Author and composer Paul Bowles is a true symbol for the intellectual and cosmopolitan life of 1940s and 1950s Tangier, the city in northern Morocco that up until 1956 was governed as an international zone.
He started out on New York City home ground by composing ballets and operas as well as Broadway and movie scores for among others Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams.
As a writer he inspired the so called beat generation, and counted among his personal friends William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. His best selling novel, The Sheltering Sky, written in 1949, was adapted for the screen by Italian directory Bernardo Bertolucci.
Today, Paul Bowles is a legend in decline in a Tangier just as far from its greatness long gone by, flooded by rural poverty heading towards Europe as the surrounding world insists on a decrease if the gigantic amounts of hashish being produced in the nearby Rif Mountains.
Asshole Magazine paid him a visit.
His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on the excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when the two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky's clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out and pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.
(ur The Sheltering Sky, 1949)
No longer being anyone but a modern, crash-landed pterodactyl in a carelessly recapped incarnation, already laying in state, in a city on the other side of culture or rather in its former main junction. Who'd turned whom the back? Noone it was, but still the tired gap was uncovered, over and over again exhaling its fetid breath.
The curtains were drawn aside. Really? Who is that? I see. Tell them five minutes. And shortly thereafter, the young men, groping in the dark, squatting on the floor, trembling. Like supplicants. Of course he spoke to them, coming, as they were, in urgent matters.
French gift chocolate
WE FIND BOWLES in a simple appartment, on the fourth and top floor of an equally modest building, a few blocks from the Spanish Consulate. A girl takes us up the creaking elevator. "BOWLES" says the sign on the door, opened, as we knock, by a Spanish, elderly woman. We're looking for mr Paul Bowles...? She disappears. Comes back and spreads out her fingers: OK, five minutes, that's all.
We pass through a dark hall. There is a scent, as from sweet herbs. We draw a curtain and there is Bowles, in his bed, under heavily patterned sheets, dressed in a classic, camel-hair dressing gown, sporting, in the breast pocket, a cream-colored handkerchief. Around his neck an equally stylish silk scarf. The room is dark and littered with books and other gadgets. The sole window is covered by an absolutely impenetrable blanket, and the only visible light stems from a row of bright lamps above the bed's head.
-Good afternoon, we say, still hesitant.
-Come closer, come into the light so that I can see you, he answers, in a weak voice. He frowns, concerned in the way of old men.
-You see, I have glaucoma, so I can't see very well, he excuses himself.
Quickly, we cross the room, lean over the bed, and shake his hand, properly craning our necks.
-It's an honour to be here, we say and we mean it.
His pale, withered face opens in a smile just as honest. We squat and later, when our legs have gone numb, sit down on the floor. Bewildered by the odd setting, we don't even bring ourselves ask anything at first. Instead, Bowles offers us some chocolate.
-There. The white box, he says, pointing towards the crammed, rounded table next to the bed. Among books and rubbish there is a cardboard box with French gift shop chocolate. We hand it to him.
-No, no, for you, he says.
We take a piece each, and ask him if he doesn't want one too. He does. Before long we're munching along, the three of us in the dusky chamber.
We look around. Next to Bowles there is a newly opened FedEx envelope and a thick sheaf of paper. The cover page indicates a thesis discussing Paul Bowles and Morocco. At the foot of the bed there is a mixture of tea pots and coffee table books, all entangled in long and curly faxes.
Because we don't know when we will die, we gets to think of life as an inexhaustable 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 so deeply 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 more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.
(Brandon Lee's favourite quote from The Sheltering Sky)
"I've never understood why people go to cafés"
APPARANTLY, BOWLES' HEARING is seriously impaired. Practically every question is repeated twice or more. But when he hears us, he understands. Bowles is old and worn, but he can still carry on a conversation, and more often than not he cracks a joke, and his eyes sparkle under the heavy, wrinkled lids. However, his answers aren't always in the realm of what we would call logic.
What do you think of Tangier today?
-It's awful. Everything has gone worse. A lot of people are coming here from the countryside, trying to make money, he says, adding, as a second thought:
-...like all of us.
-The drug situtation is getting worse. There's always been kif and haschisch, of course, but today we also have heroin, cocaine, and bad quality crack from the United States. People go crazy from it. There has been some throat-cutting lately.
How was life in Tangier in the 40s and the 50s?
-Well, it was just like today...?
He gazes up in the ceiling, questioning.
But a typical day, what did you do?
-I was working, of course. My wife was out quite a lot, but I mostly stayed at home. And when she came back and told me what she'd done, I always thought "oh, I'm glad I didn't go with her". But she invited some people to the house, that's true...
During the 1950s, Paul and his wife Jane Auer unquestionably represented the central characters in the intellectual jetset of Tangier.
So you weren't sitting on a café all day long?
