Paul Bowles: a Moroccan-American Literary Legacy
by Karim Bejjit
No one is more closely associated with the history of American-Moroccan relations than writer Paul Bowles. Bowles first visited Morocco in 1931 at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein; he returned intermittently before making Tangier his permanent home in 1947; he would stay there until his death in 1999. During that time he wrote four novels (three set in Morocco and North Africa) as well as countless stories and essays. He also translated Moroccan authors like Mohammed Mrabet and Mohamed Choukri among others and traveled the country recording performances of Moroccan musical styles for the Library of Congress from 1959 to 1961. His legacy is powerful but brings up important questions about Orientalism, power dynamics, and the ethics of translation and authorship.
Paul Bowles’s life and work attracted a great deal of attention in the media and among critics during the 1990s after the release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, based on Bowles’s first and most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949). Although he was past his productive years, and had grown frail, Bowles was still lucid and charming to his frequent visitors who called on his apartment in Marshan in Tangier. The considerable fanfare, which accompanied Bertolucci’s film, brought him back into the limelight. Seizing this momentous occasion, Sphere Books issued an elegant Abacus paperback edition of his novels and short stories. Several books celebrating Bowles’ life and literary career particularly in Tangier also appeared in print in the 1990s notably Michelle Green’s (1991), Iain Finlayson’s (1992), Gena Dagel Caponi’s (1994), Millicent Dillon’s (1998), and, years later, Virginia Spencer Carr’s (2004).
These publications point to a genuine effort to reintroduce the author to his American readers and to re-explore a fascinating literary landscape that had unfolded in Tangier since the early 1950s. Bowles was a majestic survivor. He was a peculiar kind of exiled writer. His prolonged residence in Tangier has mystified his friends and readers. He was not a political refugee, and politics never seemed to matter much to him. Though he espoused communism briefly in 1938, he had consistently refrained from taking positions or voicing political opinions during his time in the U.S. or Morocco. A skeptic of political discourse and action, he rarely addressed political issues in his writings and swiftly ducked the question of his interviewer when politics was in the air.
He lived between ages: the age of collapsing empires and warring ideologies, and the age of fervent nationalisms, mass media and rampant commercialism. He had few empathies or illusions to smoothen the passage. In his later years, he adamantly brushed aside the prospect of leaving Tangier for New York, his birthplace. He had stayed away far too long to feel the urge of a homecoming. Besides, the America he knew in the 1930s and 1940s had vanished. During his few business trips to New York, he experienced no desire to extend his stay and longed to get back to his Tangier apartment.
His biographers have well documented his early escapes to Paris and Berlin in 1929. Driven by curiosity and love of travel, he would since embark on long journeys to various far-flung corners of the earth, untroubled by their peculiarity, remoteness or sheer plainness. In forging his nomadic, cosmopolitan sensibility, his travels also enabled him to develop a vast network of friends and associates, and give a real boost to his artistic talents. He started as an aspiring composer, studying under Aaron Copland. For a whole decade from 1937 to 1947, he wrote music for theater productions in New York and collaborated with celebrated artists such as Orson Wells, Tennessee Williams and William Saroyan.
In 1938, at the outset of his artistic career, he met Jane Auer, his future wife. She was a gifted writer whose novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943), inspired him to resume his own interest in literature. Like him, Jane was also a restless figure in search of her literary voice, and she struggled to come to terms with her own sexuality. Over the years, their paths crossed and diverged, but throughout, they remained intimate friends even if their lives lacked conjugal warmth and affection.
Bowles’s literary upbringing is somewhat revealing of his later predilections. Poe was an early and lasting source of inspiration, but as he came in touch with modern European literature, he developed a taste for the fiction of Gide, Proust, Kafka, Camus and Sartre. Although he had written several poems as a student and had a few published in Transition in the late 1920s, Bowles ceased to write poetry after the acclaimed poet, Gertrude Stein, an American writer and critic whom he saw often in France in the summer of 1931, unequivocally declared he was not a poet at all.
However, if she had dashed his burgeoning poetic aspirations, Stein also directed him to visit Tangier. His first trip to the city in November 1931 proved to be an enchanting experience that marked him forever. Tangier was the threshold of a strange and welcoming world that Bowles was never able to understand, much less resist. Over the next few years, Bowles returned to Tangier, and from there headed south to Fez and Marrakech and occasionally crossed to neighboring Algeria where he sought the comforting silence of the Sahara away from the hubbub and distraction of cities.
From mid 1930s and until 1947, Bowles devoted his full time and energy to writing music for orchestra as well as for stage productions. However, after he signed a contract with Doubleday to write a novel, he returned to Morocco and decided to make Tangier his permanent home. The novel, The Sheltering Sky was an immediate success. It was listed as a best-seller in The New York Times for several weeks in 1949. The novel launched his career as a writer, and during the following years, he continued to use Moroccan landscapes as a setting for his novels and stories. He also discovered a vast amount of material in Moroccan culture that he was able to appropriate to create his own stories. In particular, the desert had a gripping hold of his imagination. In his fictional works, he sought to depict the trauma and ecstasy of death and loss that the desert landscape produced on the visitor. In his most famous stories, “A Distant Episode” and “A Delicate Prey” as well as in the novel, The Sheltering Sky, Bowles paints extreme visions of cruelty and violence taking place in the desert. Like Andre Gide, Bowles saw an element of horror in the desert, which defied and mocked the Westerner’s sense of order, decency and morality.
