an actual happening, but Tennessee thought I had made the whole thing up. The next day he brought it back to me and said: ‘It is a wonderful story, but if you publish it, you’re mad.’
Williams later remarked: ‘I recognised it as a beautiful piece of prose but advised him against its publication in the States. You see, my shocking stories had been published in expensive private editions by New Directions and never exhibited on a bookstore counter.’ When he returned to New York, Williams told a friend: ‘It wasn’t the Arabs I was afraid of while I was in Tangier; it was Paul Bowles, whose chilling stories filled me with horror.’ ‘The Delicate Prey’ was published in Tangier a few weeks after it was written, in a magazine called Zero. ‘I thought no one would ever see it there,’ Bowles said, ‘except possibly a few hundred readers who regularly read the magazine. I was mistaken, of course.’
Bowles made North Africa seem thrilling and alarming, which must have pleased the readers of his stories as they appeared in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar. Readers of the Partisan Review also must have been chilled to the bone at ‘A Distant Episode’ – the story of the Professor, a linguist wandering in North Africa, who has his tongue cut out by a bunch of marauders – which appeared there in 1947:
The man looked at him dispassionately in the grey morning light. With one hand he pinched together the Professor’s nostrils. When the Professor opened his mouth to breathe, the man swiftly seized his tongue and pulled on it with all his might. The Professor was gagging and catching his breath; he did not see what was happening. He could not distinguish the pain of the brutal yanking from that of the sharp knife. Then there was an endless choking and spitting that went on automatically, as though he were scarcely a part of it. The word ‘operation’ kept going through his mind, it calmed his terror somewhat as he sank back into darkness.
The passage has all the hallmarks of Bowles. It is clearly written, coldly imagined, cruel and sensual at the same time. Only half of it is credible, but that half – the first four sentences – brilliantly so, especially the bit about the nostrils. The last three sentences are simply made up; instead of terrorising the reader, they offer relief from the real terror of imagining what it might be like to have your tongue cut out. Much of Bowles’s writing is, in his own phrase, ‘half sinister, half farcical’. His Orientalism came light and was often harmless.
‘I reject moral messages unless they’re my own,’ Bowles told an interviewer in 1971. Sometimes his own were very heavy-handed. When the Professor in ‘A Distant Episode’ tells his driver he is a linguist, the driver replies: ‘There are no languages here. Only dialects.’ The Professor responds: ‘Exactly. I’m making a survey of variations on Moghrebi.’ The 1971 interviewer made the point to Bowles that the story ‘shocks at the same time as it teaches’. Bowles replied: ‘Precisely. If there is anything to teach in “A Distant Episode”, it can only be taught through shock.’ The lesson of the story and indeed its shock were not, one hopes, lost on readers of the Partisan Review: professors looking for new dialects in strange countries can have their tongues cut out by the people whose dialects they wish to steal and take home.
Bowles’s best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky, was written after ‘A Distant Episode’. ‘I knew it was going to take place in the desert,’ Bowles told an interviewer, ‘and that it was going to be basically the story of the professor in “A Distant Episode” . . . I wanted to tell what the desert can do to us. That was all. The desert is the protagonist.’ Later, when an interviewer asked him if it was ‘in any way autobiographical’, Bowles replied:
No, not at all. None of it ever happened, to my knowledge. But I’d been to all the places I described and other locations I visited while I was actually writing the book in 1948. Wrote most of the story while travelling around the Sahara, so it was a combination of memory writing and minute descriptions of whatever place I was in at the moment.
Later again, he told another interviewer:
I find the desert very exciting, because there’s nothing there. You won’t find a tree or a rock or a bush. You won’t find anything at all, except sand dunes. You can pretend you’re lost in there. You can get lost in there. It’s very beautiful. Even Jane [his wife] thought it very beautiful, the most beautiful place you ever saw. I don’t try to analyse the emotions of any of my characters. I don’t give them emotions. You can explain a thought but not an emotion. You can’t use emotions. There’s nothing you can do with them.
