Paul Bowles, 1910 – 1999
‘The floor to this ramshackle civilization that we have built cannot bear much longer our weight. It was Bowles’s genius to suggest the horrors which lie beneath that floor, as fragile, in its way, as the sky that shelters us from a devouring vastness.’
From the Introduction by Gore Vidal to Paul Bowles’s Collected Stories (1979)
Paul Bowles was an American author and inveterate traveller who spent 52 of his 88 years living in Tangier, Morocco. No other notable American writer has spent so long immersed in Islamic culture. The author of over 60 short stories and 4 novels, he was also a highly respected composer, music critic and translator of Moroccan fiction.
His most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky, was made into an award-winning film in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Despite appearing in the film himself as the wizened narrator, Bowles was disappointed in it, describing the film as ‘awful’, according to his obituary in The New York Times.
Bowles is perhaps not as well known as readers of The Sheltering Sky might expect. This is partly because he shunned New York and the group of literati to which he belonged. It is also the result of his association with small presses, and his status as an icon for the American Beat movement whose members and fans made pilgrimages to his home in Tangier. This contributed to the impression that The Sheltering Sky was a cult book by a marginal author, instead of the timeless classic it is now recognised to be.
Paul Frederic Bowles was born in New York on 30 December 1910. He was an only child. In his autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), which reads, according to Allen Hibbard, ‘like a who’s who of 20th century arts and letters’, Bowles recalls a story that his father, a dentist, tried to kill him when he was a baby by leaving him naked by an open window in the middle of winter. He remembers his mother more fondly, recalling her reading aloud from Edgar Allan Poe. The young Bowles wrote poetry and studied musical theory, singing and piano. When he was seventeen, one of his poems, Spire Song, was published in Transition, a literary journal based in Paris that served as a forum for modernists such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
It was Gertrude Stein, whom Bowles visited in Paris with his mentor, composer Aaron Copland, who first suggested that Bowles try Morocco as a place to live. In 1931, Bowles and Copland took a villa overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Thus began a life-long relationship with North Africa that was to provide the grist for Bowles’s writing mill.
Throughout the thirties and early forties, Bowles lived nomadically, shuttling relentlessly between New York and the deserts of North Africa, the tropical forests of Latin America and a small island off Sri Lanka. His musical output during this time was prodigious. Although Bowles’s music was ultimately overshadowed by his fiction, he wrote volumes of chamber music, opera scores and incidental theatre music for over 33 shows, including several plays by Tennessee Williams and music for an Orson Welles production. As music critic for the The New York Herald Tribune in the early 1940s, he wrote hundreds of reviews on jazz, folk and classical music. He also pioneered North African ethnomusicology, recording traditional Moroccan music for the US Library of Congress.
In 1938, aged twenty-seven, Bowles married the then aspiring writer, Jane Auer. Theirs was a sexually open marriage and was curious even by the standards of the jaded expat scene in 1940s Tangier. Both had affairs and maintained same-sex relationships, eventually taking separate apartments and leading semi-independent lives. In an interview with The Paris Review, Bowles denied that the American couple in The Sheltering Sky, Port and Kit Moresby, whose marriage was similarly unconventional, were surrogates for him and his wife.
In 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Bowles set sail for Morocco once more, this time with an advance from Doubleday for a novel. The result was The Sheltering Sky, which he described in a letter to a friend as “a novel just like any other novel; a triangle laid in the Sahara’ (In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York: 1995). Doubleday did not agree with him and rejected it. So the novel was first published in London in the summer of 1949, which is why it has British spelling. It was published a few months later in New York, where it received an enthusiastic response, spending eleven weeks on the US bestseller lists. Far from being a cult book, The Sheltering Sky achieved both popular and critical success. Its first American paperback printing was 200,000 copies, and its literary admirers include Tennessee Williams, who reviewed it, Gore Vidal, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess and Patricia Highsmith.
Tangier remained Bowles’s home until he died of heart failure in the Italian Hospital there in 1999 at the age of 88. His ashes are buried in upstate New York.
Official Paul Bowles Website, including interviews