CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Talking with Paul Bowles, 1984–1988
Richard F. Patteson
Having read somewhere that Paul Bowles did not have, or want, a telephone, I had written him a letter before my first visit, asking if he would mind meeting with me. He graciously wrote back immediately, and I later discovered that many people simply show up at his apartment, introducing themselves on the spot. He is unfailingly courteous to all of them.
The purpose of my own intrusion on his time was to gather what information I could in connection with a book I was writing about his fiction (A World Outside: The Fiction of Paul Bowles), and later, a follow-up article on his translations from the Moghrebi (“Paul Bowles/Mohmammed Mrabet: Translation, Transformation, and Transcultural Discourse”).
When I found his apartment building, a semi-modern, semi-high rise affair across the street from a large box-like structure that once served as the American Consulate, Mohammed Mrabet was also just arriving. He showed me upstairs to the correct door—somewhat skeptically—and Bowles explained to him right away that he had been expecting me (though not necessarily on that precise day).
We sat in his cluttered living room and talked for a long time. Periodically Bowles would stop to say something to Mrabet in Spanish or Moghrebi, and several times he rose from his seat to show me something, wandering away from the range of my cheap tape recorder. During the course of the afternoon he offered me a kif cigarette, although he declined to partake himself. I had been an undergraduate in the sixties, so this was certainly not my first experience with cannabis (far from it), but the combination of the kif’s strength and my own jet-lag took its toll. I became hopelessly lost on my way back to my hotel, wandering for what seemed like hours through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of old Tangier. Not until the next morning did I recall the warning about hashish, a substance closely akin to kif, in “The Delicate Prey”: “Carried along on its hot fumes, a man can escape very far from the world of meaning.”
That was on April 18, 1984. When I stepped into the apartment two years later, on June 5, 1986, I found that I had to share Bowles not only with Mrabet, but with a woman from California and a morose young Spaniard who had translated into his own language Bowles’ novella “Here to Learn” and Mrabet’s collection M’Hashish. The woman said she “hoped” to write a book about Bowles, who confided to me, after she had left town, that he hoped she wouldn’t. Much of the conversation that day was in Spanish, which everyone in the room, except me, understood, although my host was kind enough to pause and translate anything he thought I might find especially interesting. During the course of the next few days the talk turned to literature, music, politics, the perversity of publishers (over the course of my visits to him he complained energetically about several of them), and travel. Bowles dissuaded me from traveling as far south as Erfoud, where he said the weather was miserably hot and the palm trees were like umbrellas with no fabric—only spokes. He also told me, after learning that I had made the Grand Hotel Villa de France my headquarters, that the place had a history. Never mind that it had seen its better days and was no longer grand. Never mind that the water went off daily during the hours after noon, or that the swimming pool was filled with leaves and bugs. It had once been the favorite hotel of his friend Gertrude Stein (who had recommended it to him decades before), and Matisse had also stayed there when he came to Tangier.
On the second day the American girl was gone but the young Spaniard was back. He had brought a rock cassette and was attempting to persuade Bowles to listen to it. “Wasn’t the percussion good?” he asked, and Bowles agreed, pleasantly, that it was, but added that the whole thing didn’t sound like music to him. The Spaniard was clearly dejected by this comment from a man who is still, in some circles, better known as a composer than as a writer. He said he would stop the tape but just sat there, glumly, without moving. The conversation continued with rock in the background.
As a resident of Mississippi, I was curious about Bowles’ opinion of Eudora Welty, whom he and Jane had met long ago in Paris. He said that Welty’s mother sent her the Sunday comics when she was in Paris so she wouldn’t miss the exploits of “Li’l Abner.” On the whole he seemed to feel that Flannery O’Connor was much superior to Welty, citing particularly “Revelation” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which he called “perfect.” (He did, however, refer to the large plants on his balcony, which concealed from his view the former Consulate, as “a curtain of green.”) We also talked about a number of other writers. Bowles confessed to loving Lolita, and although he he was less fond of Pale Fire and Nabokov’s other works, he did allow that Nabokov’s influence on younger writers was “positive.” At some point we resumed a discussion of Thomas Pynchon begun two years earlier, and again, Bowles sharply criticized Pynchon’s novels, characterizing them as “fumereuse”— a French word implying a trailing off in all directions, like smoke. Commenting on Pynchon—s famous anonymity, he said, laughing, “I wonder what’s wrong with him?”
