Remembering Paul Bowles (page 5)
Remembering Paul Bowles
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5
     Bowles wrote background music for movies and plays — one of the best known is Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” The purpose of background music is to emphasize and heighten the emotional effects of the story. In his own fiction, one can find a kind of sound track — a whole array of background noises that give depth and resonance to the narrative. In The Sheltering Sky for example, the protagonist is lured to an encounter with a prostitute by the enticing sound of flute music. He later dies an agonizing death from typhoid fever as the wind screams outside in a kind of chorus for his own cries of pain.
     In one of his stories, a professor lured into a desert abyss by the sound of native music gets his tongue cut out. In another, a murderer is punished by being buried up to his neck in the sand. While he screams out in his death agonies, the wind blows dust into his mouth.
     When I once remarked to him that in many of his stories, the violent sounds of nature — or the equally devastating silence of the desert — seem to overwhelm the language of the characters, Bowles replied, “I have always considered language to be essentially sound.” And he left me to ponder the nihilistic implications of that. I thought of a line from Shakespeare, echoed by Faulkner: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Travel writing without the darkness
It is a long way from our sunny, youthful, and altruistic days in the Peace Corps to the dark fictional world of Paul Bowles, full of images of the abyss and the void. But I have always felt that Bowles’s travel writing — he wrote many articles for Holiday Magazine in the 1950s and 60s — shows a different side. In these pieces, many of them collected in a book called Their Heads Are Green, Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, Bowles shows a kind of humor, affection for North Africa, and a love of travel which is quite absent in the fiction. Even his fiction shows an increasing movement away from the perspective of western characters towards the imaginative world of the North Africans, until he puts aside his own fiction in favor of recording and translating the oral tales of Moroccan storytellers. And he has always shared profits from the books with the native storytellers.
     Paul Theroux uses his encounter with Bowles to end the account of his own Mediterranean travels. I like the way Theroux, the most successful writer to come out of the Peace Corps, expresses a kind of kinship with Bowles, the most resolutely expatriate of American writers. Theroux contemplates the aged man in his last days, bedridden and surrounded with medicines, but still working on manuscripts:

    He seemed to me a man who masked all his feelings; he had a glittering eye, but a cold gaze. He seemed at once preoccupied, knowledgeable, worldly, remote, detached, vain, skeptical, eccentric, self-sufficient, indestructible, egomaniacal, and hospitable to praise. He was like almost every other writer I had known in my life.

RPCV Writers & Readers published "Sitting in Paul Bowles' Chair" by Sarah Streed in September, 1993.
David Espey taught English as a Volunteer in Morocco. He has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Michigan. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the English Writing Program. He has had Fulbright grants to Morocco, Turkey, and Japan. His home page is 
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