Bowles, Paul 1910–1999

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Bowles, Paul 1910–1999

(Paul Frederick Bowles)

PERSONAL: Born December 30, 1910, in New York, NY; died November 18, 1999; son of Claude Dietz (a dentist) and Rena (Winnewisser) Bowles; married Jane Sydney Auer (a writer), February 21, 1938 (died 1973). Education: Studied music with Aaron Copland, 1930–32, and Virgil Thomson, 1933–34; also attended New York School of Design and Liberal Arts and University of Virginia.

CAREER: Writer. Composer for stage, operas, film scores, ballets, songs, and chamber music; musical works include scores for The Glass Menagerie, Love's Old Sweet Song, My Heart's in the Highlands, and Sweet Bird of Youth, and for ballets Pastorelas, Yankee Clipper, and Sentimental Colloquy. Visiting professor, San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge), 1968.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1941; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, 1950; Rockefeller grant, 1959; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1978, and senior fellowship, 1980; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for Collected Stories of Paul Bowles, 1939–1976.



The Sheltering Sky, New Directions (New York, NY), 1949, reprinted, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Let It Come Down, Random House (New York, NY), 1952.

The Spider's House, Random House (New York, NY), 1955.

Up above the World, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.

Points in Time, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1982.

Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles, introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Mario Vargas Llosa) Cladio Brave: Paintings and Drawings (nonfiction), Abberville Press (New York, NY), 1997.

The Sheltering Sky; Let It Come Down; The Spider's House, Penguin (New York, NY), 2002.


The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1950.

A Little Stone, J. Lehmann (Tyne and Wear, England), 1950.

The Hours after Noon, Heinemann (London, England), 1959.

A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1962.

The Time of Friendship, Holt (New York, NY), 1967.

Pages from Cold Point and Other Stories, P. Owen (London, England), 1968.

Three Tales, F. Hallman, 1975.

Things Gone and Things Still Here, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1977.

Collected Stories of Paul Bowles, 1939–1976, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1979.

Midnight Mass, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1981.

A Distant Episode: The Selected Stories, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Call at Corazon, P. Owen (London, England), 1988.

Unwelcome Words: Seven Stories, Tombouctou Books (Bolinas, CA), 1988.

A Thousand Days for Mokhtar, and Other Stories, P. Owen (London, England), 1989.

The Stories of Paul Bowles, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Collected Stories and Later Writings, Penguin (New York, NY), 2002.


Scenes, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1968.

The Thicket of Spring: Poems, 1926–1969, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1972.

Next to Nothing, Starstreams, 1976.


Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, A Life Full of Holes, Grove (New York, NY), 1963.

Mohammed Mrabet, Love with a Few Hairs, P. Owen (London, England), 1967.

Mohammed Mrabet, The Lemon, P. Owen (London, England), 1969.

Mohammed Mrabet, M'Hashish, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1969.

Mohammed Mrabet, The Boy Who Set the Fire and Other Stories, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1974.

Mohammed Mrabet, Hadidan Aharam, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1975.

Mohammed Mrabet, Harmless Poisons, Blameless Sins, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.

Mohammed Mrabet, Look and Move On, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1976.

Mohammed Mrabet, The Big Mirror, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1977.

Five Eyes, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1979.

Mohammed Mrabet, The Beach Café, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1980.

Mohammed Mrabet, The Chest, Tombouctou Books (Bolinas, CA), 1983.

Marriage with Papers, Tombouctou Books (Bolinas, CA), 1986.

Mohammed Mrabet, Chocolate Creams and Dollars, Distributed Art Publishers, 1993.


Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit, S. French (New York, NY), 1946.

Isabelle Eberhardt, The Oblivion Seekers, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1975.

Also translator of other works from French.


Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone, P. Owen (London, England), 1973.

Mohamed Choukri, Jean Genet in Tangier, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1974.

Mohamed Choukri, Tennessee Williams in Tangier, Cadmus Editions (Santa Barbara, CA), 1979.


(With Luchino Visconti and Tennessee Williams) Senso (screenplay), Domenico Forges Davanzati, 1954.

