The Curiously Strong Paul Bowles: ‘I’ve Never Had Any Plans at All’

The fax from Virginia Spencer Carr, Paul Bowles’ friend and biographer, directed me to an apartment house on Rue Kostalyani and warned that few cab drivers in Tangier would know how to find it. Mine didn’t. But after stopping twice to get directions, he dropped my wife and me, at dusk on a Saturday last month, in front of a concrete-block apartment house with grass growing up two feet at the side. It looked like a project in Queens. But then all of Tangier is rundown. The international scene is over, once-glamorous cafes are packed with Muslims in djellabas, and everywhere I went I found it bewildering to think that a great literary figure chose to live here.

Per the fax, we walked around to the back and took the elevator to the fourth floor. It was dark. Only one of the doors was numbered, so I guessed at 20 and knocked. A man in his 50’s with a solemn, disapproving gaze came to the door. This had to be wrong.

We communicated in Spanish, and after a minute’s resistance, he turned and led us through a darkened living room with a fire going in the fireplace and opened the door on a back bedroom. It was a sickroom, with a sickroom’s mess. A black curtain hung over the window, a low round table was covered with open boxes of medications and Baci chocolates. A gas space heater was going full blast at the foot of the narrow bed, and an old man lay on it with a blanket pulled up to his armpits. Paul Bowles was frail and dapper. He wore a handsome brown robe with pale piping and a brown scarf, folded ascot-style.

“I’m afraid I can’t really see you,” he said. “I have glaucoma in both eyes.”

The situation upset me. I had no idea what to do. But my wife behaved as she had when visiting her grandmother in the hospital. She sat down on Mr. Bowles’ bed.

“Hello, Mr. Bowles. My husband faxed you. We’re here because of the 50th anniversary of The Sheltering Sky .”

“The poor book,” he said. “It’s getting on. Of course, it’s not nearly so old as me.”

“But you’re still so handsome.”

He tilted his head. “If only I were alive.”

I took a chair on the other side of the room, beside a pile of videotapes spilling out from the sides of a large Sony Trinitron. The Lady Vanishes . Duck Soup . My wife laid her arm across Mr. Bowles’ legs and called him Paul, and in no time they were talking like friends, about New York. Mr. Bowles was born 88 years ago, in Queens, the only child of a dentist, and spent much of his youth in the city. Raving about The Sheltering Sky in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in 1949, Tennessee Williams described its protagonist as “a member of the New York intelligentsia who became weary of being such a member and set out to escape it in remote places.” The description still seemed to hold for its author.

“Do you watch television, do you see the news?” she said.

“I can’t see television. So there’s no news.”

“Maybe you’re lucky. Last night, there was a report on a cow giving birth to a sheep.”

“There are so many funny things going on in that country,” he said. “I live in Morocco, and have for 60 years.”

“Funny weird or funny ha-ha?” she said.

“Funny peculiar. Flannery O’Connor used to talk about funny peculiar or funny ha-ha. She was one of our best.”

I felt I could say something. “Did you know her?”

Mr. Bowles turned in my direction. “Not in the flesh. I’m a friend of hers by admiring her stories. Not the novels. That’s the best kind of friendship. It shows the better part of one’s nature being in touch with the better part of the other nature. It’s a bridge. Up in the air.”

So his mind was still there, in all its wit and austerity. He asked my wife about trends in American literary culture.

“Best sellers get the attention,” she said. “Books about rich people who get into trouble.”

“I remember there was a musical in New York, before I left,” he said. ” Billion-Dollar Baby . And the billion-dollar baby, how do you say, she was affianced? Engaged, yes. And the billion-dollar baby’s friend says, ‘What’s he really like?’ and she says, with a big grin, ‘He’s the slob of the world.’ I’ve never forgotten that grin.”

“Would you like a peppermint?” my wife said, getting out a tin.

“Is this the one that says it’s curiously strong?”

“Yes.”

“Now are they curious strong or ha-ha strong?”

