University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


PAUL BOWLES, 1910 - 1999


See how carefully life is arranged.
I approve of it completely.
'Mektoub'
It is written.
-- Paul Bowles

An Introduction

by Virginia Spencer Carr

My first visit over a decade ago to the Special Collections Department of the Hugh M. Morris Library was for a biography I was writing on Tennessee Williams, under contract with Scribner. One of my most remarkable discoveries then was an exchange of letters between Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal -- along with other important literary and artistic figures of their time relative to my research -- which, in turn, prompted my first journey to Tangier, Morocco, to talk with Bowles, then to Ravello, Italy, to interview Vidal. It was Vidal, in fact, who suggested that I delay my book on Williams and write Bowles's biography first. "Paul's much more interesting now than Tennessee; besides, Paul's alive and Tennessee is dead," he added.

When I broached the idea in a letter to Bowles himself upon my return to Atlanta, he replied positively and assured me of his unconditional cooperation; Scribner, in turn, approved of the substitution and gave me a two-book contract. Meanwhile, the Lady Maria Saint Just, Williams's executor, was erecting every roadblock possible in an effort to discourage all biographers except the one she had hand-picked (who ended up withdrawing from the project herself a few months later). After reading through the archives pertaining to Williams at the University of Delaware, then talking with Bowles and Vidal, I could understand why; moreover, had I not pored over the pertinent letters housed at the Morris Library, I would not have been prepared for the round of interviews that followed. Little did I guess then, of course, that I would make a dozen trips to Tangier to interview Bowles and his friends there, and to carry on an extensive correspondence with him during the decade of the nineteen nineties -- or that I would play host to him in my home in Atlanta, where he came twice in 1994 for surgery at Emory University Hospital: first, a "femur-to-femur bypass" to repair a life-threatening blocked artery in his right leg, then the removal of cancer from his nose, cheek, and mouth and the delicate repair surgery that followed a week later (Bowles himself survived the surgeon who repaired his face and the roof of his mouth). Emory Hospital, a university teaching hospital, waived its usual fees, as did the surgeons themselves who invited their teams of interns to visit and inspect their patient. Bowles smiled and took it all in stride, gracious and grateful to be a survivor.

In December 1968, Bowles left New York for what he thought was the last time. "I was no longer writing scores for Broadway plays; my mother and father had moved to Florida a few years earlier, and now both were dead; Jane's mother was dead -- as were her two closest friends, Helvetia Perkins and Libby Holman -- and Jane herself was in a psychiatric hospital in Málaga, Spain, with little realistic hope of ever leaving it. I had no desire to return to New York, or any reason to, and I certainly had never dreamed of going to Atlanta until my biographer suggested it and arranged not only for my surgeries, but also got my plane tickets donated for Abdelouahaid Boulaich (my aide) and me. But there I was, back in the States in the spring and early summer of 1994 after an absence of twenty-six years," said Bowles. "Then there was a second trip to Atlanta for more surgery two months later, and this time Abdelouahaid and I were my biographer's houseguests for three months. The following year there were two concerts at Lincoln Center and a symposium about my music in which I participated (Phillip Ramey managed to make it a good deal of fun); and there was still one more trip South, this time to Mobile, Alabama, where the brother of my good friend Joe McPhillips, a surgeon, performed another bypass on my bad leg, that one, too, donated."

Timothy D. Murray, Head of Special Collections at the Hugh M. Morris Library, and his colleague Francis Poole (a friend of Bowles when he too lived in Tangier), were two of the many out-of-town visitors who came to see Bowles in Atlanta in 1994, their pilgrimage on behalf of the University of Delaware Library. Murray and Poole reiterated their desire to acquire Bowles's remaining papers; he invited them to come to Tangier, but expressed doubts that they would find much of interest. As arrangements progressed over the next few years, Bowles himself seemed very pleased by the match, as well as relieved to know just where his remaining papers would end up -- and even better, to be there while he was still in life to help implement the transfer.

Thus it is that now, a decade after the extraordinary exhibition, Paul Bowles at 80, was presented by the University of Delaware Library, its new exhibition, Paul Bowles, 1910-1999, gives further witness to Bowles's long and remarkable career as composer, writer, musicologist, translator, essayist -- and to the life itself of an inveterate traveler for whom home was largely a state of mind.

* * *

A New Yorker by birth on December 30, 1910, Paul Frederic Bowles was the son of Claude Deitz Bowles -- a dentist and a self-absorbed and domineering father -- and Rena Winnewisser Bowles, for whom he felt great affection as a child, and whose own brief career dedicated to the training of teachers of domestic science was abandoned at her husband's insistence. Bowles was born in a Roman Catholic hospital in Jamaica, New York, "the only decent hospital in the city, and it was right down the street," his mother told him; but when two nuns swept full sail into her bedchamber to carry the infant off to be baptized, convinced that he would not survive the night, Rena snatched him from the arms of her interlopers and declared in a steely voice: "You'll have him over my dead body."