Yallah (travel essays), McDowell, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1957.

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (travel essays), Random House (New York, NY), 1963, published as Their Heads Are Green, P. Owen (London, England), 1963, reprinted, Abacus/Sphere (New York, NY), 1990.

Paul Bowles in the Land of the Jumblies (screenplay), Gary Conklin, 1969.

Without Stopping: An Autobiography, Putnam (New York, NY), 1972, revised edition, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1991.

She Woke Me up and So I Killed Her, Cadmus Editions (Santa Barbara, CA), 1985.

(Translator from the Spanish) Rodrigo Rey Rosa, The Beggar's Knife, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1985.

Two Years beside the Strait: Tangier Journal 1987–1989 (diary), P. Owen (London, England), 1990, published as Days: Tangier Journal 1987–1989, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Tanger: vues choisies (travel pictorial), photographs by Jellel Gasteli, Editions E. Koehler (Paris, France), 1991.

(Translator) Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Dust on Her Tongue, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1992.

Conversations with Paul Bowles, edited by Gena Dagel Caponi, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1993.

Morocco (travel pictorial), photographs by Barry Brukoff, Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.

In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.

Paul Bowles Photographs, edited by Simon Bischoff, Scalo Publishers (New York, NY), 1994.

The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles, edited by Milli-cent Dillon, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1994.

China after Socialism: In the Footsteps of Eastern Europe or East Asia?, edited by Barrett L. McCor-mick and Jonathan Unger, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1996.

Dear Paul, Dear Ned: The Correspondence of Paul Bowles and Ned Rorem, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1997.

(Translator) Rey Rosa, The Pelcari Project/Carcel de arboles, Cadmus Editions (Santa Barbara, CA), 1997.

Desultory Correspondence: An Interview with Paul Bowles on Gertrude Stein, edited by Florian Vetsch, Distributed Art Publishers, 1997.

The Paul Bowles Reader, P, Owen (New York, NY), 2000.

(Coauthor) Cherie Nutting, Yesterday's Perfume: An Intimate Memoir of Paul Bowles, Clarkson Potter (New York, NY), 2000.

Paul Bowles on Music, edited by Timothy Mangan and Irene Herrmann, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.

ADAPTATIONS: Bowles recorded his short stories "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode" on an album for Spoken Arts, 1963; A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard was recorded for Cadmus Editions, 1981; a film version of The Sheltering Sky narrated by Bowles and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger was released by Warner Bros., 1990.

SIDELIGHTS: Paul Bowles' fiction depicts the frailty of Western rationalism. In the essential Bowles story, American or European travelers visit a civilization they consider vastly inferior to their own, usually in the North African desert. When they enter that more primitive world, however, their Western values quickly disintegrate. Inevitably, contact with the older culture transforms the travelers' world view; not infrequently, it destroys them. Although he remains best known for his novel The Sheltering Sky, Bowles also distinguished himself as a composer, short story writer, translator, and poet.

Even as a child Bowles wrote fiction and music; he was sixteen years old when the highly regarded magazine transition published his surrealist poetry. A 1931 trip to Paris really marked the beginning of his adult writing career, however, for it was then that he met and became friends with author Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. These two women were to give Bowles important direction concerning his literary efforts; Stein was not fond of surrealism, and her criticism of Bowles' poetry was harsh. In a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, Lawrence D. Stewart quoted her as saying to the young writer: "Now Bravig Imbs, for instance, he's just a very bad poet…. But you—you're not a poet at all!"

Stein believed that time away from Western culture would help Bowles discover his own style. Toklas, who according to Stewart "had a talent for putting people in a proper setting," suggested Morocco. In so doing, she introduced the young author to the place where he would live for most of his life, and which would serve as the setting for the greater part of his fiction. He rented a house in Tangier, sharing it with composer Aaron Copland, who was then serving as Bowles' musical mentor. Although primarily concerned with his composition at this time, Bowles did send some prose passages to Stein from Tangier, which pleased her much more than had his poetry. Stewart quotes a letter to Bowles in which Stein wrote: "I like your story, I like your descriptions, go on with them."