Paul Bowles was born in Long Island in 1910. His father, whom he seemed to despise, was a dentist. He studied briefly at the University of Virginia. He began as a poet and composer, coming under the influence of both Gertrude Stein and Aaron Copland. In 1931, with Copland, he visited Morocco for the first time. He wrote a great number of scores for films and plays as well as classical compositions. When he attended one of his son’s concerts, Bowles’s father remarked: ‘And this is where our tax money goes now. My God!’ Bowles got money from his family, and made money from his scores: ‘If I did three or four shows in a year I had plenty to live on. For those days. I could make, oh, seven to ten thousand a year.’ ‘The intent of his music in all forms is to please,’ Ned Rorem remarked, ‘and to please through light colours and gentle textures and amusing rhythms, novel for the time, and quite lean, like their author.’ Virgil Thomson later tried to explain why Bowles’s scores were so successful: ‘He does what nearly every musician in the world would say, on principle, can’t be done. He writes chamber music to accompany large theatrical productions . . . His emphasis comes from contrast of tune and timbre, from structure and harmonic progress, never from weight. He leaves that to the actors.’
Bowles espoused fashionable left-wing causes and went to Mexico in 1937 to drum up support for the assassination of Trotsky. Despite his affluent background, he sought state relief as a poor composer. He received $23.86 a week until the investigator went to his parents’ house and was told to go to the servants’ entrance. ‘Not in present need,’ he reported. In 1938, despite his homosexuality and hers, or perhaps because of them, Bowles married Jane Auer. When his father learned that Jane was Jewish, he remarked: ‘It’s not enough that we have a crippled kike in the White House, but you have to go and marry one’ (Jane had a slight limp).
In September 1940, when Bowles, still a member of the Communist Party, was called before a draft board, he told them: ‘I could not sleep in a room or barracks with other men . . . I had always, without exception, slept alone with my door locked.’ When Tennessee Williams was also rejected, Bowles declared: ‘I’m not sure why Tennessee was turned down, but I assumed it was his poor eyesight. I am sure he did not have my hang-up about locked doors.’
By 1950, like many before him, he seems to have abandoned his left-wing views and replaced them with other views, such as these on service in Ceylon: ‘The way one is taken care of by the servants appeals to me . . . There is no such thing as service in Europe or America after one has been attended to by Sinhalese.’
Bowles became interested in writing fiction when he worked with his wife on her novel Two Serious Ladies, which was published in 1943. It was going over this manuscript, he said, ‘that gave me the original impetus to consider the possibility of writing a novel’. In 1985, he told Jay McInerney: ‘I got really interested in the whole process, and thought, I wish I had written this book. I started writing stories about two years after she published her novel.’ He translated Sartre’s Huis Clos and Borges’s story ‘The Circular Ruins’. He published his first stories in 1945 and The Sheltering Sky in September 1949.
Bowles’s method in The Sheltering Sky is to present three highly self-conscious American characters wandering freely in North Africa. He allows them to travel in search of some ineffable experience, away from the filth of Western culture, towards a strange, almost deadened sense of self. He gives them hardly any past, merely some thoughts and observations and appetites. In Hemingway and Baldwin, this lack of a back story can make the present moment in the novel seem more powerful, but in Bowles it merely emphasises the characters’ flatness. There is also a foolishness that neither Hemingway nor Baldwin would have risked.
His main character, Port, for example, goes for a cycle ride with his wife, Kit. ‘Sunset is such a sad hour,’ she says. It would be best for the reader if Port did not reply, or if he said something smart, but Bowles can’t resist allowing him some high-toned banalities: ‘If I watch the end of a day – any day – I always feel it’s the end of a whole epoch. And the autumn! It might as well be the end of everything.’ Soon, he has more to say: ‘You know, the sky here’s very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind.’ Kit, of course, shudders slightly before she repeats: ‘From what’s behind?’ Port replies: ‘Yes.’ Then Kit asks, quite rightly perhaps: ‘But what is behind?’ Bowles adds: ‘Her voice was very small.’
In all these excruciating encounters between Port and Kit, or between Kit and the third American, Tunner, there is always an Arab close by who is doing something alarming. The scene above is no exception:
As they stepped around the side of a boulder they came all at once on a man, seated with his burnous pulled up about his neck – so that he was stark naked from the shoulders down – deeply immersed in the business of shaving his pubic hair with a long pointed knife. He glanced up at them with indifference as they passed before him, immediately lowering his head again to continue the careful operation.
