Tag Archives: the sheltering sky

Paul Bowles: The Unholy Wanderer

1 Aug

Paul Bowles left America at a young age and never looked back. He spent his entire life moving from place to place; he never settled in on a home. His restless life resulted in a unique point of view: casually misanthropic, learned, drawn to the exotic, and certain that the west had masked mankind’s brutal nature with fine things, but that the essential violence was unchanged.

He had three distinct careers, as a composer, as a poet, and as a writer of fiction. He also wrote journalism, and he recorded the folklore and stories of the townspeople he met.

The author, smoking a long-handled cigarette.

The first thing to understand about Paul Bowles: he is strange. His thoughts are not your thoughts. He has a disassociated view of life. Things happen to his characters that aren’t understandable, or even connected to any sort of known cause and effect.

He’s a cool writer, in the sense that he’s difficult to pin down, holds transgressive moral views, and seems unconcerned with material success. His books contain strange worlds, although they are, for the most part, exercises in realism. His common themes are disassociation, alienation and cultural miscommunication. His characters are often arrogant about their cultural place in the world, until they meet the hard realities of their new surroundings. He’s best writing about Americans loosed upon the North African world. Each of his novels has a scene—and it’s usually the best scene in the story—following a tourist wandering through the windy Moroccan streets late at night, searching for something they won’t find.

He wrote one great novel, one very good novel and two interesting failures. His stories are hit or miss, although the good ones rate with the best short stories of the last fifty years.

He had a distinguished career as a composer. He was one of Aaron Copeland’s star pupils and produced a number of compositions that are held in high regard. He was married to Jane Bowles, who wrote a very well regarded novel of her own. He details their peripatetic wanderings in his autobiography, Without Stopping. (Which, by the by, is interesting but not interesting enough; he intentionally leaves out the juice, steam, sex and violence. The result is a book for fans, but not for the casual reader.)

One of the great novels of the 20th Century.

Start with his masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky. It’s a superb piece of writing, following three foreigners in Northern Africa as they navigate the cultural dissonances of being wealthy and privileged in a part of the world that is still living with a collective moral viewpoint of the Middle Ages. It’s a flawless work, lyrical and horrifying.

An excellent novel by the unholy wanderer.

His second best work is The Spider’s House. It’s very, very good. It follows two Americans and their friendship with a Moroccan youth. The backdrop is Fez, and Bowles describes and explores it so well it becomes a major character in the book. There’s political unrest, secret societies, anti-American sentiment, a dash of romance.

Up Above the World is a pot-boiler, well-written I suppose but thin, with a terrible (and boring) third act. Let It Come Down is diverting, and it has good ideas, a good set up, but then the story is sort of shunted aside for the last thirty pages, replaced with a drug trip that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Then, his stories:

“By the Water” (man wanders into a strange town, angers a freak, ends up on a distant beach with a young orphan)

“Pages from Cold Point” (A father is seduced by his son, realizes there is evil in the world)

“The Delicate Prey” (Revenge tragedy of three Bedouins hunting a lone Arab)

“A Thousand Days of Mokhtar” (An eccentric crank’s bad day and the horror that results from it)

The author and the enormity of the mysterious desert.

He’s a disquieting presence in American letters, a piercing explorer of foreign cultures and a fantastic outsider artist.