Mr. Bowles conceived the idea for The Sheltering Sky 52 years ago on a Fifth Avenue bus. It was the 40’s and he was making his living writing incidental music for Broadway shows and as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune . A young man of preternatural self-possession and elegance, he had been taken up by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Gertrude Stein and W.H. Auden, and lived with his wife, the novelist Jane Bowles, in an artistic menage on 10th Street. Still, he longed to return to primitive places he had traveled in his youth. The novel took him a mere eight months to compose, moving through Morocco and Algeria. When he described it in letters home, he used the most offhand terms. “My novel is just a novel like any other: a triangle laid in the Sahara.”

The triangle is just one layer of a powerful work. The protagonists Port and Kit share an existential marriage–everyone for himself–and their alienation from civilized deceits send them further and further out into the Sahara.

When the book was published, New York Times critic Orville Prescott sounded a dire warning about its characters. “Without belief, loyalty, courage or honor, they are decadent parasites, alive but out of touch with life,” he said. Though masterfully written, the book was sure to offend the “conventionally minded.”

“Conventional” was still a positive word then. And Prescott was right: The book blew people’s minds. It was an instant hit. “I was amazed to learn that Sky had touched the best seller list,” Mr. Bowles wrote to a friend, from Ceylon, in typical detachment.

In a new preface to Ecco Press’ 50th-anniversary edition, the author muses on such matters as people’s insistence that Kit Moresby was Jane Bowles. Kit was a “counterfeit” of Jane, Mr. Bowles writes. “Although Jane had never set foot on the African continent and was calmly sitting by a swimming pool in Connecticut, the critics had it their own way, and it was generally decided that she had gone with me to the Sahara.”

“Did the book come out of ambition, a desire for success?” I asked.

“No,” Mr. Bowles said. “In the first place, when I was writing it, it had no success for me at all. Then I was very surprised, because it was successful. I thought the critics were all crazy. Why did they say such things?”

“Maybe they were right.”

He tilted his head elegantly. “They’re all dead now. I don’t see how they could have been. I don’t think they were used to reading good writing.”

“Were you involved with the New York publishing world?”

“I had my agent do it. She was hopeless. She was sending it to publishers that couldn’t possibly have published it. She read it but she didn’t know what was in it. She did a lot of things that were very bad. She sold The Sheltering Sky to film, but with a contract which was valid eternally, in 1952, for very little. Nowadays I know it could be for a much shorter period. Then finally they made a film [in 1990, by Bernardo Bertolucci]. I didn’t like it. But the point is, I wasn’t paid. I couldn’t be because she had sold the rights in 1952, a package deal for publication and film rights. All tied up, you know–season’s greetings. And Random House got the same thing with the next book.”

“That was smart of them,” my wife said.

He gave her a look. “It doesn’t take someone smart to accept a gift.”

My wife held out the Altoids box and Mr. Bowles took another.

“Now I feel like Alice. Curiouser and curiouser.”

As a New Yorker, I wanted to know how connected he had been to New York–the hustle, the network. “Did the writing come out of literary New York life?”

“No. I was busy with plays. Busy at rehearsals. That’s how I made my living. I was not the beneficiary of someone’s will.”

“No family trust?” my wife said.

“My family didn’t trust me at all.”

“We read that in a guide book,” she said. “You were a black sheep.”

“That’s not very nice. What does that mean?”

“That you were wild and bad.”

“I’m willing to be called bad. But not wild.”

The distinction was everything to Mr. Bowles. He always dressed elegantly, he was put off by Mick Jagger’s party manners. Meanwhile he did whatever he wanted to do, in highly unconventional ways. He joined the Communist Party, built up a healthy F.B.I. file, smoked dope, and knew every outlaw who came through Tangier: Allen Ginsberg, Orson Welles, William Burroughs and, er, Malcolm Forbes. Mr. Bowles and his wife both had legendary relationships with others of the same sex, in his case, notably, Moroccan male artists. Some chroniclers of the Bowleses state flatly that Mr. Bowles is gay. His friends are more nuanced.