Bowles’s prose moves from the deeply numinous (‘For in order to avoid having to deal with relative values, he had long since come to deny all purpose to the phenomenon of existence – it was more expedient and comforting’) to the barest cliché. When Kit sleeps with Tunner, for example, she feels guilty and afraid. ‘Then she began a careful search for any trace of Tunner that might be left in the room. A black hair on the pillow caused her heart to skip a beat; she dropped it out the window.’
Just as cliché is freely used, and animal imagery freely employed to describe the locals, sex is always close by. Port has his moments with a number of North African women, but it is Kit who gets the best lines, when, Port having died of typhoid, she joins a caravan across the desert and is dragged to the ground at night by a man called Belqassim:
Then she realised her helplessness and accepted it. Straightaway she was conscious only of his lips and the breath coming from between them, sweet and fresh as a spring morning in childhood. There was an animal-like quality in the firmness with which he held her, affectionate, sensuous, wholly irrational – gentle but of a determination that only death could gainsay.
Reading this, it is not hard to understand why The Sheltering Sky made a deep impression on two of the most gullible forces in the Western world in the second half of the 20th century – the American public and Bernardo Bertolucci. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list from 1 January to 12 March 1950. Its first paperback printing was 200,000 copies. It was a selection of the Book of the Month Club. Bertolucci made a film of it in 1990.
Bowles’s second novel, Let It Come Down, published in 1952, also made the New York Times bestseller list; the paper’s Book Review devoted the front page to it. The book is as alarming as The Sheltering Sky, but contains more comic interludes. Bowles, who was not behind the door when self-importance was being distributed, later claimed that The Sheltering Sky ‘gives the naturalistic view of man – a puny creature defeated by a nature, or by a God, that is indifferent, that doesn’t care. Let It Come Down extends this view of man, I think, and gives it an existential context.’
It tells the story of Dyar, a bored bank clerk in New York, who is invited by a friend who runs a travel agency in Tangier to come and work there. The portrait of the city’s International Zone is rich in detail. Everyone Western is a crook, a drunk or a sexual predator, and soon they are joined by Dyar. Once more there are images of Arabs in a state of high sexual frenzy. Dyar finds that Hadija, a local girl whom he met in the Bar Lucifer, is willing to come on a picnic with him so they can have sex in a cave. As they walk along the beach they see local boys
running about stark naked. They were of an age when one would have expected them to want to cover their nudity at the arrival of a girl, but that seemed to be the last thing in their minds. As Dyar and Hadija approached, they set up a joyous cry, some assuming indecent postures as they called out, the others entering into group activities of an unmistakably erotic nature.
Dyar, of course, thinks that they are ‘like monkeys’, just as later, when he sees ‘an oversized Berber’ in a doorway, he looks at ‘the Neanderthal head, the deep furrows in the slanting forehead and the brows that formed a single ragged line across the face, and knew that for such a man there were no halfway measures’.
Dyar thinks that Hadija is ‘not a real person; it could not matter what a toy did.’ He himself is barely real either. He is, as one of the other characters views him, ‘a painting seen in semi-darkness’. While his appetites and actions are described in detail, his mind is barely disturbed by the novelist, so he does not suffer much from any regular set of fears or cautious sentiments or suspicions. His not being really alive might have been a deliberate and risky decision by Bowles, but it makes him most of the time as interesting and credible as a blank page. His arrival in Tangier in the first place is unlikely, and his activities there do not help. The book is rescued, to a small extent, by the weather, which is foul and brilliantly described, and by the presence of a number of comic characters, Western denizens of Tangier, most notably a rich lady called Daisy, who has a grand house and many servants, and a large lesbian called ‘Uncle’ Eunice Goode, who stays in bed in her hotel a great deal when she is not in hot and determined pursuit of Hadija.
When one of the locals, who has his own designs on Hadija, accuses all Westerners of wanting ‘us all to be snake-charmers and scorpion-eaters’, Eunice replies: ‘It would be far preferable to being a nation of tenth-rate, pseudo-civilised rug-sellers.’ Bowles allows this nation, however, to enjoy the Westerners as spectacle. Two rich brothers, the Beadaoui, give parties for Westerners and a few powerful Muslims
in order to entertain these few Muslim guests, to whom the unaccountable behaviour of Europeans never ceased to be a fascinating spectacle. Most of the Europeans, of course, thought that the Muslim gentlemen were invited to add local colour and praised the Beadaoui brothers for their cleverness in knowing so well just what sort of Arab could mix properly with foreigners.
