Paul Bowls was one of America’s great ex-pat writers of the 20 century. Check out some of his classic novels. His works aren’t exactly nihilistic but his themes centralize the feelings that none of us are living our lives on terra firma but wallow in an ocean of sand..
In a 1975 interview, the poet Daniel Halpern asked the author and composer Paul Bowles why he’d spent such a significant chunk of his life scrambling about the globe. I imagine Bowles’s speaking voice here as matter-of-fact, exegetic: “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born,” he answered (that place was Flushing, Queens, in 1910; he was the only child of a rancorous, unloving father and a meek, bookish mother). “Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”
What was Bowles darting around after for all those years? Travel invariably expands a person’s parameters, like air huffed into a balloon: there is an intellectual broadening, a widening of the precincts. But there’s a metaphysical utility to that kind of movement, too. Who among us has not left home expressly to find home, casting about for a place that feels like the right place, that isn’t necessarily the ancestral plot but, instead, is where a person feels whole, awake to something, realized?
Bowles first journeyed overseas in 1929, when he excused himself from the University of Virginia and procured a one-way ticket to Paris. Then, in the summer of 1931, at age twenty, he visited North Africa with his friend Aaron Copland, following a provocation from Gertrude Stein. In an unpublished conversation with the poet Ira Cohen—conducted in Morocco in 1965 and now held, with more of Bowles’s papers, in the rare-book and manuscript room at Columbia University—Bowles credits Stein exclusively with his decision to move to Tangier. “And so she told you … she said, ‘Go to Morocco,’ just like that?” Cohen asked. “Go to Tangier,” Bowles corrected. He relocated permanently in 1947, living fifty-two of his eighty-eight years there. He also travelled extensively in Latin America and the Far East. For a brief while, he owned and lived on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, near Sri Lanka.
Tangier had long been a creative lodestone (Matisse travelled there to paint in 1912 and 1913), but by the nineteen-sixties it had reached a kind of oddball zenith. William S. Burroughs typed most of “Naked Lunch” in a motel room in Tangier; the Rolling Stones routinely posted up at El Minzah, an opulent hotel. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were fairly steady patrons of the Tangerinn, one of the city’s oldest, haziest pubs. Tennessee Williams was periodically spotted in the Petit Socco, thumbing a cigarette holder. Bowles would write and publish several novels, short stories, poems, and essays from his home in the upper Medina.
Although Bowles was something of a polymath, and flitted successfully between disciplines (in addition to writing books, he also worked as a composer, first of incidental music for the theatre and later of scores for documentary and art-house films), he’s still best remembered for “The Sheltering Sky,” from 1949, a novel beloved for its deep and echoing evocation of a certain kind of midcentury existential duress. It follows the grim travails of an American couple, Kit and Port Moresby, who, along with a friend, Tunner—Orientalists, all—depart for North Africa on an ill-plotted desert expedition. What happens to them next shakes the faith. I wonder if Bowles had been reading the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, a contemporary, who once asked, “Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?” In an interview with Jay McInerney for Vanity Fair, in 1985, Bowles described the message of his fiction as “Everything gets worse.”
I sometimes think Bowles was attracted to the wildness and density of Tangier as a kind of psychic penance for what the critic Edmund White once called his “dandified distance.” He was, by all accounts, a bit of an emotional recluse. Allen Ginsberg described him as “a little mechanical or remote somewhere.” In a letter to the composer Ned Rorem, written shortly after Bowles’s (platonic) wife, the writer Jane Auer, died, Bowles expresses a nearly tragic stoicism. “What I want is not tranquility, as you put it, and not happiness—merely survival,” he wrote. “Life needn’t be pleasurable or amusing; it need only continue playing its program.” He existed adjacent to others, but he was never fully of them.
Tangier pushed him closer. Bowles’s instinctive reticence was constantly challenged by a culture in which, as White wrote, “few people prized privacy and conformism was more esteemed than individuality.” Bowles already had at least some sense of what truly activated a place, provided its dynamism, its pull. “With few exceptions, landscape alone is of insufficient interest to warrant the effort it takes to see it,” he wrote in the foreword to “Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue,” a collection of travel pieces published in 1963. Mountains were mountains. Cathedrals: same. Even if Bowles resisted it, he understood that the self is elevated only in relation to another.
A romantic might go so far as to suggest that home is in fact an internal landscape, actualized via love alone: that a man finds his place only by finding his person or his people. For Bowles in the nineteen-fifties, I suspect that center was music. His people, musicians