Place and setting carry major significance in Bowles’s writings. Tangier and Fez, the urban locales of his next novels, Let it Come Down (1952) and The Spider’s House (1955) respectively, are imbued with mythical qualities that still resonate in the Western imaginary. Let it Come Down highlights the eclipse of a decadent Western expatriate community living almost indifferently of mainstream Muslim culture, while The Spider’s House foregrounds a traditional conservative society caught up in the process of colonial change.
Bowles was certainly a keen observer and a meticulous writer when it came to recording his impressions and memories. His numerous short stories published in different collections feature complex images of Moroccan characters and lifestyles carved out of his memories and imaginings.
Bowles was also a skilled translator. His command of Moroccan spoken Arabic, Darija, put him in direct contact with the culture of disadvantaged underground Tangier. He translated the oral tales of Ahmed Yacoubi, Mohammed Mrabet, Driss Charhadi and the debut novel of Mohamed Choukri, which helped bring those writers to English-speaking audiences in the West. What is it exactly that appealed to Bowles in these grim accounts of native lives? Was he moved by a sense of sympathy for these deprived souls? Was it the astute sense of the taleteller that ultimately dictated this unusual creative experiment? In any case, his translation of these stories of underprivileged individuals fighting for their livelihood in aggressive and often dishonest means constitute a distinct and rich literary legacy.
Bowles has left an impressive body of writing – including four novels, several volumes of short stories, a collection of travel essays, a volume of poetry, and an autobiography, in addition to several translations notably of Moroccan storytellers, of French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Isabell Eberhardt, and Guatemalan writer, Rodrego Rey Rosa. He had contributed in his own way to creating the myth of Tangier as the city of sin and vice which hosted and haunted him until the end of his days. He had survived generations of drifting travelers, artists, writers who flocked into the city to enjoy its climate and permissive ambience, or get inspired by its colors, sounds, and flavors. They left in time, but he chose to remain even when the cultural landscape of the city was changing fast and losing the cosmopolitan glamor of earlier decades.
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (Virgo, 1989).
Paul Bowles, Collected Stories (Black Sparrow Books, 1979).
----- . Days: A Tangier Diary (Harper Perennial, 1991).
-----. Let it Come Down (Abacus, 1993).
-----. The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (Ecco Press, 1985).
-----. The Sheltering Sky (Penguin Classics, 2000).
-----. The Spider’s House (Penguin Classics, 2009).
-----. Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (Abacus, 1990).
-----. Paul Bowles on Music: Includes the last interview with Paul Bowles (University of California Press, 2003).
-----. Without Stopping: An Autobiography. (Harper Perennial, 2006)
Gena Dagel Caponi, Conversations with Paul Bowles (University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
-----. Paul Bowles (Twayne Publishers, 1998).
Virginia Spencer Carr, Paul Bowles: A Life (Scribner, 2004).
Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987).
Millicent Dillon, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles (University of California Press, 2005)
-----. You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles (University of California Press, 2000).
Iain Finlayson, Tangier: City of Dream (Flamingo, 1992).
Michelle Green, The Dream at the End of the World: A Portrait of Paul Bowles and Post-War Literary Tangier (Bloomsbury, 1992).
Hugh A. Harter, Tangier and All That (Passeggiata, 1997).
Jeffrey Miller, Paul Bowles: A Descriptive Bibliography (Black Sparrow Press, 1986).
Mohamed Mrabet and Paul Bowles, M'hashish (City lights Books, 1969).
Richard F. Patteson, A World Outside: The Fiction of Paul Bowles (University of Texas Press, 1987).
Gary Pulsifer, Paul Bowles by His Friends (Owen, 1992).
Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles (Grove Press, 1999).
Claudia Swan, ed., Paul Bowles Music (EOS Music Inc., 1995).
David S. Woolman and Lawdom Vaidon, Stars in the Firmament: Tangier Characters, 1660-1960s (Passeggiata Press, 1998).
Meet Our Guest: Karim Bejjit
Karim Bejjit is Professor of English and American Studies at Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetouan, Morocco. Previously he taught English and American literatures for 16 years at University Hassan II, Casablanca. He was a research fellow at NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study) in the summer of 2007 and a Post-doc Fulbright scholar in the summer of 2011 based in San Diego State University, California. In February-March 2009, he was invited to a lecturing tour in several colleges and universities in Georgia, US. In 2013-14, he taught English literature and literary criticism at Tabuk University, Saudi Arabia.
He is the author of English Colonial Texts on Tangier, 1661-1684: Imperialism and the Politics of Resistance (Ashgate, 2015, Routledge 2016). His other publications include a book on 19th century European Travel discourse on Morocco, a volume of short stories, and several book chapters and journal articles in English and Arabic.
He is also the author of Writing the Maghreb blog: https://writingthemaghreb.wordpress.com/
Karim Bejjit lives with his wife and five-year old son in Tetouan, Morocco.