Bowles was convinced that the only thing his two sets of New England-born grandparents had in common was their total lack of religious conviction. "On both sides we were atheists, including my parents and I, and not one of us over the years had any reason to change our minds. Children have to be taught if they are to believe in some higher power. I believe in fate. Mektoub. It is written," Bowles insisted.

"At birth I was an exceptionally ugly infant . . . I think my ugliness caused the dislike my father immediately formed for me," he declared. "For as long as I can remember, I hated my father, a condition that predated considerably my maternal grandmother's having told me that he had once tried to kill me by placing me naked on the sill of an open window when a snow storm raged outside, and that she had rescued me. Whether this event actually did happen is beside the point. It was my reality, and I believed it. When I was older, I once threw a large kitchen knife at my father and it bounced behind him against the wall. When provoked, I had a violent streak that surprised me probably more than anyone else. I tried very hard to keep it in check. At least my father and I knew where we stood with each other. My mother was more comfortable with my father when I was not around to provoke him inadvertently. I'm sure she was afraid of him, and so was I."

As a child Bowles kept dozens of notebooks in which he drew and wrote, a habit he never put aside. Drafts of countless short stories, his novels, and many letters were written first in his notebooks. Before he was old enough to go to school, Bowles created in one notebook a planet on which he drew land masses and seas and gave names to each of its continents and to the seas from which they emerged. He drew detailed maps to denote each river with its tributaries, hills, deserts, towns, railroad lines. "I never connected myself in any way with my maps of the world, nor did I inhabit any of the continents I invented. The whole point of the imaginary world was that it allowed me not to exist . . . I thought of myself as a registering consciousness and no more. My non-existence was a sine qua non for the invented cosmos," he declared. As creator and puppeteer, Bowles retreated repeatedly into the inner room of his imagination and artistic design, his delight in words and pictures knowing no bounds except the constrictions imposed by his finite world. It was a habit he never outgrew.

Bowles declared that he "did a lot of writing" before he became interested in, or excited by, writing music: "In high school I used to write music and show it to my music history teacher. With great indignance, she exclaimed: 'You're modulating into an unrelated key. You can't do that!' Her observation was absurd because I did do it, and I liked the way it sounded. Her outbursts reminded me of my English teacher who declared: 'You're not James Joyce and you're not Gertrude Stein. You must write proper English!' That was the first I'd heard of either of these people, so I got interested in them. When I discovered that Gertrude Stein wrote absolute nonsense, I loved that! I thought if we're not Gertrude Stein, then who are we? Gertrude Stein was the first one I wrote to when I was asked to guest edit an issue of the University of Richmond's literary magazine, The Messenger. She obliged me with a poem, and in Paris I got up my nerve to present myself at her door. Eventually we became friends."

Bowles said that he might have continued indefinitely writing only poetry and fiction had he not been electrified, at the age of fifteen, upon hearing Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite at Carnegie Hall after the New York Philharmonic had launched a new series of Young Peoples' Concerts. "It was absolutely modernity, and I was thrilled. After the concert I found the music on two twelve-inch Victor discs, which I took home and played constantly on my wind-up portable phonograph. Hearing The Firebird made me determined to continue improvising on the piano when my father was out of the house, and to notate my own music with an increasing degree of knowing that I had happened upon a new and exciting mode of expression." Bowles was fascinated, also, by jazz and symphonic syncopation.

Unwilling, always, to be accountable to anyone but himself, having aborted secretly his studies at the University of Virginia and fled to Paris, Bowles shied away from formal lessons with Nadia Boulanger when the opportunity presented itself, and he behaved similarly with Sergey Prokofiev, who had agreed to give him an audition. "But when that day came," said Bowles, "for some perverse reason I decided that I wanted to take a hike through the mountains, and that I didn't want to see Prokofiev at all. Like a jack rabbit I bolted and was on my way to the Gare de l'Est to board a train at the precise time of my appointment."

It was Virgil Thomson who urged Aaron Copland to stop worrying about the future of Bowles's musical talent. "He finds out everything he needs to know as he needs it and writes quite a lot of music of extremely good quality. What more do you want?"

Bowles liked the way he studied with Copland, first in New York, then in Berlin and Tangier. "We simply had conversations about the music I was composing . . . In New York City we spent most of the fall and winter of 1930-1931 analyzing all of Mozart's piano sonatas. To learn harmonic analysis, I had to work backwards and construct a figured bass. Aaron made me look for things, which was better than having them thrust upon me."