Dyar circles foolishly in this comedy of East-West relations, the shine taken off the narrative by his constant feeling, shared by the reader, that none of this is really happening. ‘All this was too unlikely,’ he feels, ‘it was weighted down with the senseless, indefinable weight of things in a dream, the kind of dream where each simple object, each motion, even the light in the sky, is heavy with silent meaning. There had to be a break; some air had to come.’ Instead of air, there is some terrible writing to come: ‘Life is not a movement towards or away from anything; not even from the past to the future, or from youth to old age, or from birth to death. The whole of life does not equal the sum of its parts. It equals any one of the parts; there is no sum.’
Dyar, one of Paul Bowles’s most empty vessels, can of course be filled, indeed be made to spill over, by North Africa itself. Having made off with someone else’s money, he finds himself wandering the dark streets. He chances on a café in which he smokes some kif and watches a man dancing. The dancer takes out a knife and, in a frenzy of movement, begins to cut his arms and legs. Bowles’s prose rises floridly to the occasion.
Dyar was there, scarcely breathing. It could not be said that he watched now, because in his mind he had moved forward from looking on, to a kind of participation. With each gesture the man made at this point, he felt a sympathetic desire to cry out in triumph. The mutilation was being done for him, to him; it was his own blood that spattered onto the drums and made the floor slippery. In a world which had not yet been muddied by the discovery of thought, there was this certainty, as solid as a boulder, as real as the beating of his heart, that the man was dancing to purify all who watched.
Bowles wrote the last part of the book, in which this passage appears, in Xauen in Morocco, where he witnessed a man dancing and cutting himself in this way. He wrote every night after dinner. ‘After I had worked for half or three-quarters of an hour, and it was going along, I would smoke,’ he told an interviewer. ‘That made it possible for me to write four or five hours rather than only two, which is all I can usually do. The kif gave me a much longer breath.’
When Dyar gets back to the house where he is staying, he takes majoun and the trip he experiences offers Bowles further opportunity to write big, long, snaking half-meaningless sentences. Eventually, as Dyar manages to hammer a nail into the ear of his Moroccan guide, Bowles in turn manages two clear sentences. ‘He raised his right arm and hit the head of the nail with all his might’ and ‘The nail was as firmly embedded as if it had been driven into a coconut.’
By the early 1950s, Bowles had established himself more or less permanently in Morocco. Despite his reputation as a miser, he bought a new Jaguar convertible and employed a uniformed chauffeur to drive him to the Algerian Sahara. Both he and his wife developed close relations with a number of Moroccans. One of them, Ahmed ben Driss el Yacoubi, later became a well-known painter, encouraged to begin by Jane Bowles. Bowles first met him when he was 16 and said of him: ‘I was determined to know him better. He was primitive, and his reactions were those of a primitive. That was what fascinated me. I don’t think I’d ever known anyone so primitive, and when we became better acquainted, I encouraged him not to lose that quality.’ Unlike his wife, Bowles did not at first bother learning the language: ‘I had neither the time nor the desire. I was busy working, writing and writing music. Everything I was interested in reading or speaking was already available in languages I did know.’ Bowles began to enjoy the local brand of weed, which Yacoubi’s mother provided for him.
As visitors came and went, Bowles remained in Tangier, until he became one of its most famous expatriate inhabitants, much described. Anne Cumming, the author of Men on Five Dollars a Day wrote: ‘During our “psychedelic summer” of 1961 when the entire Beat generation of writers rampaged through Tangier, trying every known drug and eating bat stew, Paul remained the quiet cult figure at its centre.’ Many who travelled to Morocco were put in touch with him, including two friends of Tennessee Williams: ‘You’ll adore Janie,’ he wrote to them before they set sail, ‘and I’ve no doubt Paul’s New England reserve will relax before your mannerly Southern charm. You can put up with the inhabitants. Things are cheap there. Bootleg liquor is $2.50 for a quart of the best Scotch. A piece of ass is two bucks and the swimming is great in the summer.’ In the early 1960s, John Hopkins, a graduate of Princeton, kept diaries of his visits to Paul and Jane Bowles: ‘Their intimacy is more fraternal than sexual. They live in separate apartments, one above the other, and communicate by a squeaking mauve toy telephone.’ Jane fell in love with a woman named Cherifa who worked in the grain market. ‘The courting and eventual winning of Cherifa was an arduous task that took several years to accomplish,’ a friend wrote. John Hopkins described her:
It was like being in New York except for Cherifa, who rattled on in Arabic in her gruff mannish voice and laughed uproariously at her own jokes. A rough alien presence who acted as though she owned the place. Jane, a fragile figure like a priceless vase that has been knocked to the floor. The pieces have been glued back together, but crudely and the cracks show.
