By MEL GUSSOW
Paul Bowles, the novelist, composer, poet and quintessential
outsider of American literature, died of a heart attack Thursday in
a hospital in Tangier, Morocco.
He was 88, and throughout his life, he remained an artist whose name
evoked an atmosphere of dark, lonely Moroccan streets and endless
scorching deserts, a haze of hashish and drug-induced visions.
Bowles was taken to the hospital on Nov. 7 from his home in Tangier,
where he had lived since 1947.
He was most famous for his stories and his
novels, especially "The Sheltering Sky." He
was also known for his songs, concertos,
incidental music and operas; for his marriage
to Jane Bowles a novelist and playwright who
died in 1973, and, simply, for being Paul
He became an icon of individualism. Although
he remained elusive to his biographers as well
as his critics, his life as an expatriate was as
fascinating as his own experiments in art.
One of the last of his cultural generation, what
might be called the post-Lost Generation, he
knew and occasionally collaborated with
many of the major artistic figures of his time,
among them Orson Welles, Tennessee
Williams and Gertrude Stein. He put a stamp of sui generis on whatever
he chose to do, or not to do. In many ways, his career was one of
In an interview with The New York Times in 1995, the last time he
visited New York, he said that a typical Bowles fictional character "slips
through life, if possible without touching anything, without touching other
people." Asked if that was how he lived his own life, he admitted: "I've
tried. It's hard. If you discover you're affecting other people, you have
stop doing whatever you're doing."
Bowles's fiction deals with civilization overcome by savagery, a world
which innocence is corrupted and delirium thrives. At the core is a feeling
of isolation, self-contained compartments in which people live alone and
are fearful of communication. As he said in an interview in The Paris
Review in 1981, "Everyone is isolated from everyone else." A Place Of
Wisdom, Ecstasy, Even Death
Although Bowles's 1972 autobiography was titled "Without Stopping,"
his career was filled with stops and restarts. At various points he turned
away from music and took up fiction, gave up writing novels, retreated
Tangier and became a collector of Arabian stories and songs, and moved
farther away from the worlds of publishing and society toward an
As he said in his autobiography, "Like any Romantic, I had always been
vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic
place which, in disclosing its secrets, would give me wisdom and ecstasy
-- perhaps even death." In contrast to other writers who chose to keep
their names in the public spotlight, Bowles steadfastly preferred not to,
avoiding commitments and rejecting offers. "I'm not ambitious," he said.
"If I had been, I'd have stayed in New York."
Bowles became a magnet for those envisioning the artist's life away from
the mainstream. It is not surprising that he was idolized by writers of
Beat Generation, many of whom visited him in Tangier.
Allen Ginsberg called him "a caviar writer." Sweet Songs, Light in
There were two sides to Bowles's art, as Ned Rorem explained in his
memoir "Knowing When to Stop." Rorem said that Bowles's stories
were "icy, cruel, objective" and his music was "warm, wistful, witty."
It was his feeling that of his 50 stories only two were marked by violence.
In one of the most brutal -- and most admired -- stories, "A Distant
Thunder," a professor is captured by nomads who cut out his tongue and
treat him as their slave.
Virgil Thomson said about Bowles's work as a composer: "Paul Bowles's
songs are enchanting for their sweetness of mood, their lightness of
texture, for in general their way of being wholly alive and right. . .
texts fit their tunes like a peach in its skin."
One of the oddities of Bowles's
life is that this international
traveler, who was marked by his
rootlessness and who was
seemingly a wanderer in the
desert of his own choice, was
born into a middle-class
environment in Jamaica, Queens.
During his childhood, Jamaica
was still a bucolic environment
with sheep grazing on the main
In one family legend, Claude
Bowles, who was a dentist, tried
to kill his son, Paul, in infancy by
stripping off the baby's clothes
and placing him in a basket on a
windowsill during a snowstorm.
According to the story, he was
rescued by his grandmother. In
his biography of Bowles, "An
Invisible Spectator," Christopher
Sawyer-Lauçanno said that the
incident might not have happened
"but Bowles has always believed
it to be true," and it haunted him.
He could read by the time he
was 3 and within the year was
writing stories. Soon, he wrote
surrealistic poetry and music.
When he was 16, he published
poetry in Transition magazine.
Until he was 18, he followed a
rigidly formalized life. Then, in his
first semester at the University of
Virginia, he suddenly quit school.
He left the United States without
telling his parents, expecting
never to see them again. For the
first of several times, he changed
In characteristic Bowles fashion,
he fled to Paris. He once said
that he was not running away but
was "running toward something,
although I didn't know what at
the time." A year later, he
returned to the United States ,
where he met Aaron Copland
and began to study composition
with him. For four months he
lived in Berlin, where one of his
friends was Christopher
Isherwood, who was gathering
material for what would later become the book "Goodbye to Berlin."
Isherwood named his leading character Sally Bowles after Paul Bowles.
In 1931, at the suggestion of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Bowles went to
Morocco, where he and Copland shared a house in Tangier.
Instant Rapport and Countless Affairs
By the mid-1930's, he was back in New York. He wrote musical scores
for Orson Welles and later for works by William Saroyan, Tennessee
Williams and others. In 1937 he met Jane Auer. She was a lesbian, and
he was bisexual; there was an immediate rapport and an intimacy. Within
a year they were married.
