A writer writes

Remembering Paul Bowles

by David Espey (Morocco 1962–64)

    IN HIS TRAVEL BOOK ON THE MEDITERRANEAN, The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux ends his long trip by paying a visit to Paul Bowles, the expatriate American novelist who lived in Tangier until his death in 1999. Theroux made his visit in the early 1990s, when Bowles was already aged and infirm, but still receiving visitors in his modest apartment. From his bed (actually a mattress on the floor, surrounded by medicines and papers), Bowles conversed amiably for several hours, and Theroux found him to be fascinating company.
         Theroux’s account took me back to a time nearly 25 years ago when I was a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco and dropped in often on Bowles, who was always gracious about receiving visitors. But my memories of Bowles go back even further, to the early 1960s, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first project to Morocco. At that time, I and my fellow Volunteers were reading with fascination a book about a poor, illiterate Moroccan named Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an oral autobiography entitled A Life Full of Holes. Bowles, whom I had never heard of, was listed as the translator.
         The early ’60s were a time when Africa seemed full of promise — before the devastating civil wars and famines, before terrorism and hijackings, before leaders like Idi Amin, before AIDS, before Islamic fundamentalism. Even in North Africa, more a part of the Arab world than the African continent, newly-independent countries radiated a kind of hope and energy. The French had left Morocco only six years before, and Algeria was celebrating independence after its long colonial war. Nobody had heard of Vietnam. Even the Six-Day War had not yet happened, and pictures of Egypt’s President Nassar adorned the walls of Moroccan homes next to portraits of the new king, Hassan II. John F. Kennedy was still alive, the Peace Corps was in its infancy, and we Volunteers, products of the Eisenhower era and the Cold War, were just beginning to discover the emerging Third World. I remember hitchhiking across an Algeria festooned with banners proclaiming the optimistic slogans of socialism. It was a mark of the times that I, as an American, was welcomed warmly in Algeria. (Today I would risk getting my throat cut!)

A Life Full of Holes reveals poverty to Volunteers
Bowles’s book stirred such interest among Volunteers because it dramatized in a plain and moving manner the pain and humiliation of poverty. Poverty, I must admit, probably held a naïve attraction for us. Bowles, who spoke the local dialect of Arabic, had struck up a conversation with Charhadi, who had a gift for storytelling. He gradually coaxed out the sad story of the man’s life and tape-recorded it over a number of sessions. Then he translated it, edited the narrative, and published it in English. The book attracted attention, came out in a French version, and sold well. Happily — and this is what impressed the Volunteers — Bowles divided the proceeds from the book with Charhadi, who was able to buy a house, get married, and thus escape poverty.
     I didn’t get to know Bowles’s other writing — nihilistic novels like The Sheltering Sky and the grotesque short stories of The Delicate Prey, until I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, during the Vietnam era. Until then, I had only thought of Bowles as the rather altruistic translator of Charhadi. Bowles’s own autobiography, Without Stopping, came out in 1973, and I found that he had been a composer and a collaborator with writers like Tennessee Williams. As a young man, he had known Gertrude Stein, traveled with Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. The Beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso — had visited him in Tangier, and he was a friend of William Burroughs. Bowles other novels, one set in Tangier, another in Fez, and especially his travel writing about the Sahara, Casablanca, and Berber music made me nostalgic for Morocco.

Elmira and Morocco — an unlikely shared experience
The debacle of Vietnam, the Nixon years, Watergate — all made me want to get out of the U.S. — and I found I was thinking more of Morocco and those earlier, sunnier days of the Peace Corps. In the mid-1970s I went back to the country as a Fulbright lecturer at the national university, Mohammed V, in Rabat. Before I left for Morocco, I made a visit to the Humanities Research Center to read the archives of Bowles and his wife Jane, also a writer of note. What intrigued me in Bowles’s autobiography was his memory of visiting his grandparents in Elmira, N. Y. — which happened to be my hometown and the only world I knew before I went off to Morocco with the Peace Corps. From his description, his grandparents’ house was on Church Street, just a few blocks from where I lived. I wrote to Bowles, mentioned that we had Elmira and Morocco in common, and asked if I could call on him in Tangier. He wrote back a warm letter of invitation, with the comment that he still visited the streets of Elmira, but only in his dreams.