“His sexuality is one of the great enigmas that no one has an answer to,” said Daniel Halpern, Ecco’s editor in chief. “I think he would tell you that he isn’t gay, but people certainly think he’s gay, and his relationship with Jane was pretty odd.” And Virginia Spencer Carr, an English professor at Georgia State University whose biography is due out from Scribner’s next year, said, “He’s loved both men and women. Asking him about it is like pulling teeth. I asked him if he had had a fling with Peggy Guggenheim, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ Finally I just had to say, ‘Did you go to bed with Peggy Guggenheim, and have sex?’ He looked at me like a camel having the straw pulled from his mouth, and said, ‘Once. That was enough!'”

His career was also unconventional. He didn’t promote himself, often seemed indifferent to success. On learning that a friend had gotten a $45,000 advance, he exclaimed that that was probably more than he had gotten for all his advances together. In the 60’s and 70’s, he experienced what he described, in one letter, as a “literary decrescendo.” He translated Moroccan authors, he smoked a ton of kif. He was apparently devastated by his wife’s death, in Spain in 1973, after a long and hysterical decline, helped along by a Moroccan lover who cast a traditional curse on her.

Meantime, Tangier became a pit. That’s what I couldn’t fathom. Why Mr. Bowles did not choose to live in a more affluent place, where he would be known, comforted. But America seemed dead to him.

My wife was talking to him about Tom Wolfe.

“Oh the second one, the humorist,” he said. ” A Man in Thrall ?”

” In Full . It’s created controversy. John Updike and Norman Mailer don’t think it’s literature. Has Mailer ever been here?”

“He may have come to Morocco, but he wouldn’t tell me,” Mr. Bowles said archly.

“He’s with all his wives in Brooklyn.”

“Yes, what does he do? He throws knives at them in the tub. That must be fun.”

“If you came to New York you would have to go to the 92d Street Y.”

“The what?”

My wife explained.

“Well, I ain’t going. Even if I wanted, I couldn’t make it. You know my legs don’t work. It’s sheer hell for me to travel.”

“But you have your passport?”

“Absolutely. I’m an American.”

“Do you vote?” she said.

“No. It’s foolish. Besides, I don’t really believe in voting. I know, it’s part of the democratic principle. But I’ve only voted twice in my life. For Earl Browder, the Communist Party nominee [apparently in 1936]. And the second time for F.D.R. Who I thought would save us from revolution. And did, I think.”

In 1990, The Sheltering Sky became a movie, and though Mr. Bowles disliked it, it revived his reputation. “He became very famous for a while and I think he likes that, though he says he doesn’t,” Mr. Halpern says. He was in New York four years ago, his only visit back in 30 years, to hear performances of his musical compositions at Lincoln Center. “He doesn’t like the United States, and the things that people seem to be concerned with here, grubbing after money and self-promotion,” said his friend, the composer Phillip Ramey, who lives on the Upper West Side and is one of the three people who possess Mr. Bowles’ phone number. “When I told him that Princess Diana had been killed, he said, ‘But who was she?'” Friends have offered to re-create his humble apartment back in the States, complete with the brown straw mats fastened to the walls above the bed, but the author isn’t interested.

“You never sought the trappings of success?” I asked.

“No. I couldn’t conceive of it.”

“What about when all that success came?”

“Here in Tangier it didn’t mean anything. Who would know about it, really? You’re saved from that. I remember Truman Capote when he was here. I said, do you like it here? ‘Well–nobody knows who I am.'”

His Capote was dead on. My wife and I laughed.

“For two months, Jane and I had lunch with him,” Mr. Bowles said. “‘I know exactly what I’m going to do,’ he said. ‘I’m going to finish the book I’m writing now and I’m going to do a big photographic album, with [Richard] Avedon.’ And everything he said he was going to do, he did. Which was astonishing and extraordinary. I’m just the opposite. I’ve never had any plans at all.”

“You haven’t?”

“No,” he said flatly. “If I had plans I wouldn’t be here now.”

That is what his friends say, that he was always passive, sometimes aloof. He wanted things to come to him. “‘Have you ever really been in love?’ I asked. He said, ‘I think of it as being obsessed,'” Ms. Carr related. “I don’t think Paul ever yearned for reciprocation.” Mr. Ramey said Mr. Bowles would have written another novel a few years ago, involving an American musician in Morocco, but publishers did not come to him.