Through countless affairs on both sides, they remained married and
permanently attached to each other. Looking back on their marriage,
Bowles said: "We played everything by ear. Each one did what he
At first, he focused on his music while she began writing a novel. When
she gave him a draft of him in Mexico in 1945, he read it carefully and,
acting as editor, suggested changes. The book, "Two Serious Ladies,"
received mixed reviews, but it was the beginning of Jane Bowles's literary
reputation, and it acted as an inspiration to her husband. "It was the
excitement of participating in that that got me interested in writing,"
said to Millicent Dillon, author of biographies of both Bowleses.
In New York, the Bowleses were immersed in a literary world. In the
early 1940's they lived with other artists in a house on Middagh Street
Brooklyn Heights. The residents included W. H. Auden, Benjamin
Britten and Oliver Smith, the scenic designer. For two years in the late
1940's the couple lived on West 10th Street in Manhattan. Smith rented
three floors of a brownstone. Bowles lived on the top floor, Smith was
on the floor below, and another flight down lived Jane Bowles and her
friend Helvetia Perkins. The four shared a cook and lived communally.
For a time, the first two floors in the house were occupied by Dashiell
During this period, Bowles wrote scores for seven plays (including "The
Glass Menagerie") and collaborated with Tennessee Williams on the song
fragments "Blue Mountain Ballads." He also returned to writing short
stories and translated Jean-Paul Sartre's play "Huis Clos," retitling it
Exit." Identifying with the credo of the play, he said that mankind could
be saved not through faith "but only by ourselves -- by looking straight
our own weaknesses so that we know them through and through."
One night in 1947 Bowles had a dream about "the magic city" of Tangier,
one of his homes during the 1930's, and he decided to return there.
Before departing, he had an idea for a novel that would take place in the
Sahara, and he thought of a title, "The Sheltering Sky," borrowing it from
the popular song, "Down Among the Sheltering Palms." Later his wife
joined him in Tangier. Published in 1949, "The Sheltering Sky" quickly
became the foundation of his estimable career as an author. He described
the book as "an adventure story in which the adventures take place on
two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert
The central characters are Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple who
are generally considered to be surrogates for Paul and Jane Bowles. But
in his Paris Review interview, Bowles denied that possibility: "The tale
entirely imaginary. Kit is not Jane, although I used some of Jane's
characteristics in determining Kit's reactions to such a voyage. Obviously
I thought of Port as a fictional extension of myself. But Port is certainly
not Paul Bowles, any more than Kit is Jane."
The story leads ineluctably to Port's death, which the reader sees from
the character's point of view: "It was in the silence of the room that
now located all those hostile forces: the very fact that the room's inert
watchfulness was on all sides made him distrust it. Outside himself, it
all there was. He looked at the line made by the joining of the wall and
the floor, endeavored to fix it in his mind, that he might have something
hang on to when his eyes should shut."
A Best Sellerand a Film
Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Tennessee
Williams proclaimed the author as "a talent of true maturity and
sophistication." Williams said it was one of the few books by an
American writer "to bear the spiritual imprint of recent history in the
In a review in The Times of a subsequent Bowles novel, Conrad
Knickerbocker ranked "The Sheltering Sky" "with the dozen or so most
important American novels published since World War II." The book
became a best seller and was sold to the movies, but it was to be 40
years before it was filmed. In 1990 Bernardo Bertolucci's lavish movie,
starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger and with Bowles himself
playing a cameo role, received mixed reviews. The author was
disappointed. His one-word criticism of the film: "Awful."
The novel was followed, in 1952, by "Let It Come Down," about an
American bank clerk who journeys to Tangier and is caught up in a
world of intrigue and corruption.
"The Spider's House" (1955) deals with an American novelist living in
Fez during a Nationalist revolt. It was 11 years before Bowles published
his next novel, "Up Above the World." At the center of that book are an
American doctor and his wife, adrift in Central America and held captive
by a charming man of mystery. Neither novel measured up to Bowles's
In Morocco he began translating the stories of Arab writers, particularly
Mohammed Mrabet. Because Bowles seldom traveled, friends (and
journalists and potential biographers) came to see him as if on a
pilgrimage. Eventually his dream city of Tangier was invaded by tourists
and became something of a nightmare. Still he stayed on.
He lived alone in a modern apartment building in Tangier. For many
years, he limited his contacts with the outside world by refusing to have
telephone, but recently had installed both a phone and fax.
There are no survivors.
Cherie Nutting's "Yesterday's Perfume," a photographic diary of
Bowles's last years, with text by the author, is scheduled to be published
in the fall of 2000.
"I live in the present," Bowles said, and added about the past: "I
remember it as one remembers a landscape, an unchanging landscape.
That which has happened is finished. I suppose you could say that a man
can learn how to avoid making the same actions which he's discovered
were errors. I would recommend not thinking about it."
For Bowles, the point of life is to have fun, "if there is any point at
Enjoyment, he said firmly, "is what life should provide."
When it was suggested to him that others might say that life should
provide a greater moral purpose, he said: "What is moral purpose? The
word 'moral' sets nothing ringing in my head. Who decides what's moral
and what isn't? Right behavior, is that moral? Well, what's right