Moroccan city life
Compared to my Peace Corps years in the villages and back country of Morocco, it was a kind of luxury to live in Rabat, a pleasant city on the Atlantic Coast which combines a white-washed air of the French Mediterranean with the centuries-old walls, fortress, and bazaar of the Moorish city. Equally beautiful was Bowles’s adopted home of Tangier, across from the straits of Gibraltar. (Being a Volunteer in Morocco had been a kind of schizophrenic experience — long periods of isolation in remote rural posts interrupted by in-country visits to alluring cities like Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez, with their cafes, cinemas, tourist hotels, and European veneer.)
     Tangier was one city I had not gotten to know as a Volunteer, since it was in the extreme northwestern corner of the country, just below Spain and Gibraltar. (It is curious to remember that as Volunteers in Morocco, we were forbidden to go to Europe — a mark perhaps of some neo-Puritan strain in the early Peace Corps. Needless to say, the Volunteers soon ignored the policy and made their way to Spain and France on holidays.) For most of us, Morocco was not only the Third World — it was the first experience with continental European culture — cafes, wine with meals, French cinema. (I saw my first Godard film in Morocco — “Breathless,” with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.)

A visit with the writer    
Bowles lived in a nondescript apartment block, a walk-up surrounded by empty lots. Theroux’s account of entering the dark building and climbing up the damp stairwell brings back vividly my own impressions of my first visit there:

    I went up and rang the bell and waited. I rang it four times, sanding in the semidarkness of the hallway. Except for the jangling of the bell, there was no other sound inside. The afternoon was cold and damp, the building smelled gloomily of stewed meat. I thought: If I am spared, if I attain the age of eighty-five, I do not want to live in a place like this. Give me sunshine.

     When I arrived for my first visit, a tall Moroccan answered the door and motioned me in. I sat for a few moments in the small, dimly lit salon of the apartment, taking in the book-laden shelves and the skull of an animal over the small fireplace, in which a log was burning. (It was October, and Tangier was rainy and windy.)
     Bowles appeared, cigarette-holder in hand, and offered me tea, which I accepted, and one of his kif-filled cigarettes, which I declined. (A smoker of kif, the potent Moroccan brand of hashish, Bowles has written about how smoking and even eating majoun, a kind of candy made from the substance, helped him write certain scenes in his fiction, including the famous death-vision of the protagonist in The Sheltering Sky.) He looked just like his pictures — a slight, trim man, white-haired, in his late 60s. I had brought with me a picture of his grandfather’s house in Elmira to present him, and he scrutinized the old Victorian style dwelling with interest. “It has different paint, but otherwise looks pretty much as I remember it.”
     We began to talk of Morocco, and he seemed pleased that I knew some Moroccan Arabic. (I had been chatting with his housemaid in the dialect when he came in.) I had read somewhere that The Sheltering Sky was now being used in Peace Corps training for Morocco, and Bowles was incredulous. “What can fiction about ignorant expatriates in the 1940s, set in French Algeria, help in training community development workers?” He agreed that one of his books made from the tapes of Moroccan storytellers might offer more to Volunteers in training.
     By the time I met him, Bowles was writing little of his own fiction, and his main literary efforts were translations of Moroccan storytellers — Tangier residents like Mohamed Choukri and Mohamed Mrabet, both of whom I later met. Bowles was fascinated with those parts of Moroccan society which have been little affected by western civilization. In the 1950s, he traveled to remote parts of Morocco to record native Berber music which is slowly dying out, and he deplored the effects of radio and popular music on traditional Moroccan culture. In his fiction about North Africa, he has written of characters moved by such music to feats of self-mutilation. Thus he has been viewed by some as an enemy of development, a kind of primitivist. My Moroccan colleagues at the university, young professors who had been trained in the U.S. or the U.K., didn’t think much of Bowles. One of them remarked, “What would you think of a Moroccan who lived in the U.S. and presumed to understand American culture because he had spent time with the Apaches?”