It was in 1942 that Bowles again became inspired to write fiction. Watching his wife, Jane Auer, at work on her novel Two Serious Ladies "was the thing that detonated the … explosion," Stewart quoted Bowles as explaining. His stories were soon appearing in such diverse publications as Harper's Bazaar, View, Mademoiselle, and Partisan Review. When he had collected enough to make up an entire volume, he sent them to a publisher "hoping somehow to bypass the unwritten law which makes it impossible for a writer to publish a book of short stories until after he has published a novel," noted Bowles in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS). He did not succeed in this aim, but after reading his stories, editors at Doubleday were willing to commission a novel. A vivid dream of Morocco convinced Bowles that he must return there to write. Soon he was en route to Fez, and within eight months he had completed The Sheltering Sky, a novel so startling that upon receiving the manuscript, Doubleday demanded the return of their advance money, declaring that what Bowles had produced was not a novel at all.

Subsequently published by New Directions, The Sheltering Sky has since been praised as a masterpiece of existential literature. Theodore Solotaroff expressed the opinion of many critics in a New Republic review, calling it "one of the most beautifully written novels" of the mid-twentieth century "and one of the most shattering. Bowles is not the philosopher that Sartre or Camus were, but he is an existentialist to his fingertips, and beside the emotional concreteness of The Sheltering Sky, books like Nausea, The Age of Reason, or The Stranger seem vague, arbitrary, imaginatively barren."

According to Stewart, Bowles himself described The Sheltering Sky as "an adventure story, in which the actual adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit." The main characters are Port and Kit Moresby, two sophisticated American drifters whose feelings of emptiness are revealed in Port's remark to his wife: "We've never managed, either of us, to get all the way into life." Their wanderings take them to the North African desert. There, wrote Esquire contributor Tobias Wolff, "in the silent emptiness of desert and sky, the knowledge of their absolute isolation from other people comes upon them so violently that it subverts their belief in their own reality and in the reality of their connection to each other. Doubting that connection is, of course, prelude to betraying it. And betray it they do, in every way." Port falls mortally ill; Kit abandons her dying husband for another man. Eventually, she becomes the mindlessly contented slave of an Arab named Belqassim. Subjugation brings her such peace that when Belqassim loses interest in her, she searches for another captor. When French colonial authorities finally locate Kit, she has abandoned her identity so completely that she fails even to recognize her own name.

"The Sheltering Sky has been called nightmarish; that description lets us off the hook too easily, because it implies a fear of the unreal," believed Wolff. "The power of this novel lies precisely in the reality of what it makes us fear—the sweetness of that voice in each of us that sings the delight of not being responsible…. Our failing resistance to … attacks on our sense of worth as individuals is the central drama of our time. The Sheltering Sky records the struggle with complete fidelity, impassively noting every step in the process of surrender. Like The Sun Also Rises and Under the Volcano, Bowles' novel enacts a crucial historical moment with such clarity that it has become part of our picture of that moment."

With a critically acclaimed novel to his credit, Bowles was able to publish his collection The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. The stories in this volume, wrote Wolff, extend "the perceptions of the novel into even more exotic and disturbing terrain." The title story, for example, delineates a hashish-maddened hunter's murder of three brothers, and the revenge of the slain brothers' tribesmen: after capturing the killer, they bury him up to his neck in sand and abandon him to the elements. In "A Distant Episode," which Tennessee Williams described in the Saturday Review of Literature as "a true masterpiece of short fiction," an American linguistics professor, betrayed by his native guide, is seized by a band of hostile nomads. Mutilated and dressed in a suit of flattened tin cans, the professor is then kept as a hideous pet by the tribesmen, who teach him to dance for their amusement. "The curiosity-seeker has himself become a curiosity, comically and ineffectually armored in the detritus of his own culture," noted Wolff. "The story is a tour de force, an ominous parable of the weakening of the individual will to survive." Solotaroff stated that the stories in The Delicate Prey, "with their lucid, quiet evocation of mood and motive leading to revelations of scarifying depravity," are so powerful that they make "the nihilism of the early Hemingway seem like a pleasant beery melancholy…. These stories … make one feel they were written with a razor, so deftly and chillingly do they cut to the bone."