Bowles later reported on the switchblade knife Cherifa kept handy to castrate ‘any male who may say good evening to her. Never knew a woman who hated men so violently. I’m told she makes a speciality of stealing brides on the eve of their weddings.’ Peter Owen, who published many of Bowles’s books, wrote:
Jane’s maid, Sherifa (sic) placed a nasty ‘magic’ mess (congealed blood, hair etc) under a potted plant, hoping it would influence Jane to give her money. When Jane was in the Málaga hospital, Paul, not knowing about the ‘spell’, tried to remove the plant to his apartment. Sherifa went berserk and attempted to gouge out his eyes with her fingers.
In 1957, Jane Bowles suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered and began to be treated for depression. A decade later, after she had published her Collected Works in a single volume, her condition worsened enough for her to receive shock treatment in a clinic in Málaga, and she was eventually incarcerated there in a sort of home run by nuns. John Hopkins went to see her in July 1968. She was
sitting silent and alone on a bench in the back. The nun helped her to her feet. I kissed her, and she said: ‘What are you doing here?’ Two hours later I went away from that place. The life had been crushed out of her by drugs and by disease. There was no spirit left. She was ashamed of her shaggy appearance and told me not to ask other friends in Tangiers to visit.
Tennessee Williams took the view that ‘two things are responsible for Janie’s condition: that witch Cherifa and the premature edition of her “collected” works.’ When another friend from Tangier visited Jane, she asked for a copy of her Collected Works. ‘With trembling hand she picked up a pencil and added “of Dead Jane Bowles”. She had not quite lost her touch for mingling the absurd with the tragic.’ She died in the home in Málaga in 1973.
In his 1981 introduction to a reissue of his third novel, The Spider’s House, Bowles remarked that, while his first two novels were written ‘during travels, whenever the spirit moved and the physical surroundings were conducive to writing’, his third novel ‘from the outset demanded a rigorous schedule. I began writing it in Tangier in the summer of 1954, setting the alarm for six each morning. I managed to average two pages a day. When winter came I sailed for Sri Lanka. There I adopted the same ritual; early tea was brought in at six o’clock, and I set to work, still meeting my quota of two daily pages.’
According to Virginia Spencer Carr, when The Spider’s House was finished, in March 1955, Bowles ‘worried that it lacked certain melodramatic flourishes to which his readers had become accustomed’. His English editor, John Lehmann, found it ‘very slow moving, a problem I attribute in part to the central character’s being an Arab boy who is neither interesting nor active enough to bear the weight that is put upon him . . . It was a little sentimental and unconvincing.’ The book opens wonderfully with a description of a walk at night through the labyrinthine streets of Fez, but the problems arise very quickly as Bowles once more allows his expatriate protagonist to be a man of few qualities. Once more also, his Arabs are alarming. It is not long – the opening page of Chapter 2 – before the naked Amar, his central character, is being attacked by his father with ‘the buckle end’ of his belt. Soon afterwards, Amar is naked again, this time with his friend Mohammed. When they see ‘a country boy’, Mohammed suggests: ‘Let’s swim across and have some fun with him . . . If you’ll hold him for me I’ll hold him for you.’ Amar, instead, blurts out: ‘I’ll hold your mother for you,’ which he then repeats, adding: ‘But only if you’ll hold your sister for me.’ Soon, a big fight and a big cliché break out almost simultaneously. ‘Mohammed could not believe his ears,’ Bowles writes. From then on, as Bowles might say, it is downhill all the way.