The drug of choice
Bowles’s first collection of short stories is dedicated to his mother, “who first read me Poe,” and his fiction is distinguished by torture, mutilation, murder, incest, and various nightmare visions and death agonies. So visitors are surprised to be met by a rather formal, proper, gentle, soft-spoken figure. The only reminders of his fictional world were the small skull on the mantlepiece and the hashish smoke that gathered in the small room as we talked. Bowles would take a cigarette from a pack, roll it lightly in his fingers to remove the tobacco, which he replaced with hashish from a pouch. He smoked constantly, and I was amazed at how lucid he remained. As with each of my subsequent visits, even though I wasn’t smoking, after an hour or two of conversation my clothes became saturated with the pungent odor of the kif, and I felt the effects of second-hand smoke.
     Again, I was reminded of how innocent we had been in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. Alcohol was the drug of choice then, and we made do with the watery local beer or the more potent red wine of North Africa, both developed by the French during the colonial days. When we would come to Rabat or Casablanca for an in-country meeting, we would try to get Scotch or Bourbon from one of the Americans who had PX privileges. (One of the ironies of being in the Peace Corps in Morocco was the presence of U.S. military bases, where B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons regularly patrolled the skies of the Atlantic and Mediterranean.) One could get onto the bases with a U.S. passport, but we couldn’t get into the PX or buy liquor, though it was readily available from American servicemen or embassy types. The marijuana-smoking generation of American youth was still in the future. For us Volunteers, kif was just something that old Moroccans smoked in seedy cafes in the medinas, the old quarters of the cities. Once I remember a group of Volunteers experimenting with hashish. Someone had gotten a small bag, and we sat in a circle and passed the pipe. We were all giggling, because we thought of ourselves as imitating old Moroccan men. No one got high (we probably wouldn’t have known what that was), and no one thought enough of the experience to repeat it.
     Bowles once wrote an article comparing alcohol to hashish, and argued that the latter was much healthier. He had seen a lot of his artist and writer friends in the 1930s and 40s ruin their health with alcohol or drink themselves to death, and he himself switched from alcohol to hashish and was the healthier for it. Bowles always was very careful with his health — he declined my invitation to a restaurant because he feared not only bacteria but also the exposure to the wet and cold. He must have been right, because he lived almost to the age of 90.

Overrated pleasures
Tangier had been an international city when Bowles first arrived, and over the years he had become a fixture in the expatriate society which still existed there. To the first-time tourist coming over to North Africa from Spain or Gibraltar, Tangier gives the impression of a border town, full of touts and parasites and invitations to all sorts of louche pleasures. It was a world that Bowles exploited in his fiction, especially in the novel Let It Come Down. Tangier has a reputation not unlike San Francisco’s as a place beloved by gays, but the word “gay” just doesn’t fit a somber figure like Bowles, who wrote in his autobiography of encounters with both sexes — both, he said, embarrassing and overrated.

Another famous-writer sighting results
On one of my later visits to Bowles, my wife Molly, who had read all his work, came along to meet him. It was interesting to see Bowles become almost courtly, and he immediately got out pictures of his late wife Jane and began to reminisce about her. Molly was quite taken with him — she said later that he reminded her of Fred Astaire. Bowles was in as genial a mood as I had ever seen him. He showed us a couple of first editions off his shelves — early works of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce — two writers who had been in the avant-garde when he was a young man. In his excitement, he had inadvertently dropped a bit of cigarette ash on his sofa, and we began to smell a different odor — not the fumes of hashish but burning fabric, which we quickly extinguished. Perhaps his excitement was also stirred by the fact, as he told us an a reverent whisper, that “Beckett is in town!”
     “Samuel Beckett?” I asked, incredulously.
     “He comes to Tangier occasionally,” Bowles replied. He had heard through the Tangier grapevine that the great man had been spotted. “He eats often at La Grenouille,” he confided. (This was an old French restaurant, a favorite expatriate hangout.)
     So Molly and I went to La Grenouille that night and sure enough, as we were halfway through the meal, in shuffled a very old Samuel Beckett. No mistaking that hawklike profile, even more pronounced in his old age. He moved slowly, tended by a very motherly wife, and they took a table in a dark corner behind us. We prolonged our meal, trying to be discreet but turning as often as possible to catch a glimpse of him. He seemed to whine a bit and fuss over his food, and his wife spoke to him in low, comforting tones.
     I reported all this back to Bowles, and for a moment we were like a couple of Beckett groupies, savoring the sighting.

Composing vs. writing
What interested me most about Bowles was the relation of his music to his writing. For years he had been a composer, having given up writing, because, as he said, he just didn’t understand human beings. He gradually moved back into fiction through the technique of automatic writing (these first efforts were a kind of beast fable, but he soon turned to humans who behaved in animal fashion.) It was very different than writing music, he said. Composing was quite logical and rational, and maddeningly internal. He felt that composing enclosed one too much within one’s brain. Often when he composed, he would go for long walks compulsively while working out the harmonies and musical relationships in his head. Writing fiction was much less frustrating than writing music he said, once he had gotten back into it.
     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.

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 www.english.upenn.edu/~despey/.