Most important, Mr. Bowles has always lived a life of the mind, and did not want distraction. Tangier has been his Cornish, N.H. “He’s aware of his standing, and wants it,” Mr. Halpern said. “But he doesn’t want to participate in the side effects. Giving readings. Being lionized. That never appealed to him. It’s a perfect existential move. Here are the books, leave me out of this.”

“Do you miss anything about New York?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Bowles said mildly. “The chocolate malteds. You can’t get them in Morocco.”

My wife said, “What about all the people who visit you?”

“It’s surprising. I don’t understand what drives people to come. They come. Last week, there were people from Chile, which is a long way off. At the same time from Scotland. Someone from Japan.”

“Do you ever send them away?”

He pulled his knees up under the blanket.

“My manservant does that. Sometimes he says to people, ‘You know how much it costs to see Mr. Bowles?’ Occasionally, he names a fantastic figure, and they say, that’s all right.'”

“Maybe they should pay,” my wife said.

“Abdelouahaid says that, too.” Once he had shaken down a Dutch journalist, for $100. “‘You know why they come,’ Abdelouahaid says. ‘Because they want something from you.’ ‘But I have nothing to give them,’ I say. ‘Yes you do, and they know it.'”

“They want to get close. To get more understanding,” my wife said. “And to pay obeisance to you. To thank you.”

“Sometimes they do thank me.” He stretched his legs out again, he seemed in pain. “But I never really understand why. For what?”

“Because you crystallized things they feel but they were unable to put together in words,” my wife explained. “You did that work for them.”

I thought about something that had happened just two hours before. I was sitting on the balcony of our room in the old abandoned Hotel Continental while my wife lay in bed reading The Sheltering Sky . Then she came out, upset. “I just read the scene about the Jew who gives Kit milk.”

The incident takes place late in the book, in the desert city of Sbâ. The protagonist, Port, is at death’s door from typhoid. His wife Kit wants milk for him. But no one has it; milk is rationed. She wanders out into the town in the dark and finds a shop run by a Jewish merchant. As she talks to him, a Muslim comes in, buys something, then spits on the floor. The Jew listens to her, then abruptly gives her the milk that was given him because he had an infant, who died.

“Port keeps wondering in this existential way whether there’s any meaning in life, and that’s the book’s answer,” my wife said. “This man in the middle of nowhere, who everyone treats like shit, does this for a stranger out of his own worst tragedy. Why?”

“He feels kinship,” I said.

“But there’s no reason for it. No reason at all. So that is the most meaning you can ask, that moment.”

I asked Mr. Bowles another question, and he shut his eyes for a few seconds and tears formed in the crevices. He had been enjoying himself for a while, that was plain. Now my wife got to her feet.

“We’re going to leave you.”

She went to her bag for a paperback copy of The Sheltering Sky she wanted Mr. Bowles to autograph, and I wondered how much longer he would be alive. Ms. Carr said they have discussed his funeral arrangements. Cremation being almost undoable in a Muslim country, he has toyed with the idea of being buried in a pet cemetery. But the remaining expats will probably see that he is buried in the Anglican cemetery, despite the fact that Mr. Bowles is an atheist.

My wife sat back down, Mr. Bowles held the pen to his face. “What color does this write? I don’t care, so long as it’s not blue.”

“It’s black.”

“What page would you like it on?”

My wife turned past the dedication, to Jane. “We don’t want to take Jane’s page,” she said.

Mr. Bowles closed the book. Mr. Ramey says that most of Mr. Bowles’ dreams take place in New York, often involving his wife, and now his mind went there. “I remember Jane’s novel. The first one, Two Serious Ladies , she dedicated to Paul, Mother and Helvetia. Helvetia was someone she knew whose last name was Perkins. It doesn’t matter now. But when the Germans did a version of it, the dedication was To Paul, Mother and Switzerland. Because it’s the Latin name for Switzerland.”

My wife held his hand.

“Goodbye. Thank you for your book.”

He said, “Well, I didn’t write it for you, but maybe it worked out that way in the end.”

The manservant was gone. The fire in the living room had died out. We let ourselves out the front door into the unlit hall, and pulled the door hard after ourselves.