Sunday, December 11, 2005

No One Writes Violence Like Bowles

I've been reading the Collected Short Stories of Paul Bowles, and have found his matter-of-fact descriptions of violence, particularly in stories like "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode" to be shatteringly effective. His attitude? "Hey, I'm not making this up; I'm just telling it like it is. And I can't quite muster the energy to get up from my desk, where I'm writing all this down, to help anyone."

One of his central themes—the collision of Westerners with primitive cultures—is striking in what it reveals about Western perceptions.

I think that many contemporary writers who tend to sentimentalize, fetishize, or emotionalize violence could learn much about his cool handling of the topic. The most objective descriptions yield the greatest horror and reader response.

Below is an encyclopedia entry about Bowles for the uninitiated:

Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City to Rena (née Rennewisser) and Claude Dietz Bowles, where his father was a dentist, and spent his childhood at 108 Hardenbrook Avenue, then 207 De Grauw Avenue, and later 34 Terrace Avenue. His mother read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to him as a child, and Bowles made notebooks of writing and drawing throughout his childhood. When Bowles was 8, his father bought a phonograph and classic records; Bowles was interested in jazz but such records were forbidden in the house. About this time his family bought a piano and Bowles studied theory, singing, and piano. He continued to keep a diary of imaginary goings-on during this time, and also wrote a daily newspaper. In 1922, at age 11, Bowles bought his first book of poetry, Arthur Waley's A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems. In high school he attended a performance of Stravinsky's Firebird at Carnegie Hall which made a profound impression.

Bowles entered the University of Virginia in 1928, where his interests included T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, Prokofiev, Duke Ellington, Gregorian chants, and the blues, and he published two items in transition. He also heard music by George Antheil and Henry Cowell. In April 1929 he dropped out of school to make his first trip to Paris where he worked as a switchboard operator for the Herald Tribune. He returned home in July and started writing Without Stopping, his first mature book. He left college without a degree in 1930.

France and New York

On a subsequent trip to France in 1931, he became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle and on her advice, that summer he made his first visit to Tangier with his friend and music teacher the composer Aaron Copland. In Berlin, he met Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, who gives the name Bowles to the heroine of Goodbye to Berlin. The following year he returned to North Africa and traveled throughout other parts of Morocco, the Sahara and Algeria. Throughout the next decade, Bowles composed a good body of music including sonatas, song cycles, and music for stage productions (including Doctor Faustus directed by Orson Welles, the orchestration for George Balanchine's Yankee Clipper at Lincoln Kirstein's request), and also made early recordings of North African music.
In 1938 he married author and playwright Jane Auer (Feb. 22, 1917 - May 4, 1973), and after a brief sojourn in France they were prominent among the literary figures of New York throughout the 1940s, with Paul working under Virgil Thomson as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune. His light opera The Wind Remains, based on a poem by Garcia Lorca, was performed in 1943 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1945 he unexpectedly began writing prose again, beginning with a few short stories including A Distant Episode. He also translated Jorge Luis Borges at this time, and his translation of the play No Exit (entitled Huis-clos in French) by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critic's Award. The subsequent year, he received an advance for a novel, and began writing The Sheltering Sky, which quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list when published by New Directions.

Tangier and elsewhere

Also in 1947, he moved permanently to Tangier, and his wife Jane followed him there in 1948. The Bowleses became iconoclasts of the Tangerinos—American and European expatriates centered in Tangier. During the following decade Bowles wrote much of his most famous prose. Prominent literary friends visited Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier beginning in the late 1940s, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs followed in the mid-1950s. In Morocco, Bowles concentrated on writing novels, short stories and travel pieces, and wrote incidental music for nine plays presented by the American School of Tangier. In 1952 Bowles bought the tiny island of Taprobane, off the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he wrote much of his novel The Spider's House, returning to Tangier in the warmer months.

In 1961, Bowles began tape-recording and translating works of Moroccan authors and storie-tellers, including stories by long-time friend Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi (under the pseudonym Driss ben Hamed Charhadi), and Mohammed Mrabet. Rather oddly, Bowles spent one term at the English Department of the San Fernando Valley State College in 1968, teaching existentialism and the novel. Most of the time, however, he remained in Tangier with brief interludes elsewhere overseas.

After the death of Jane Bowles in 1973 in Malaga, Spain, Bowles continued to live in Tangier, writing and receiving visitors to his modest apartment. In 1995 Paul Bowles made a rare and final return to New York for a festival of his music at the Lincoln Center and a symposium and interview held at the New School for Social Research.
Paul Bowles died of heart failure at the Italian Hospital in Tangier on November 18, 1999 at the age of 88. The following day a full-page obituary appeared in The New York Times. Although he had lived in Morocco for 52 years, he was buried in Lakemont, New York, next to the graves of his parents and grandparents.

Selected works

Besides being a composer and novelist, Bowles published fourteen short story collections, three volumes of poetry, numerous translations, and books of travel writing and autobiography.

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