Paul Bowles as young writer

Paul Bowles (1910-1999), the American novelist and composer and the author of “Sheltering Sky,” “The Delicate Prey” and other great books, is closely associated with Morocco, particularly Tangier, across the Mediterranean from Spain, where he lived for several decades. Not only was he viewed as a bridge between east and west he was also associated with many of the important literary movements of the 20th century, the Paris writers of 20s, the Beats in the 50s, and to the small press underground of the 70s.

Bowles’s early works remain his most important. These include his first two novels, “The Sheltering Sky” (1949) and “Let It Come Down” (1952) and early stories such as “A Distant Episode,” “The Delicate Prey” and the “Pages From Cold Point.” Many people also like his later, more understated works like “The Time of Friendship,” “Here to Learn” and “In the Red Room.”

"The Sheltering Sky" was made into a 1989 Bernardo Bertolucci film with Debra Winger and John Malkovich. One of the films in Bertolucci's Oriental trilogy, along with "The Last Emperor" (1987) and "Little Buddha” (1994), it is about an American couple that goes through a kind of spiritual journey in the Sahara Desert.

Books: “The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier” by Michelle Green; the biography “An Invisible Spectator” by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno; “In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles” edited by Jeffrey Miller (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994); and “Conversations with Paul Bowles,” edited by Gena Dagel Caponi (University of Mississippi, 1994)

Websites and Resources: Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ;
Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica ; Persian Literature & Poetry at / ; Arabic Poetry ; Arabic Poetry from Princeton ; Thousand and One Nights ; 1001 Nights ; Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Burton, ; Islamic Stories

Film: “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider” is a documentary of Bowles’s life.

Bowles' Early Life

Bowles was born and grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York. His mother once told him, "Your father's a devil." Two month's after he was born in 1910 his grandmother found him next to an open window covered in snow. His mother said that he would have been dead in an hour if he wasn't rescued. "I wasn't born until my parents had been married several years, so they probably didn't want a child at all," Bowles said. "I must have been an accident." Bowles once said his first memory was of his father beating him with a switch because he didn’t climb some stairs fast enough.

Bowles writing

In addition to Morocco, Bowles spent time in Central America, India, Paris, Bangladesh and Istanbul. He lived in Mexico for about four years before World War II and spent some time on an island off of Sri Lanka. "I had a big desire to keep going," he once said, "That's the main thing—to continue and continue. I didn't ask what would happen. I didn't think anything would happen. I just thought I'd see more and more, I'd feel more and more. And finally, of course, I'd have to return.”

Bowles had poetry published in major magazines when he was 17, but it wasn't until “The Sheltering Sky” was published in 1949 that he attracted a large audience. The novel was praised by critics and it spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list. Bowles remained popular until the 1960s when he concentrated on translating Moroccan authors. In the 1970s and 80s his novels were republished and his fame was resurrected when Bernardo Bertolucci did his film version of "The Sheltering Sky".

Bowles died in 1999. During most of the late 1980s and 1990s Bowles was confined to bed. "Since we don't know when our lives will end," Bowles wrote in "The Sheltering Sky," "we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” "You know," Port says, "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." "But what is behind? Kit wonders. "Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night."

Bowles and Morocco

Bowles arrived in Tangier in 1931 with the composer Aaron Copeland on the advice of the writer Gertude Stein. He said Copeland didn’t like it much because the drumming he heard at night kept him from sleeping. "Many of my friends—and not just them, other people I knew—came to Morocco and either committed suicide of went crazy," Bowles said, "It's place that destabilizes people."

Tangier in the 1930s

Recalling his first impressions of Tangier, Bowles wrote it was a “dream in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs...a doll’s metropolis.”

He went on to say: “The climate was both violent and languorous. The August wind hissed in the palms and rocked the eucalyptus trees and rattled the canebreaks that bordered the streets. Tangier had not yet entered the era of automotive traffic." One another occasion he wrote: “I wonder if Poe in his most extravagant hallucinations evoked any landscape more to his liking than this one I see from my window on nights of full moon. It is the very essence of Romantic fancy, savage and vast.And the ensemble then is so beautiful that one must turn away and look at something concrete and precise like the design made by tiles on the floor.”

Bowles said he liked being in Morocco because it made him “feel unlocated” and like “a cipher, a blank, a spy sent into life by the forces of death.” He once wrote Henry Miller he liked Tangier because he could live life at his pace, “One can set one’s life metronome as the speed that seems convenient for living. In the States the constant reminder that time is passing that one must be quick, removes all the savor of being in the midst of living.”

Bowles’s stay in Morocco was far from secure. He was constantly worried that his passport would be siezed because he was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and every time there was a government change he worried that he might be thrown out of the country. When asked why he stayed do long, he told Theroux, “I like Islamic countries. It’s very corrupt...Muslims live their faith, they are seldom hypocrites.”

Bowles and His Apartment in Tangier

Bowles lived in the same apartment block in Tangier from 1957 to the time of his death. He lived about a mile form the center of town in what qualified as a suburb. The street used to be called Imam Kastellani. His apartment was on the top floor of a four-story building. It was reached from an entrance at the back via a dark, gloomy hallway. Letters addressed simple “Paul Bowles, Tangier, Maroc” managed to reach him.