-No, I've never been to a café. Maybe once or twice. I've never understood why people go to cafées. I don't understand what they're doing there.
It's an odd declaration, coming from someone who's prose is littered with descriptions of people sitting in cafés.
|"The mal gusto of Bertolucci"|
BOWLES STARTED OUT as a composer. After an unsuccessful attempt to studying art, he turned to music. For two years, Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland were his supervisors, but his efforts were sporadic and his teachers never really got a grip of their pupil. Bowles was already and would remain a persistent autodidact - and above all, a persistent traveller.
In spite of - or maybe owing to - his stubborness, Bowles produced a lot of music during the 30s and 40s, mainly scores for Broadway and other New York City scenes. Best know are his trenchant and pithy songs, as well as his incidental music enhancing numerous plays, ballets, and films for among others Orson Welles, John Houseman, William Saroyan, and, most often, Tennessee Williams. Bowles also composed several piano concerts and the opera The Wind Remains (1942), based on a play by Federica Garcia Lorca. In spite of his literary career, Bowles never fully gave up his musical work, and presented as late as 1978 music for the play Caligula.
His wife Jane was already a fairly successful writer. To a certain degree, it was her work that made him try out a literary career. However, Bowles had early on shown an interest in writing. In a much later letter to a publisher, he relates his life's story:
|When I had completed secondary school at sixteen, I enrolled in an art school. At the end of the first term painting seemed silly, so I went to the University of Virginia because Poe had gone there. When the first year was half finished, I went off to Paris, where I'd already been published in various so-called avant-garde magazines...|
The work published by the French magazines were poetry. After Paris, he travelled through Europe, went back to university and composer's studies in the USA, escaped again to Europe, and finally received a piece of advice from Gertrude Stein: Go to Morocco.
|I wandered around Morocco, Algeria, the Sahara ... then went to the West Indies ... South America and Central America. Then Mexico for four and a half years. In between I came back here to write scores for Broadway shows, of which I have done about two dozen, including ... the first William Saroyan play and the first Tennessee Williams play ...Then I went down to the Sahara and wrote The Sheltering Sky.|
The novel The Sheltering Sky was a great success. The year was 1949 and twenty years had gone by since his first trip to Europe. More than four decades later, the book was adapted for the screen by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, with John Malkovich and Debra Winger playing the leading parts.
What did you think of The Sheltering Sky, the movie?
-Awful. You know, it's the mal gusto of Bertolucci. He had had a lot of Oscars for The Last Emperor, and then he wanted to repeat the success with The Sheltering Sky. I told him the novel wasn't suited for adapting to the screen, but he didn't want to listen. And it didn't do very well at the box office, either...
He seems contented.
And what did you think of the film The Naked Lunch?
-Ah, it was much better than The Sheltering Sky!
And the book?
-Very good. The Naked Lunch is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Will really deserved the attention he got. He was a very funny person.
American author William S. Burroughs came to Tangier in 1954, and was as delighted with the city's qualities as a place of refuge as Bowles had been. Five years later, he wrote a stylistically innovative novel called The Naked Lunch, attracting extreme attention all over the world. The Naked Lunch was also adapted for the screen in 1991, by American director David Cronenberg.
"Publishers are thieves"
BOWLES CAREER AS an author took off with the novel The Sheltering Sky, up until today unsurpassed in terms of sales. During the following decades, he continuouesly produced novels and short stories, many of which were published. A total of five novel were published, among others Let It Come Down and The Spider's House. Among his many collections of short stories, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, Things Gone and Things Still Here, as well as A Distant Episode: The Selected Stories, all deserves to be mentioned.
During the years, Bowles socialized more and more with Moroccan authors and artists, and got increasingly interested in Moroccan music and Spanish literature. In 1964, he translated the Spanish novel A Life Full of Holes, by Larbi Layachi, from a recording Bowles himself had asked Layachi to do.
The last thing published was the 1991 series The Tangier Journal: 1987-1989, a number of diary-like stories from Tangier. Bowles was then 80 years old. During the last eight years nothing has been realeased. Probably, he's career has reach its final destination.
Do you write anything today?
-No, it's a bit hard since I can't see what I write...
But you could dictate, couldn't you?
-Well, I hope I die before I do that...
Do you keep in tough with your publisher?
-They keep in touch with me... They send faxes and they call me, wanting me to write something for them. They don't believe me when I say I can't see what I write anymore. Publishers are thieves. They are on the other side of the barricade.
We ask him if his books still do well in the european bookshelves. Bowles looks confused.
-Would that mean more royalty-checks?
