Bowles, Paul Frederic

   Though Paul Bowles is not generally known as a Beat writer, his influence on the Beats and his personal relationships with them were significant. His writings are partially responsible for inspiring William S. Burroughs to move to Tangier. Born on the outskirts of New York City, Bowles, writer, composer, translator, and world traveler, grew up as an only child in a well-to-do family of New England stock. During his childhood and early youth, a painful relationship existed between young Paul and his father, causing the boy at a very early age to withdraw into himself. This process of alienation from others was compounded by the fact that Bowles was kept away from the company of other children until the age of five, at which time, as he says, “it was already too late.”
   His interior life, however, was always a very rich one, even as a child. In early childhood Bowles started to write stories and fairy tales, and he would improvise music on the family piano to escape from dull, prescribed piano practice. At almost every turn of his development, he was limited and held in check by parental intervention and made to do things that he found unpleasant. It is no wonder that, when asked what freedom meant to him, Bowles should answer, “I’d say it was not having to experience what you don’t like.” At his first possible chance, he turned his back on rules and control and sought ways in which, without restraint, he could channel his inner expressive urges. By the age of 17 Bowles had become a published poet in the famous literary journal transition, edited and published in Paris. But his primary affinity was for music. For the next nine years he studied and wrote music under the guidance of Aaron Copeland and Virgil Thomson in New York and Berlin. His compositions were mostly incidental music for plays and films and scores for musicals on Broadway. As a composer of nearly 150 distinctive compositions, Bowles is highly regarded for the quality of his work.
   During his European travels between the two world wars, Bowles came into contact with many artists of the so-called Lost Generation, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood. It was under the influence and patronage of Stein that Bowles first went to North Africa, an experience that made a profound impression upon him. He was then 21 years old and felt mysteriously attracted to and enormously excited by the place. Although he went on to travel in Mexico, South America, the Far East, and elsewhere, Bowles would eventually spend the greater part of his life in Morocco; it was there that his preoccupation with the unconscious mind and taste for romantic primitivism would find inspiration and confirmation.
   When Bowles—together with his wife Jane Auer—settled permanently in Tangier in 1949, he became a full-time writer; after that time, he only rarely wrote music. His first novel, The Sheltering Sky (London 1949), owes its creation to Bowles’s first encounter with North Africa. From the beginning, the “insanity and confusion” of the place were to his taste. He was content, as he has said, to “see whatever was happening continue exactly as if I were not there.” This was part of his “practice of pretending not to exist,” of always being an observer and an outsider, a role it took him many years to relinquish. The Sheltering Sky was eventually used as the basis for a film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990, by which time Bowles was at last enjoying a considerable literary reputation. Bowles continued to live in Tangier until his death in 1999 and had by that time produced another three novels: Let It Come Down (New York 1952), The Spider’s House (New York 1955), and Up Above the World (London 1967). He also published several volumes of short stories, including The Delicate Prey (1950), The Time of Friendship (1967), The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles (1979), Midnight Mass (1981), and Points in Time (1982); books of poems; and translations of North African folk tales. Among Bowles’s short stories, the volume titled a Hundred camels in tHe courtyard (1962) offers a view of the way that kif (marijuana mixed with tobacco) may transform everyday life. In terms of literary schools or movements, Bowles is not easily pinpointed. He can be said to occupy a kind of position between the writers of the Lost Generation and those of the Beat Generation, many of whom viewed him as a mentor and precursor. Indeed, several of the Beat writers were drawn to North Africa as well, in search of extremes of experience, of sexuality, and of consciousness. After all, this region at the intersection of Europe and Africa was like a new psychic frontier to be explored. Some of the Beats established lasting friendships with Bowles, including Burroughs, allen ginsberg, gregory corso, and lawrence ferlinghetti. Also jack kerouac visited Tangier but missed Bowles, whom he met in New York on a later occasion.
   Bowles was obsessed with exploring the point at which the savage and the civilized intersect and merge, and in his writing he skillfully explored the possibilities offered by this juxtaposition. In common with the Beats he cultivated an interest in drugs, in dreams, and in altered states of consciousness. Also, like many of the Beat writers, Bowles may be seen as a neoromantic who was preoccupied with romantic primitivism and its cultural manifestations including art, literature, music, and dance. On many occasions Bowles ventured into the Sahara to record tribal music and to observe the trance dancers and their religious observances. At the same time, in contrast to the writers of the Beat Generation, Bowles’s fiction appears to be extremely pessimistic and quite devoid of any spirituality. His fictional characters have been viewed as “metaphysically condemned”; he saw outrage, terror, and nothingness as having replaced myth in the modern world, leaving humankind in “a landscape stripped of everything human.” During the latter part of his life, Bowles only rarely visited the United States; he was keen to stay as far away as possible, “far both geographically and spiritually,” as he put it. So he remained where he was, suspended between two cultures and two continents, never tiring of exploring North Africa and the terra incognita of the human psyche.
■ Bowles, Paul. In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles. Edited by Jeffrey Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
■ ———. Without Stopping. An Autobiography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.
■ Green, Michelle. The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
■ ———. “Interview with Paul Bowles.” By Daniel Halpern. The Tri-Quarterly 33 (Spring 1975): 159–177.
■ Hassan, Ihab. “The Novel of Outrage.” The American Novel Since W.W. II, edited by Marcus Klein, New York: Fawcett Publications, 1969.
   Birgit Stephenson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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