Magazine article The Spectator

A Carefully Constructed Person

Magazine article The Spectator

A Carefully Constructed Person

Article excerpt

PAUL BOWLES : A LIFE by Virginia Spencer Carr Peter Owen, £19.95, pp. 431, ISBN 0720612543

The Americans come off the boat.

They may come singly, or in couples or even in a threesome, but there is no safety in numbers, for their fate is sealed the moment they step down the gangplank. The Americans are innocent of course, but they are not very nice. As a rule in the world of Paul Bowles, they tend to be mean-spirited and tight-fisted, and there is also a kind of eerie blankness about them. They think of themselves -- Porter Moresby in The Sheltering Sky for example -- as travellers, not tourists, belonging no more to one place than another and moving slowly from one part of the earth to another, taking no account of time. Their aim is to be taken out of themselves as they press deeper into the Sahara or the Amazonian jungle, though these estranged, hollowedout beings do not seem to have much self to be taken out of. They are looking for that one moment when like Nelson Dyar in Let It Come Down, scudding across the sea out of Tangier with a bundle of stolen currency, 'he sniffed the wet air, and said to himself that at last he was living'. Kit Moresby leaves her husband's corpse in the hospital and hitches a ride into the desert with a camel train and is ravished twice daily to her tingling pleasure by two impassive Bedouin chiefs. One way or another, these dissatisfied wanderers end up raped or insane, drugged or dead, or several of the above. In Up Above the World, Mrs Rainmantle, the garrulous lecturer to ladies' clubs, is not only poisoned but set on fire. Their fate is both completion and come-uppance. For the natives who usually inflict these sticky ends, it is all in a day's work. The natives are not innocent, but they are not very nice either.

Paul Bowles's four novels (the three mentioned plus The Spider's House) and his 100 short stories are bleak and modernist in technique but also unashamedly melodramatic, at the same time exercises in alienation and yarns that never cease to rattle: Albert Camus meets the Sheikh of Araby. When The Sheltering Sky came out in 1949, it sold 40,000 copies in Britain alone.

Penguin keeps almost all his work in print to this day.

From the start Bowles himself was something of a phenomenon. The son of a New York dentist, he was reading aloud from cereal packets at the age of two and wrote his first story a year later. By his 17th birthday he had published his first poem in the Surrealist magazine transition. He taught himself musical notation and without formal musical training was instantly accepted by Aaron Copland as an equal rather than a student. By 21, he had run off to Paris and become an intimate of Gertrude Stein, Pound, Gide and Cocteau, while at the same time rehearsing his Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet at the Aeolian Hall with Copland and Virgil Thomson. He could turn his hand to most things, with an instinctive grasp of what was wanted, writing film, theatre and ballet scores for Tennessee Williams, Lincoln Kirstein and the equally precocious Orson Welles.

His willpower was as formidable as his talents. 'I always managed not to feel a sense of obligation to anyone, ' he boasted in his autobiography Without Stopping, known to his friends as Without Telling, for from an early age he had vowed to conceal from intruders everything that mattered in his private life. Perpetuating an air of mystery and keeping the other person off balance became lifelong pastimes. He was never happier than deflecting, with the utmost courtesy, earnest inquirers who came to seek enlightenment over a pipe of kif from the sage of Tangier.

This carefully constructed persona -- charming, graceful, stoical, impassive -- concealed some red-hot magma beneath its tranquil crust. For a start, there was Dr Claude Bowles. Paul claimed that he could never remember a time when he did not hate his father. When he told his parents he was going to marry Jane Auer, who was Jewish, Claude exploded, 'It's not enough to have a crippled kike in the White House but you have to go and marry one. …

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