Bowles' later fiction continued to feature the elements that make The Sheltering Sky and The Delicate Prey unique: exotic locations, existential concerns, and pristine prose. Let It Come Down follows a bank clerk as he flees the desolation of his life in New York City for Tangier, where he experiences a rapid disintegration. In The Spider's House four expatriate Westerners are caught up in the violence of revolution in Fez. Up above the World tells of a jaded American couple traveling across South America; their entanglement with a stranger leads to their brainwashing and murder. The similarities found in Bowles' works have led some critics to suggest that the author made his strongest statement in his first two books and failed to develop artistically thereafter. While admiring the author's stylistic mastery, Bernard Bergonzi in the New York Review of Books found "what he does with it very limited and ultimately monotonous. He places his characters before us and then destroys them in an unerring way: it is a remarkable performance, but one expects something more from literature." Francis King concurred in a Spectator article that Bowles unfortunately restricted himself to a "constant retreading of the same narrow plot, instead of the exploration of previously untrodden jungle."

Bowles' writing was curtailed when his wife suffered a stroke and, afterward, a long physical decline. "During the latter years of Jane's illness … it was impossible for me to write fiction," he once revealed in CAAS. "The periods which I had to myself were of very short duration: fifteen or twenty minutes, instead of several hours. Frequent interruptions destroyed creative impetus." Discovering that "the act of translating did not suffer in any way from being stopped at short intervals," however, Bowles began what he felt was among his most important work: the publication of tales told by his young Arab friends. These tales, often produced when the narrators were high on kif—a marijuana-related substance—were tape-recorded, transcribed, and translated by Bowles. They illustrate the manner of thought the American author came to appreciate during his many years in North Africa.

After Jane Auer's death in 1973 Bowles once again turned to fiction. Some critics indicated that the work produced during this period may have been his most distinguished. Wolff described Bowles' 1982 publication Points in Time as "a nervy, surprising, completely original performance, so original that it can't be referred to any previous category of fiction or nonfic-tion." The book's structure reflects Bowles's musical training; it is divided into several sections or "movements." In this way, the author combines legends, historical anecdotes, description, and passages of popular song to create a portrait of Morocco through the years. It is accomplished with "a centered precision that at times reaches perfection and becomes so memorable, it does damage to the eye and the brain of the reader," explained Ben Pleasants in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Wolff agreed that Points in Time is "a brilliant achievement, innovative in form, composed in a language whose every word, every pause feels purposeful and right." Conrad Knickerbocker concluded in a New York Times article that among American writers, Bowles continued to stand "in the front rank for the substance of his ideas and for the power and conviction with which he expresses his own particular vision, which, if hellish, is totally appropriate to the times."

Points in Time was followed by several short story collections including A Distant Episode: The Selected Stories, Unwelcome Words: Seven Stories, and Call at Corazon. These collections represent over forty years of Bowles' work and reflect his long-running exploration of themes concerning the acculturation, miscegenation, and syncretism of Westerners as they explore foreign locales. During this exploration, Bowles' characters often encounter—and sometimes participate in—brutal and grotesque acts. In the story "Hugh Harper" from Call at Corazon, for example, Bowles' English protagonist has a penchant for drinking the blood of young Muslim boys. In his review of Unwelcome Words in the Times Literary Supplement, John Ryle concluded that "the Islamic wonder-tale converges in Bowles's work with the horror story. West and East meet in the act of violence…. It is hard to know if he is trying to move you to shiver or shrug or smile—or none of these things."