Although it was Bowles's mother who had provoked his desire to write such stories as "The Delicate Prey," "A Distant Episode," and "Pages from Cold Point" -- which he attributed in large measure to her having read to him when he was four the horror tales of Poe -- it was his wife Jane, he said, who was the main influence upon his writing fiction as an adult. He did not begin writing the tales for which he was later known until after Jane had published her first novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943). Consequently, for one to write meaningfully about Bowles's career as a fiction writer is to acknowledge, also, his considerable debt to her. Millicent Dillon, who has made, over the years, a profound contribution to the scholarship of both Paul and Jane Bowles through her excellent biography A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles (1981), through her careful editing of Jane's letters in Out in the World, Selected Letter of Jane Bowles 1935-1970 (1985), through The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (1994) with its splendid introduction linking the two writers, and most recently, You Are Not I, A Portrait of Paul Bowles (1998)), described Jane at the age of twenty, when she and Bowles first met, as "wild, witty, unpredictable, fey, and gaminelike. She had had affairs only with women."

An only child whose heritage was German-Jewish on her father's side and Hungarian-Jewish on her mother's, Jane had married her gentile groom ("a joke to play upon our strait-laced parents, we thought," said Bowles) in a small Dutch Reformed church in New York City on February 21, 1938, the day before her twenty-first birthday, after which they set off on a honeymoon trip through Central America, then to Paris, having agreed beforehand that theirs would be an "open marriage." Jane had insisted upon remaining a virgin until they were married, but also made it abundantly clear that she was far more attracted sexually to women than to men. Bowles acknowledged that he, too, preferred same-sex liaisons ("I never considered them 'relationships'; they were encounters that occurred from time to time," he insisted). Bowles said, also, that he and Jane had "some very good sex together" during the first two years they were married. "That we loved one another, and were deeply committed to one another throughout our thirty-five years of marriage, was a given. No one who knew us well doubted that," he added.

During their years together in Tangier, where Jane joined him in 1948, they lived much of their lives in separate flats, Bowles in number 20, a four- room flat on the fourth floor of a cement block building known as the Immeuble Itesa (situated across the street from the now defunct American Consulate), and Jane in number 15, an identical flat directly beneath his. When dinner was ready, she often tapped on the ceiling with a broom handle to summon him to table. When both were in town, they enjoyed eating together in Jane's flat and jointly entertained their friends there, many of whom were visitors from America, including Bowles's parents, who came in 1956 for six weeks. "The visit went rather well," said Bowles. "My father and I were courteous to one another, we even smoked a little kif together (my mother, also), we traveled some, and they joined the American Club in Tangier, where they sometimes ate lunch and passed the time sitting outdoors beside the swimming pool. Near the end of their visit, my mother stumbled into a ditch and broke her ankle, whereupon she was forced to board the plane on crutches. I saw them twice more before their deaths, within three days of each other, in 1965. Needless to say, I never really got close to my father."

In the spring of 1957, Bowles was en route home from Taprobane, the tiny island he had purchased off the coast of Ceylon (with royalties from his second book, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories), when he received word that Jane had "suffered a slight stroke" but was recuperating. "In my innocence, I failed to recognize this message as the first statement of a theme which would become the principal leitmotiv of our lives. I did not know it, but the good years were over," he declared in his memoirs, Without Stopping. Later, in recounting the years immediately after her "small stroke," Bowles wrote that it "had resulted in the definitive impairment of Jane's sight; her field of vision was now divided into four stripes: sight, darkness, sight, darkness. She suffered as well from acute aphasia, which people in Tangier found amusing, although it depressed and terrified her, for she felt that she was no longer in command of her brain. A series of visits to hospitals began; she had to go twice to London that summer. Allen Ginsberg came to visit William S. Burroughs. Jane never forgave him for describing the effects of William Carlos Williams's stroke, and then suggesting that she learn braille."

Long before Jane was stricken, she was enamored of a young Berber woman, Cherifa, who sold grain in the Medina and who later worked for her, supervising Jane's actual servants and serving as her companion in public. Yet there was precious little warmth or reciprocity in the relationship since every favor Jane sought had to be bartered for something of material value -- her scarves, her watch, a new djellaba, shoes, medical treatment, money, an outpouring that culminated in Bowles's signing over -- at Jane's insistence -- his little house in the Medina so that she could give it to Cherifa.

