Paul Bowles 1910 - 1999
It’s interesting the ways Authors and their novels come back to you and impress themselves upon you once again. I was watching a new version of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre (Southbank London) when the phrase “Let it come down” was uttered by Banquo’s murderer. My mind jagged and Bowles’ novel inspired by this line popped into my head. I lost a good part of the play thinking about the tense and sparse environments that Bowles manages to craft and resolved to re-read some at the nearest opportunity.
Back at home I was amused to see just how much space Paul Bowles occupied on a book shelf; not much. For a man who lived ninety years Bowles output was, infuriatingly, as sparse as his prose. Just four novels, one novella and maybe two dozen shorts. In fairness, his early life was dedicated to composing, he studied under Aaron Copeland and wrote a number of respected pieces for plays. His later life was taken up with translating Moroccan authors such as Mohammed Mrabet. Still, a few more books of his own writing wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Some readers may be wondering why I’m claiming Bowles as an underrated author, when his most famous work ‘The Sheltering Sky’ was turned into a blockbuster film (1990 Bernardo Bertolucci). Well that may be so but I just don’t hear him mentioned enough. For me the handful of novels he managed to write in his 90 years are some of the most atmospheric and unsettling books I have ever read and his short stories are peerless.
So, the novels: The Sheltering Sky (1947) Let it Come Down (1952) The Spider’s House (1955) and Up Above the World (1957)
For me (perversely as ever) ‘The Spider’s House’ is the master-work here. Dealing with all Bowles’ main themes; Cultural misunderstanding, remoteness and underlying menace. This book deals with the Moroccan national uprising of 1954, which may sound like a dry subject but really the story is driven by exact, atmospheric (almost claustrophobic) prose and the cultural interplay between the main characters, a young Islamic boy and an American writer. The skill in his writing comes from a precise empathy and understanding of both cultures and giving advantage to neither.
“What I mean is that in their (Moroccans) minds one thing doesn’t come along from another thing. Nothing is the result of anything. Everything merely is, and no questions asked. Even the language they speak is constructed around that. Each fact is separate, and one never depends on the other. Everything is explained by the constant intervention of Allah. And whatever happens had to happen, and was decreed at the beginning of time, and there’s no way of even imaging how anything could have been different from what it is.” (The Spider’s House)
The American characters in Bowles’ stories are often cold, dissolute characters who show a fatality for events as they unfold. In the same way the reader is drawn into the stories, allowing them to happen rather than actually reading them. There is often a sense of unease, of dreadful things about to occur, which are as likely to happen as not.
The short stories are some of the finest ever crafted. ‘A distant Episode is’ classic Bowles; where a hapless professor goes (believably in the space of 12 pages) from an after dinner stroll to having his tongue cut out and being enslaved as a raving madmen. In ‘Pages from Cold Point’ a son seduces his father and in ‘The Eye’ an expatriate may, or may not, have been killed by his servants for unknowingly giving the cooks daughter the evil eye. The overwhelming theme in all of these being the Muslim phrase “it is written.”
If you are new to Paul Bowles, or have only read ‘The Sheltering Sky’ I would urge you to investigate his writing further. You could start by buying a book of the short stories and a novel. Any of them will give you a thought-provoking and unsettling read that will stay with you and maybe have you rushing back to your book shelves the next time you see Macbeth.
UK links for books.
The Spider’s House (Penguin Modern Classics)
Collected Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)
Let It Come Down (Penguin Modern Classics)
Up Above the World (Penguin Modern Classics)