“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible 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, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, 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.”
THE OFFICIAL PAUL BOWLES WEBSITE
By PERRY MEISEL
YOU ARE NOT I
A Portrait of Paul Bowles.
By Millicent Dillon.
Illustrated. 340 pp. Berkeley:
University of California Press. $27.50.
Paul Bowles is the bridge between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation, even though his work exceeds Beat fiction in technical interest and even though he, as Norman Mailer was among the first to point out, was quick to foresee the craftiness inherent in any unvarnished stance. Now 87 years old, Bowles has lived in Morocco for more than 50 years. Like his wife, the novelist Jane Bowles (who suffered a stroke in Morocco in 1957 and died at a sanitarium in Spain in 1973), Paul Bowles emerged out of the New York art and social scene of the 1930’s; he gained his own earliest reputation as a composer before rewarding himself with expatriation in the 1940’s.
Millicent Dillon’s biography of Bowles, ”You Are Not I” (the title comes from one of Bowles’s short stories), is not an attempt to narrate the events of Bowles’s life or the histories of his influence; that has already been done in two earlier biographies and a documentary film. Dillon, the author of a life of Jane Bowles, is also a novelist and believes in evocation, not reduction. With implications well beyond what she intends, her new book is a strange and uncanny success. Using the atmosphere of Tangier to advantage, Dillon lights the chilly Bowles from a number of angles; she eschews even portraiture in favor of a dramatic strategy based on her many conversations with him in his Tangier apartment beginning in 1977. Bowles’s sadness and the sense of opportunities lost suffuse Dillon’s narrative and weigh it with emotion.
Beneath the tea and sympathy, however, beats a deeper purpose. Despite her impressionism, Dillon wishes to find a classical way to understand both Bowles’s work and his relation to others. As Jane Bowles’s biographer, she is particularly fascinated by the dialectic of the Bowleses’ marriage and work. Why the contrast between the contempt and humiliation served up to opposite-sex characters in their novels and their love and respect for each other in real life? (Dillon is understandably preoccupied with the absurd rape sequences in Bowles’s 1949 best seller, ”The Sheltering Sky,” although she fails to press him about them.) How did these two homosexuals find sexual happiness in each other before Paul twice struck Jane and destroyed their intimacy forever? And why was it not until after Jane had asked Paul to edit the manuscript of her first novel in 1941 that he, too, decided to make prose fiction his primary metier? Was this a heightened dialogue between them or a form of violence and usurpation?
Primal scenes tumble forth from the ordinarily reticent Bowles, who sits, befogged by kif, as he and Dillon explore the relation between art and experience. Bowles’s father was a dentist in Jamaica, Queens, who wanted to be a violinist and who regularly hit his son on the back of the legs when the child did not move up the stairs fast enough. Paul was often left home alone at a very young age, too, growing so lonely that he tried to make friends with mosquitoes. He even recalls seeing his father in bed with his aunt while his mother stood alongside laughing.
But the links between Bowles’s life and art remain, like all else in Tangier, elusive. ”You Are Not I” makes us reimagine the relation between life and art, and between art and its explanation. The book abounds with new notions if we look and listen, especially when Bowles’s friend Mohammed Mrabet appears. He is a Moroccan storyteller whose ”performances,” as Dillon calls them, force the realization that there is little difference between life and its narratives, no cause in the one for the other; they commingle. Both are performances. Given Bowles’s influence on her, it is as if he had, as Dillon realizes, written his own biography. To be sure, Dillon brings insufficient material to the performance from her own life and desires. She has left her side of the dialogue out. Is she letting Jane Bowles do the talking for her? Or is she simply being too modest about finding in Bowles himself an unexpected quality of feeling?
Perry Meisel, a professor of English at New York University, is the author of ”The Myth of the Modern.” His new book, ”Romanticism to Rock and Roll,” will be published in October.