Happy for a time and at ease with her life in Tangier despite Cherifa's elusiveness, Jane experienced severe bouts of depression and an ongoing writer's block impossible to shake, regardless of Bowles's urgings. In one letter to Jane in the fall of 1962, having just finished the music for Tennessee Williams's play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More and putting "the finishing touches" on his travel book, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, for Random House, he wrote: "I don't dare ask if you're working. But for God's sake, do." In addition to her relentless pursuits of Cherifa and Cherifa's friend Tetum, there were other women Jane pursued both before and after her debilitating stroke, but she was no more capable of sustaining a satisfying lesbian relationship than she was in writing new fiction or another play to succeed In the Summer House (1953), which had opened on Broadway to generally negative reviews. Jane wanted desperately to be able to continue writing, primarily to fulfill Bowles's own expectations of her, yet she was repeatedly frustrated over her inability to create (except in the kitchen, over which she presided as a gourmet cook); moreover, for many years she impressed all within earshot, natives and foreigners alike, when she conversed in Moghrebi, a Moroccan vernacular language, and could say anything she liked; she also expressed herself accurately when writing in classical Arabic, and was fluent in French and Spanish.

During the years that followed Jane's debilitating stroke and a series of epileptic seizures, variously diagnosed and treated, Bowles witnessed her anguished decline and adapted his own writing, composing, and translating schedules to her considerable needs. Finally, when no other course seemed open to him, having had Jane treated in the best hospitals and psychiatric facilities in London and New York, he took her in 1967 to a psychiatric hospital in Málaga, Spain, then to the Clínica de Los Angeles, a hospital in Málaga run by Roman Catholic nuns. Later, under their influence, she converted to Roman Catholicism. "Some of Jane's uninformed friends were critical of my bringing her home for four months in 1969, then putting her back in the hospital in Spain 'when it suited me,' they declared; but her doctor in Tangier recognized the impossibility of her remaining at home and insisted upon her being hospitalized." To one friend, he wrote while Jane was back in Tangier in 1969: "She's asked a good many Moroccans to kill her, promising them I'd pay them subsequently; not a good situation, to have them all saying I'll put out money for her death."

Finally, on May 4, 1973, in and out of consciousness, blind, and unable to move or speak, Jane died several hours after Bowles left her side. She was buried the following day in an unmarked grave in the Cementerio San Miguel in Málaga.

Until his own death a decade later, Tennessee Williams maintained that Jane was the "most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters -- and I don't mean the most important female writer," he added. "As a tribute to Jane, and as a token of what we meant to each other, I built a gazebo in Key West soon after her death and named it the Jane Bowles Summerhouse."

* * *

By the time Bowles himself died in the Italian Hospital in Tangier, on November 18, 1999, at the age of eighty-eight -- after a brief illness, not of a heart attack, as reported -- to his credit were three operas; the music for four ballets; four books of songs for voice; fourteen major compositions for piano and orchestra; and incidental music for thirty-two plays produced on Broadway (including Williams's The Glass Menagerie, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore); in addition, beginning in 1966, he composed the music for seven plays presented in Tangier by Joseph A. McPhillips III, headmaster of the American School of Tangier. His books included four novels, The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House, and Up Above the World; a novella, Too Far From Home; many collections of short stories, including The Delicate Prey, The Hours Before Noon, Collected Stories, and Unwelcome Words; two volumes of poetry (and a posthumous volume, Air to the Sea: Collected Poems of Paul Bowles, 1918-1977 (for which he wrote the introduction); five books of non-fiction including Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue; his autobiography, Without Stopping; In Touch, The Letters of Paul Bowles; and Days: Tangier Journal, 1987-1989; and twenty-four books of translations from French (including Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit), Arabic, Spanish, and Moghrebi. Most of Bowles's own books are in print and have been translated into countless languages and published throughout the world.

In 1959 Bowles made a sweep through Morocco recording its indigenous music, fearful that such music would be lost forever, for the Archive of Folk Culture of the Library of Congress, some of which was released in 1972 on two phonodiscs, and more will be released shortly on CDs. Especially notable is a a phonodisc of Bowles reading "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode," and a recently re-released CD of Bowles reading from A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (Cadmus Editions and Dom America, 1999).

Soon to be published is Cherie Nutting's Yesterday's Perfume (Random House, November 2000), a book of photographs taken by the author with a collaborative text by Bowles and Nutting documenting their extensive friendship in Tangier; also, a book of music criticism from Modern Music and The New York Herald Tribune, being co-edited by Irene Herrmann, Bowles's music heir, and Timothy Mangan (to be published by the University of California Press in 2001). Herrmann worked assiduously with Bowles each summer for five years to bring back into print, as soon as possible, a definitive collection of his sheet music, some of which was missing for over fifty years. Scribner will publish in the year 2001 this writer's Paul Bowles, A Life.
Virginia Spencer Carr
Professor of English
George State University


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