Bowles' Two Years beside the Strait: Tangier Journal 1987–1989 was also published during this period. In this diary, Bowles witnesses and records occurrences that often assault the senses, delivering his short tales with an eloquence and distance usually reserved for the snapshot. In one of the entries, for instance, "Bowles describes a 'typical tale of Ramadan violence' in a market," noted Millicent Dillon in the Times Literary Supplement. "One Moroccan merchant refuses to allow another to sit close to him. Tired, the second man sits down for a minute; the first one kills him. This story is told without further comment. No judgment is made." Some critics felt Bowles maintained too much distance from his subject in Two Years beside the Strait, and were disappointed that the journal does not explicate the author's life—long a bone of contention among Bowles' readers. Gerald Nicosia lamented in the Washington Post Book World that "it is precisely that withdrawn and detached mode of observation that makes Bowles' journal, Days, such a 'humdrum' read—to use his own description in the 'Preface.' Except for a few wonderful passages of natural observation, you could never guess that this was a journal of one of the major writers of our century."

Fans and critics had hoped for more revealing insights from the author in Conversations with Paul Bowles and In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles, published in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Unfortunately, the author "deliberately deceives the interlocutor, offering diverse, ambivalent remarks" in the interviews contained in Conversations, Irving Malin contended in Studies in Short Fiction. Malin quoted Bowles as saying, "the man who wrote the books didn't exist. No writer exists. He exists in his books and that's all," and observed of Bowles that "by distancing the writer from biographical investigation, he privileges the text, and at the same time adds to his legend as invisible man." More personal and insightful, In Touch offers readers a closer look at the author through his correspondences dating back to 1929. The letters present glimpses of such celebrity friends as William Burroughs, Aaron Copland, and Tennessee Williams, as well as a melancholy documentation of Bowles' wife's illness and untimely death. In Touch reveals something of the private life of Bowles, but the real worth of this collection is that "the descriptive passages found in the letters often rival those of his novels and stories," according to Michael Upchurch in the New York Times Book Review. Jack Sullivan, reviewing In Touch for the Washington Post Book World, remarked that Bowles' "newly published letters—some 400 of them, selected from over 7,000 pages—are a major publishing event and an endless source of fascination." He continued: "these letters can be as ceremoniously formal as Bowles's public persona or as surreal and off-the-wall as his wildest fiction."

For fans of his fiction, Bowles complied in 1993 with Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles. A collection of previously released work supplemented by the previously unpublished title story, Too Far from Home, "at some 15,000 words,… is no more a novel than a handkerchief is a bedsheet," asserted Francis King in the Spectator. Although new, the story "Too Far from Home" reverts to the theme of Americans trying to adapt to a foreign culture. Through brother and sister Tom and Anita, Bowles illuminates the prejudices and contrasts inherent in acculturation. In a letter to a friend, quoted by James Campbell in the Times Literary Supplement, Anita writes, "I am being forced to participate in some sort of communal consciousness that I really hate. I don't know anything about these people. They're all black, but nothing like 'our' blacks back in the States." Her brother Tom is a painter and, in contrast to his sister, is not at all affected by the rigors of Saharan living or Anita's inability to adjust to her new surroundings. Bowles includes horror scenes typical of his past stories and explores supernatural themes as well. Although many critics were disappointed that Bowles' extended hiatus from short fiction did not result in more than Too Far from Home, interest in his characteristic subject matter continued. "Right or wrong, beauty and terror go wonderfully well together in his work," stated Madison Smartt Bell in the Chicago Tribune, adding that Too Far from Home "should increase our awareness that Bowles is one of the most important writers of our times."

In a departure from his previous work, Bowles collaborated with photographer Barry Brukoff to produce the pictorial titled Morocco in 1993. Bowles wrote the text to accompany eighty photos by Brukoff that depict scenes from Tangier, Fez, Marrakesh, and the Sahara. In his introduction to the volume Bowles reasserts his commitment to objectivity: "To aid the reader's imagination in its task of seizing the essence of how things were but no longer are, and of how they are now, it is important that a chronicler adhere to a scrupulous honesty in reporting. Any conscious distortion is equivalent to cheating at solitaire: the purpose of the game is nullified."

Bowles died in the late fall of 1999.



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Bowles, Paul 1910–1999

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