Bowles in Tangiers

In the 1990s, Bowles spent much of his time in a room with dark cloth pulled over the windows. Paul Theroux wrote in “Pillars of Hercules”: “the shadowy apartment” contained “a room with cushions and low chairs, a sort of Moroccan parlor, with shelves but not many books. There was a small kitchen to the right, a stove with a blackened kettle on it...The parlor was dark—I could not read the titles of the few books in the shelves. Another small room beyond it was darker still, buts its shadows were an effect of the brightness in the last room, where Paul Bowls lay in a brown bathrobe.”

“Everything he might need was in reach. He was surrounded by books and papers and medicine, by a teapot and spoons and matches. A wall facing him was divided into shelves and cubbyholes in which there stacks of sweaters and scarves and manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts were typed, and others were musical scores.”

David Streitfeld wrote in the Washington Post, "his apartment in Tangier a required stop for anyone with literary pretensions visiting North Africa. Everyone knew he didn't have a phone. You simply knocked on the door, said hello to the man servant, and walked past the pile of suitcases in the hallway. Bowles was always pleasant, but noncommital, adept at being blandly passive. If the visitors got out of hand the manservant could deal with them." [Source: David Streitfeld, Washington Post, February 9, 1995]

Bowles told Theroux: “People come everyday. There are film and TV people...Some Germans stayed for 11 days and dropped food and sandwiches everywhere. Some want me to sign their books. The ones with the most chutzpah say to me, ‘Since we were in Tangier we didn’t want to leave until we saw what you looked like.”

Bowles’s Character and Crazinesss

Bowles has been described as both insane and “politely low key” and both forthright and withdrawn. Paul Theroux described his voice as “genteel American...rather soft, with one of those patrician East Coast accents that is both New York and New England—but in fact placeless, more prep school than a regional accent.” He added that even in his 80s, “his face looked almost boyish, his was white but there was a lot of it—he had the look of a parson or a schoolmaster.”

Bowles and Patti Smith

Theroux went on to say: “He spoke carefully and often ironically....He seemed to me a man who masked all his feelings: he had a glittering eye, but a cold gaze. He seemed at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, defaced, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, egomaniacal and hospitable to praise.” Bowles was also known for having a dry sense of humor. Once he responded to accusations from a newspaper that he was chilly and eccentric by saying, “No once can heap enough insults on me to suit my tastes.”

Bowles once said he had no social life and wrote, “each decade I know fewer people. By 1980 life will be perfect. Even so he was willing to chat with almost anyone who sought him out and showed up at his door and once wrote a friend “I like to meet everyone in the world at least once.” But in a letter to a friend, Bowles wrote: “I think that having spent my life trying to hid everything from everyone, I’ve ended up by no longer being able to find many things myself.”

Bowles has often been compared to Edgar Allan Poe. Norman Mailer once said: "Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square." In response Bowles said, "people who say those things don't know what they are talking about. I'm always more pleased when they discuss the style. I'm not pleased when they discuss the contents. Americans always want to know what the novel's “about”, or the significance . That's very annoying, naturally. To me, anyway."

The historian Ted Moragan told Paul Theroux, “One time I visited Bowles and when I entered his apartment he was being thrown in the air by an Arab...The Arab was muscular and had a very serious expression; and he was bouncing Bowles the way you might throw a baby in the air to make it laugh. That was what struck me. Bowles was giggling madly as he went up and down.”

Bowles's Famous Friends

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein

Bowles learned music from Aaron Copeland and Virgil Thomson, was practically adopted by Gertrude Stein and shared a house with W.H. Auden. He wrote music for theatrical productions by Orson Wells, Jean Cocteau and Lillian Hellman and was good friends with Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan, Henry Miller, Andre Malraux and Gore Vidal. Cocteau he wrote “smokes opium every day and claims it does him a lot of good. I daresay it does.”

Bowles hung out with the Beat writers William Burroughs, Jack Keroac and Allen Ginsberg in Tangier. He didn’t necessarily go along with their lifestyle. In a letter to his parents in the 1960s, he wrote: “Every day one sees more beards and filthy blue jeans; and the girls look like escapees from a lunatic asylum.” Burroughs, he said, was America’s “foremost humorist.”

Bowles was attracted to famous people from an early age and was well known among famous people long before he was himself famous. When he was a teenager he wrote letters to musicians and writers that he admired. Letters that he began writing as a teenager often led to long-lasting friendships. When he showed up at Gertrude Stein’s door step in her Paris, she said, “I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman,” Alice B, Toklas added, “A highly eccentric gentleman.”

Paul Bowles and His Wife Jane

Bowles was married to Jane Bowles. She was also a writer. She wrote a couple of plays and a strange comic novel entitled "Two Serious Ladies." They had no children but kept a pet alligator. Theirs was regarded as one of the most literary marriages. In Manhattan in the 1940s and Morocco in the 1950s, they were “famous among the famous,” and regarded as a sort of Scott and Zelda of the beat generation. Port and Kit in “Sheltering Sky” sort of resemble Paul and Jane Bowles.

Jane was known as a party animal. Bowles once said his wife "was just overcome with a desire for alcohol. I think she liked to lose herself in the kind of unconscious alcohol can bring. That is to say, she liked to pass out. I don't know if that's a death wish. It’s self destructive certainly. Once she passed out at a party in New York. When they came to try to rouse her, she said, "You'll need a spatula to pick me up."

Jane and Paul Bowles

In letters to his parents Bowles expressed a deep love, concern and admiration for his wife. In 1957, when she was 40, she was permanently crippled by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair. She died in 1973 at the age of 56, by some accounts in an insane asylum in Malaga, Spain. During the last 16 years of her life, she required a lot of attention. Bowles was deeply depressed when she died. Two months after her death he confessed to Virgil Thompson that he felt “no compelling reason to do anything whatever.”

Bowles, Sex and Drugs

Bowles was believed to be a homosexual by nature. Some of his writing clearly had a homoerotic side. On his sexuality, he wrote at the age of 19 that he had given up any hope of having a normal sex life. “By that,” he explained, “I mean either hetero or homo.”

Writing Aaron Copeland about his sex life when he was in his early 20s after he moved back to the United States after spending some time in Algeria, he said: “Where in this country can I have 35 or 40 different people a week, and never risk seeing any of them again.” When he was older he confessed that his sex life has always been “largely imaginary.”

The poet Ian Finlayson said: “Sex, for Bowles, appears to have been an embarrassment rather than a relief or a consummation of more delicate feelings. His fondness for young men can perhaps be better viewed as somewhat pedagogic and paternal.”

Jane was famous for her Lesbian affairs. Some say suffered the stroke after being poisoned by one of her lovers. After becoming wheelchair bound she called herself “Crippie the Kike Dike.”

Bowles didn’t drink alcohol but he liked to smoke hashish and kif (Moroccan-style powdered hashsih) and indulge from time to time in hashish-almond candy bars and “majoun” (hashish jam). While puffing away on a kif joint the 80-something Bowles told Theroux, “I take it for health effect. They should legalize it, of course.”

Bowles' Writing and Books

movie poster for "The Sheltering Sky"

Bowles is regarded as great short story writer. He translated works from Spanish and Moroccan Arabic into English. Describing Bowles’s writing, Michael Upchurch wrote: “Clean and sharp, harsh and lyrical, it is leavened with a dry, almost puckish humor, while the strict precision of its prose is uncanny in its ability to suggest vivid sights, discordant sounds and rich sensations of mind.”

Bowles’s early works remain his most important. These include his first two novels, “The Sheltering Sky” (1949) and “Let It Come Down” (1952) and early stories such as “A Distant Episode,” “The Delicate Prey” and the “Pages From Cold Point.” Many people also like his later, more understated works like “The Time of Friendship,” “Here to Learn” and “In the Red Room.” Other novels include “The Spider’s House” and "Let It Come Down".

As he grew older Bowles’s output declined. His last full length book was a 1981 collection of stories called “Midnight Mass.” After that he released “a lyrical history” of Morocco (“Points in Time”), a story collection (“Unwelcome Words”), a journal (“Days”) and a short novella (“Too Far From Home”). None were very long.

The same could be said of the characters in his books. Port, the hero of Sheltering Sky, dies of typhus in a remote Saharan village. Just before he passes on he sees the night "advance upon him with the speed of a million winds. History was a separate thing beside him in the desert. It went on and on." His wife Kit went mad after she was kidnaped and raped by Tuareg tribesman in the Sahara.

In a “Distant Episode”, a professor visits a small village to study an obscure dialect but ends up captured by wandering tribesmen that cut off his tongue. “Let It Come Down”, a New York bank teller who said all he wants is "to feel I'm alive" goes to Tangier. While under the influence of a drug called “majoun” he sees a door that "could not be truest. If it opened when he did not want it to open, by itself, all the horror of existence could crowd in upon him. In an attempt to seal the delusional door shut he put a nail in the ear of a young friend. "He raised his right arm and hit the head of the nail with all his might."

Bowles and Music

Bowles at the keyboards in the 1930s

Bowles was also a composer and ethnomusicologist of some note. On his musical explorations, Bowles wrote: “And when you have a hundred or more of these incredible high, piercing birdlike voices doing flamenco runs in different keys, from different minarets, against a background of cocks crowing, you have a very special strange sound.”

Bowles once argued that music is “more mystical and hermetic” than literature, “a communion with the unknown, nothing more. Bt one feels the necessity of making other people hear it, which is an absurdity.”

In the 1950s, Paul Bowles secured grants from the Library of Congress and the American Rockefeller Foundation to record as many kinds of Moroccan music as possible. Some of the recordings are available on the Library of Congress’s Folkways label. Bowles wrote an amusing account of his experiences in the Rif mountains making recordings in “Their Heads are Green. Their Hands are Blue”. Particularly interesting is his descriptions of the troubles he had with French authorities who were worried that his work would expose the “primitive side” of Moroccan culture and make them look bad.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons and the official Paul Bowles website

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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