Up above the World, his last novel, was published in 1966. It was, he wrote to his mother, ‘decidedly light . . . It will probably get awful notices.’ In a subsequent interview he admitted that he wanted to publish it under another name, but the publisher would not allow it. Later, however, he grew to like it. In an interview in 1988, he said: ‘As far as the novels go, what I like best is Up above the World because it’s the best written. After all, what one writes for is to write well, to use the language well, to make the words tell the most they can, in the smallest number . . . And Grove, the hero of that book, is intelligent.’
The novel opens with Dr and Mrs Slade on tour in Latin America as they embark on and disembark from boats and trains. They are Americans and they like their comfort. They are neither funny nor serious. It is hard to describe them; perhaps the most accurate thing to say is they are not at all interesting in any way. The novel tells the story of their various encounters as they wander in a world familiar to readers of Bowles’s work, a world slightly erotically charged and intermittently alarming. Illness is not far away, and there are many spiders. Not to speak of the natives. As Grove, the ‘intelligent’ hero of the book, says: ‘They’re primitive people . . . Give them a bed and they’ll put it out for the chickens to roost on. Give them money and they’re drunk for two days.’ Despite Bowles’s high opinion of the writing, there are passages of great rhythmic tedium followed by passages of an almost exquisite banality.
It had been a fraction of a second that she had looked into his eyes as they opened after having been focused on an inner world of torment, but she had been caught up and drawn into orbit along with him. By the time she had thought: I am I, it was finished, yet for that flash the difference between them had been next to nothing.
Cliché is never far away. When new and surprising realisation comes Grove’s way, it will hit him ‘like a hammer blow’. Up above the World is itself like a hammer blow; it is quite numbing. It should be sold to governments as a way of encouraging the young to avoid the Orient.
For the next 33 years – he died in 1999 – Bowles confined himself to writing small stories and translations, poems and bits of autobiography. He gave many interviews. His life in Morocco differed greatly from the lives of other expatriates and visitors. He was, as Jay McInerney wrote, ‘neither a joiner nor an avid partygoer’. He lived frugally; his lodgings were dingy. In his work, he took a great interest in emptiness: the empty desert, the empty sky, the empty mind, the empty personality. Slowly, almost lazily, his own personality responded to Morocco; he learned the language and grew to understand the music. His closest friends were Moroccans. He liked doing nothing, or nothing much, smoking kif, staying in bed, pointing out regularly with a mixture of indifference and displeasure that the world had changed and not for the better. He enjoyed moaning about old age and all the intrusions on his life: ‘The only reason for being here now is the fact that one is here and it takes energy to find a new place to settle.’ He became a harmless old fraud, much visited by television crews and tourists.
In 1991 he published a short book, Days: Tangier Journal 1987-89, which gave both a weary account of all the petty disturbances of his last years and a spirited version of his fascination with the city. He wrote about the journalists he saw; his efforts to deal with old age; a biographer he did not like; Bertolucci; gossip about friends; observations on noises, crowds, parties, animals, memories. On 28 April 1989, he wrote:
Scarcely an afternoon passes without a visit from someone I never saw before and probably shall never see again. Giving all this time makes life seem a static thing, as though an infinite number of years lay ahead . . . Not having a telephone makes it worse: people come all the way out here and knock on the door. This makes it difficult to refuse to see them. Someone has come every afternoon this week.
On 16 June he wrote: ‘Yesterday the American ambassador to Rabat set up an appointment with me at the Minzah bar. Seemed pleasant enough, but I had no idea why he wanted to see me, and still have none.’
He had learned, Spencer Carr writes, the trick of emptying his mind, becoming no one, entering ‘into his own blank state’. When Spencer Carr asked him what would happen to his body after his death, he said he wished to be cremated, but was unsure if that could be arranged since it was forbidden in Morocco. If he had to be buried, he told her, he wished to be interred
in the animal cemetery here in Tangier, along with the dogs and cats that belonged to the European residents . . . As you know, I wouldn’t want a marker of any kind, just as I did not want one for Jane. I do rather relish the thought of lying anonymously amid the Fidos and Rexes and aged eucalyptus trees that shade their graves, where hundreds of unsuspecting people pass each day as they go up and down the mountain.
His body was, in fact, taken to the United States and cremated there. His ashes were spread in one of the few places where he had been happy in childhood.