He seems really interested. Bowles probably always was someone following his artistic instincts, but at the same time, we realize from his comments, always chasing money, and more money. Because Bowles surely never starved. When he travelled during his younger years, it did happen that he had to return to New York because he'd run out of money, but always it was easy, it seems, arranging with a a grant or composing another Broadway-score. In no way does Bowles seem like someone who's been counting his nickles. His letter of introduction continues:
|After that I went to India ... then Ceylon, where I saw a small island I liked ... and heard in Madrid the following autumn that I could at last buy it, which I did that very day. Then I went to South Africa and back to Ceylon, from where I arranged a Rockefeller Grant to record indigenous music in Morocco.|
|"You see, it's my noise-machine"|
THERE IS A pause in the conversation. We look around once more in the little room. On the table next to the bed, there are books, a gaudy box, medicin jars, and some kind of an obviouisly home-made, black cylinder with a semi-broken plastic propeller on top.
-Ah, you see, it's my noise-machine. I just can't stand noises from the street, from cars and the like. That's why I keep this little machine. It creates a sound that make the noise from the street go away.
Can we try it?
I push a small button and immediately the propeller goes round, quickly, emitting a distinct and quite strong hum. It is a very annoying sound.
This was an interesting invention.
-Yeah, this machine has gone through many avatars. My first version had a metal...er...er...
-Yeah, propeller...and one night it came loose and passed right next to me. It almost decapitated me. Unfortunately it didn't.
-And then, another time, when I had changed it to plastic, it also came loose and flew out of the window, like a bird...
Musing, he's looking at the windows.
-...and I don't know where it went...
He speaks in a sincere but very dreamlike voice. We figure that Bowles, who according to a friend of his still starts off the day by smoking a couple of joints, probably has had plenty of time for esoteric, not to say surrealistic, daydreaming, in particular after spending 67 years in Moroccon, obtaining the unmistakeble mark of capricious, arabian philosophy. In an essay accompanying the recording "A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard", featuring Bowles himself reading old moroccon kif-stories, he says:
|Moroccan kif-smokers like to speak of the "two worlds," the one ruled by inexorable natural laws, and the other, the kif world, in which each person perceives "reality" according to the projections of his own essence, the state of consciousness in which the elements of the physical universe are automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual. These distorted variations in themselves generally are of scant interest to anyone but the subject at the time he is experiencing them. An intelligent smoker, nevertheless, can aid in directing the process of deformation in such a way that the results will have value to him in his daily life. If he has faith in the accuracy of his interpretations, he will accept them as decisive, and use them to determine a subsequent plan of action. Thus, for a dedicated smoker, the passage to the "other world" is often a pilgrimage undertaken for the express purpose of oracular consultation.|
"Barbara Cartland? Never heard of."
SEVERAL TIMES, BOWLES strikes up a subject seemingly at random. Among other things he presents a wild west metaphor saying that the berbs, a people making up a large percentage of the Moroccan population, are the indians of northern Africa. Being unable even to distinguish between a berb and an arab, we ponder what character Bowles himself would correspond to. Hardly a trapper and most certainly not a sheriff. Maybe Jack London then, if it counts in any way...?
Just as we are about to leave, for the first time, Bowles says:
-You know, I once owned an island close to Sri Lanka...
Really?, we go, but Bowles is apparently not listening.
The name of the island is Tabropane and Bowles bought it in 1952, three years after his first journey to the Indian Ocean. The trip was financed by the very first royalties from The Sheltering Sky. A few years later he sold the island after some peculiar incidents, he continues:
-My wife had turned ill, so I decided to sell the island.
Most likely, he's referring to Jane's having a stroke in 1957.
-But someone had told the police that I was a communist, so they put a sign on the door to the house, saying it was confiscated by the government. When I finally sold the island, the money went straight to the Sri Lankan government. It's crazy, I mean, how could they think I was a communist? A communist from New York...
Have you been travelling to the Indian Ocean lately?
-No, no, you can't travel anymore. Not like before. These days, everywhere, people are only trying to get to your money.
Have you been to Sweden?
-No, I've never been to any Scandinavian country, and of course I'll never go there either...
Our five minutes are long since gone by. We're posing a final question that we'd early planned asking him.
Another very famous author, but one working in a completely different genre than you, also has a house here in Tangier. She is English and her name is Barbara Cartland. Do you know her?
-Barbara Cartland? Who is that? Never heard of her. And she most certainly hasn't heard of me either.
We thank him and we say goodbye. Back in the street, we shelter our eyes from the still blazing sun. But before long, darkness falls over Tangier.
text and photo: RIKARD WESTMAN
They came, they spoke, they left. Made notes. The pillow held the head in its grip. The driver entered the room. We're going to the park tomorrow, walking around, overlooking the ocean. Yet a few breaths from the air of the world.
Silently, he fell asleep, in the strong light from the lamps, to the persistent humming from the propeller, unperturbed by the course of time, a scraggy character still not too wrapped up in the wet blanket of confusion, but filled to the rim with that acid sense of humour and exceedingly mischievous cynicism.
there have been times
on some shelf of memory
surely it ended early
no voice could be enough
© Copyright 1998 Asshole Magazine