Paul Bowles, A Life , by Virginia Spencer Carr. Scribner, 409 pages, $35.
There are two reasons why people should care about Paul Bowles, the writer and composer who died five years ago in Morocco. He wrote The Sheltering Sky , a masterpiece of alienation that tracks a threesome headed into the North African desert, and he led a highly original life, which included wide travels and-the source of notoriety in the literary gossip mills-marriage to the charming and tragic Jane Bowles, a novelist who, like himself, seems to have been chiefly homosexual.
In the last 10 years of Bowles’ life, the scholar Virginia Spencer Carr formed a friendship with him that was marked by generosity and kindness. Ms. Carr made arrangements for his medical treatment in Atlanta, and for visitors to his adopted home. She visited many times herself, and Bowles wrote her letters containing tantalizing revelations on the understanding that they couldn’t be published till he was gone. The result is this biography, a deeply affectionate tribute to a deeply detached life. As Bowles wrote to his lover and mentor, Aaron Copland: “I hate America because I feel attached to it, and I don’t want to feel that way.”
Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, in 1910, and had a hostile and at times violent relationship with his dentist father. When he was 14, an aunt told his cousin, “Paul has all the earmarks of a boy who has started on the downward path.” When Bowles heard that he responded with his usual charm. “What does she think I’m doing, robbing banks!”
The established family gave him wealth and freedom, and his charm and good looks made him a skilled social climber. By 20 he had met everyone in the arts, from Gertrude Stein to Christopher Isherwood to Aaron Copland, though Virgil Thomson discounted him as a talented ” poule de luxe ,” or high-class prostitute. Sex and travel were interwoven for the youth. He lost his virginity in Paris, twice, first to a woman lying in nettles, then to a man, and, preferring the nettle-free version, soon embarked on sexual tourism.
“One is at a premium here among the collegians, and can pick and choose,” he reported to Gore Vidal from Ceylon. Tangier was even more agreeable. Bowles didn’t learn Arabic, seemed to like not knowing it. And as Tennessee Williams crowed to a couple of other gay friends, “A piece of ass is two bucks.”
Gay life was not everything to Bowles. In his mid-20’s, he met and formed a deep rapport with the talented, witty, charming, and desperately unhappy novelist Jane Auer, who was Jewish and whose right leg was stiff owing to a childhood fall from a horse. “It’s not enough that we have a crippled kike in the White House, but you have to go and marry one,” his father said.
Theirs was an artistic marriage. They nurtured one another’s work and trusted one another at a creative level, if not at others. Their sexual life ended inside of two years, and they soon had separate but neighboring apartments in Tangier, from which Bowles would depart often with his lovers, while Jane fell in love with one woman after another. Paul surely had more fun than she did. He hit his wife twice, he tells Ms. Carr, and at times adopted a paternalistic tone with her. They “lived on people passing by,” Jane was to observe, with savagely sad insight.
Intimacy was a difficult thing for him. He had “excised” his parents from his life and excised his country as well. “You don’t want to move in rhythm with the outside world. You want to move only in your own rhythm,” he explained. Living in America meant catching always on nails, like the nail of his decision to join the Communist Party. In Morocco, there were no nails to catch on, and while leading a presentable outward existence, he did whatever he wanted in the realms that gave him so much satisfaction, musical and literary invention and bohemian socializing.
His writings were punctuated by abrupt acts of violence, and so were his relationships (“Without a word, I strode the dozen paces that separated us and struck him solidly on the mouth,” Bowles relates). After Jane suffered a stroke at 40, she declined torturously for the next six years and moldered in a hospital in Spain, and though Paul continued to travel, her death left him diminished. Loneliness was his willing sacrifice to art. To the end, he was a charming and deeply intelligent presence, having always protected his mind from the world’s stodgy claims.
Detachment, North African geography, a marital triangle-these are the material of The Sheltering Sky . The book is as fresh now as it was in 1949, empty of philosophizing or clichés or salesmanship, a psychic and geographical tour de force about the inability of people to connect. His earnings from the work were “paltry at best,” he confessed to Ms. Carr. His agent sold the movie rights for $5,000, which was only augmented by the fee Bowles was paid to act in Bernardo Bertolucci’s treatment of the story.
He wrote a great deal of music, and several other books, but apart from a few compelling short stories, none of his prose approaches the majesty of that first novel. Careerism and ambition bored him; he said of his friend Leonard Bernstein that he would be “all right if one could kidnap him and hold him prisoner far from everything that could remind him of the concept of being successful.” Bowles was determined to lead an artistic life in the fullest sense, engaged only by those ideas and people who interested him. If he’s to be faulted, it’s for not pushing his talent to other levels.
Ms. Carr’s elegant biography is as much an act of love as scholarly investigation, and though at times too straightforward to capture its very tricky subject, it shows that Bowles’ material was the natural stuff of his experience, wrested at considerable cost from the conventional life into which he was born. His life was itself an artistic creation, unfolding on a stage he built for himself, bigger than any closet and wide as the desert.
Philip Weiss is the author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps (HarperCollins). He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer .