Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Paul Bowles

By Meg Wise-Lawrence on Saturday, September 2, 1995 02:35 pm

Paul Bowles was born in New York City on December 30, 1910. He was an only child and exhibited early the existentialist's sense of alienation.

Who was his father? The patriarchal figures in his stories are often brutal. The true stories of Bowles paint the picture of a cold, New York-Edwardian man as his father-- but not exactly cruel or abusive.

Paul Bowles studied with composer Aaron Copland. Bowles went on to produce a number of still-produced mostly-orchestral pieces. Later he wrote music for the work of Tennessee Williams, a friend and supporter of the talents of both Paul and his wife Jane.

In his early creative years, prose interested him less than music. When Gertrude Stein told him he was "not a real poet," he agreed. At the time he only aspired to be a musician.

On the personal front, Bowles considered himself a Romantic in the creative but not the sexual sense. He hated, for example, D.H. Lawrence's view of sex as magical, even religious. Sex and gender distinctions were interesting if irrelevent. Bowles believed that somewhere out there was a magic place or state of mind, a place that would deliver them into the ecstasy of personal revelation. Like Sartre in La Nausea, he dreamed of finding it. To a large --at least symbolic-- degree, Bowles found what he was looking for in his first trip to Tangier, Morocco.

Delicate and in ill-health, he returned to New York City where he met and married Jane Auer, later Jane Bowles. Like Virginia and Leonard Woolf's relationship some years before, theirs at least began as sexual. That it was an intellectual soul-mating can never be doubted. But how married was their marriage? This is not fully known.

The couple traveled extensively but didn't return to North Africa until sixteen years after his first visit.

In Tangier, largely inspired by Jane's literary career, Paul wrote 'The Sheltering Sky'. It was published in 1949 and made into a movie in 1990. In 1950, his second novel, 'The Delicate Prey' was published; in 1952, 'Let It Come Down'; and in 1955, 'The Spider's House'. He continued writing music, including the score for Tennessee Williams' 'Summer and Smoke'. His prolific writing career has continued with published collections of short stories, a wonderful autobiography ('Without Stopping'), which describes his meetings with many people pivotal to the Beat Generation), travel and poetry books, as well as translations, most notably the enigmatic tales of Moroccan Mohammed Mrabet.

He reached along the rail for her hand, but she pulled it away, saying, "I'm still talking to you. I expect you to be crazy, and I expect to give into you all along. I'm crazy too, I know. But I wish there were some way I could just once feel that my giving in meant anything to you. I wish you knew how to be gracious about it."

"You think you humor me so much? I haven't noticed it." His voice was sullen.

"I don't HUMOR you at all. I'm just trying to live with you on an extended boat trip in a lot of cramped and little cabins on an endless series of stinking boats."
--Paul Bowles 'Call at Corazon'

Paul Bowles died of a heart attack in a Tangier hospital on November 18, 1999. For further information, please check out PaulBowles.org, the authorized Paul Bowles website.

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