DECEMBER 4, 1949
An Allegory of Man and His Sahara
By TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
“THE SHELTERING SKY” PAUL BOWLES FIRST NOVEL
After several literary seasons given over, mostly, to the frisky antics of kids, precociously knowing and singularly charming, but not to be counted on for those gifts that arrive by no other way than the experience and contemplation of a truly adult mind, now is obviously a perfect time for a writer with such a mind to engage our attention. That is precisely the event to be celebrated in the appearance of “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles’ first novel.
It has been a good while since first novels in America have come from men in their middle or late thirties (Paul Bowles is 38). Even in past decades the first novel has usually been written during the writers’ first years out of college. Moreover, because success and public attention operate as a sort of pressure cooker or freezer, there has been a discouraging tendency for the talent to bake or congeal at a premature level of inner development.
In America the career almost invariably becomes an obsession. The “get-ahead” principle, carried to such extreme, inspires our writers to enormous efforts. A new book must come out every year. Otherwise they get panicky, and the first thing you know they belong to Alcoholics Anonymous or have embraced religion or plunged headlong into some political activity with nothing but an inchoate emotionalism to bring to it or to be derived from it. I think that this stems from a misconception of what it means to be a writer or any kind of creative artist. They feel it is something to adopt in the place of actual living, without understanding that art is a by-product of existence.
Paul Bowles has deliberately rejected that kind of rabid professionalism. Better known as a composer than a writer, he has not allowed his passion for either form of expression to interfere with his growth into completeness of personality. Now this book has come at the meridian of the man and artist. And, to me very thrillingly, it brings the reader into sudden, startling communion with a talent of true maturity and sophistication of a sort that I had begun to fear was to be found nowadays only among the insurgent novelists of France, such as Jean Genet and Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
With the hesitant exception of one or two war books by returned soldiers, “The Sheltering Sky” alone of the books that I have recently read by American authors appears to bear the spiritual imprint of recent history in the western world. Here the imprint is not visible upon the surface of the novel. It exists far more significantly in a certain philosophical aura that envelopes it.
There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.
The story itself is a chronicle of startling adventure against a background of the Sahara and the Arab-populated regions of the African Continent, a portion of the world seldom dealt with by first-rate writers who actually know it. Paul Bowles does know it, and much better, for instance, than it was known by AndrÈ Gide. He probably knows it even better than Albert Camus. For Paul Bowles has been going to Africa, off and on, since about 1930. It thrills him, but for some reason it does not upset his nervous equilibrium. He does not remain in the coastal cities. At frequent intervals he takes journeys into the most mysterious recesses of the desert and mountain country of North Africa, involving not only hardship but peril.
“The Sheltering Sky” is the chronicle of such a journey. Were it not for the fact that the chief male character, Port Moresby, succumbs to an epidemic fever during the course of the story, it would not be hard to identify him with Mr. Bowles himself. Like Mr. Bowles, he is a member of the New York intelligentsia who became weary of being such a member and set out to escape it in remote places. Escape it he certainly does. He escapes practically all the appurtenances of civilized modern life. Balanced between fascination and dread, he goes deeper and deeper into this dreamlike “awayness.”
From then on the story is focused upon the continuing and continually more astonishing adventures of his wife, Kit, who wanders on like a body in which the rational mechanism is gradually upset and destroyed. The liberation is too intense, too extreme, for a nature conditioned by and for a state of civilized confinement. Her primitive nature, divested one by one of its artificial reserves and diffidences, eventually overwhelms her, and the end of this novel is as wildly beautiful and terrifying as the whole panorama that its protagonists have crossed.
In this external aspect the novel is, therefore, an account of startling adventure. In its interior aspect, “The Sheltering Sky” is an allegory of the spiritual adventure of the fully conscious person into modern experience. This is not an enticing way to describe it. It is a way that might suggest the very opposite kind of a novel from the one that Paul Bowles has written. Actually this superior motive does not intrude in explicit form upon the story, certainly not in any form that will need to distract you from the great pleasure of being told a first-rate story of adventure by a really first-rate writer.
I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.
Mr. Williams is the author of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and other plays.