An Extraordinary Life—the Life and Times of Paul Bowles

An Essay by Jane M McCabe

Paul Bowles

Lately, I’ve been in love with Paul Bowles. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s that illusive writer who lived mostly in Morocco during the 1940’s until his death in 1990, in Tangier, where he was visited by the beats (remember the beats were the precursor of the hippies) and others. His best-known novel was The Sheltering Sky, which was made into a movie, a rather poor movie however, by Bernardo Bertolucci.

His first career was composing for the scores for films and plays, but he was also a first-class writer. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up a pace.

Paul Bowles was born on January 30th, 1910, in Jamaica, New York. His father, a dentist, considered him an intrusion in his life and disliked him. I wondered how this marked Bowles’ character; perhaps it contributed to his independence of character. He was a handsome boy with blonde curls, and there was no doubt that he was extremely intelligent.

When he was old enough to escape from his family, he went to Europe, to Paris, where he was introduced to Gertrude Stein and the coterie of artists surrounding her. He studied music with Aaron Copland, who also introduced him to sex. It was Stein who suggested that he go to Morocco.

During the winter of 1936-7, when he was 27, he met and married Jane Auer, “whose red hair, pointed nose and slight limp attracted him.” Theirs was an open marriage—Jane often preferred women, and Paul was bisexual. Often they lived apart. Yet their bond was durable and lasted until her death in 1973. Jane too was writer, although her work is not as well-known as his

They were part of that enviable time when artists hobnobbed with one another and traveled to exotic places. Bowles was successful as a composer though he was inadequately compensated for his work. He returned to Tangier many times before finally settling there with excursions to Ceylon (where he bought the island of Taprobane!), Madeira and elsewhere.

When I first heard that Bowles bought an island, I assumed he must have come from a very wealthy family, but such was not the case. He was able to buy Taprobane for $6000, less than a car these days. It was lovely place with an unusual house, but it lacked electricity and its only access was to wade there. Jane wasn’t thrilled and not many friends visited.

Morocco was his first love—he felt at home there and was able to work. Jane liked Morocco too. Bowles learned Arabic and explored the country and the Algerian Sahara. He was particularly fond of Fez, the setting for The Spider’s House.

Bowles took up writing to supplement his income, but, since he was a careful observer and a natural storyteller, he excelled in this profession. His travel writings are non parel.

The Sheltering Sky is a stunning piece of work. It shook me to my core. It’s the story of young American couple who venture into the Algerian Sahara, where Port, the character patterned after himself, dies, leaving Kit in shock to wander from the compound where they were staying and attach herself to band of traveling Arab merchants. She becomes the lover of Belqassim, the leader of the expedition. When they arrived at the town where he lives, she is housed in a labrynthian house and is the object of jealousy from his other wives, so she leaves…. By the time she is found and brought back to civilization she is mad. Nothing like it has been written before or since.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s people were testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, reverting in our times back to more puritanical mores. The Bowles ceased making love shortly after they were married, yet their bond persisted undiminished. Paul always loved Jane, liked spending time with her; whenever she was in trouble, especially in her later years when her health was failing, he would always go to her as quickly as possible

Bowles was convinced that his smoking kif was essential to his creative process and was an integral part of the composition technique. He enjoyed introducing his guests to the pleasures of smoking kif.

In 1956 Jane, barely 40, suffered her first stroke. She was treated in England and given electric shock treatments, but then suffered from convulsions on their ship out of London back to Tangier.

In 1959 Bowles was notified that he had received a Rockefeller grant of $6,500 to fund a project to record Morocco’s indigenous music, so he travelled to the outlying area with this purpose in mind. Many things interfered with his obtaining his purpose—being in areas where there was neither electricity nor battery generators, heat up to 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and natives who expected more than he had planned to pay them for their performances.

Bowles had a talent for traveling, and his home in Tangier was the go-to place for the invasion of beats—Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg.

Jane died on May 4, 1973, at the age of 55 in Malaga, Spain, where she had been hospitalized for the last few years of her life. After her death Paul continued to live on in Tangier, writing to friend, “There is nothing to keep me here now, save habit.” Her death took the wind out of his sails. In the years following he continued to live in a small flat in Tangier with more books and papers than he had room for.

In the fall of 1984, he had treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland and several years later an operation in Rabat to sever his sympathetic nerve his right leg. Although he kidded that when he died, he wanted to be buried in the pet cemetery outside of Tangier, his body was returned to New York where he was cremated and laid to rest next to his parents. He was not alone when he died in Tangier at 11:10 a.m. on November 18, 1999, at the age of 89 years. His friend Abdelouahaid Bouliaich and his cook Souad were by his side. He was perfectly lucid to the end. He wrote:

“If I knew I were going to die tomorrow I’d think, so soon? Still, if a man has spent his life doing what he wanted to do, he ought to be able to say goodbye without regrets.”

His was a life well lived. His ashes were interned in the Lakemont Cemetery overlooking the Seneca Lake, where the bodies or ashes of many members of his family had been interned.

When Port dies in The Sheltering Sky, Bowles writes, “A black star appears, a point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fire fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”

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