In May of 1988 I came to Tangier one last time and found Paul Bowles not in the best of health. He had had arterial surgery on his right leg the year before, and it was still bothering him quite a bit. At this point he was going to bed around six p.m., where Mrabet, ever the faithful friend, brought him his dinner. Fearing that Bowles might be increasingly bedridden (he was seventy-seven then), I was heartened to read, a year or two later, that he was much better and had even flown to Paris to appear on French television.
In 1988 as on previous occasions there were other guests who came and went during the course of our conversations. Sometimes I would arrive in the middle of someone else’s visit. When I had him alone, I tried to turn the talk as much as possible to the process of translation, since by that time my book, A World Outside, had been published and I was working on the essay dealing with Bowles’ translations, particularly his English renditions of Mrabet’s oral tales.
My most vivid recollections of these visits, however, are not of the serious points Bowles made about his own work or that of his contemporaries. I have that material safely stored on tapes and in notes, and I have to look it up to get it right. What my memory keeps bright and intense are the lighter moments, as when Mrabet pantomimed Bowles walking with a cane “when you have eighty years” and two canes “when you have eighty-five years,” with Bowles adding, laughing loudly, “And in a wheelchair when I have ninety years.” That same afternoon Mrabet described his children watching Dracula on the VCR—baring his fangs like a vampire to illustrate the point: “But no Dracula tonight. Football. Morocco plays England.” Perhaps the most poignant of these moments was Bowles’ recollection of his friend Truman Capote’s visit to Tangier, and his hilarious impersonation of Capote introducing Beatrice Lillie at a party. But the one that has taken root in my mind most stubbornly—probably because it so vividly illustrates the mischievous sense of humor that Bowles displays much more in person than in his writing—is his account of Moroccan toilet paper. The Moroccan government, it seems, didn’t like to import anything, so they encouraged the domestic manufacture of this product, but at first the results were disappointing. The tissue stuck together and wouldn’t roll off. In those early days it hardly mattered, he pointed out, because the Moroccans thought the very idea of using toilet paper was “disgusting.” Instead of using paper, they washed, and many still prefer to do so. No one has ever compared the sanitary results of the two methods, he mused, then concluded by suggesting that eventually such a study would earn someone a Guggenheim.
What follows are some of the questions I asked Bowles during those visits between 1984 and 1988, and some of his answers. They are gathered together with only a token regard for chronological sequence. I have tried to indicate in the above paragraphs how wide-ranging the conversations were, but for the sake of historical accuracy, I include below only questions and answers that were recorded on tape, as well as a few emendations Bowles himself requested in a letter dated March 6, 1996.
RICHARD PATTERSON: Among your papers at the University of Texas there is a draft or a synopsis of what appeared to be a novel that as far as I know you’ve never written, or at least never published, about a woman who goes to Latin America and marries a man who dies.
PAUL BOWLES: Oh yes, yes, but I never wrote it.
PATTERSON: Lost interest in it?
BOWLES: Yes, I lost interest in it. It was too melodramatic. What happened in the end was Up above the World.
PATTERSON: When you gave that novel its title, did you have the nursery rhyme in mind?
BOWLES: I did. But what I had in mind were the words that come after: so high, which was a sixties thing. But no one seemed to know the nursery rhyme.
PATTERSON: You mentioned one time that “A Distant Episode” was a catalyst for you. In what way?
BOWLES: I think I said it was therapeutic. I was having dental work done at the time. Often I write stories to console myself. Nothing wrong with that, is there?
PATTERSON: I’ve been very impressed by your evocation of setting in a lot of your stories and novels, particularly in The Spider’s House and Let It Come Down. And I’ve wondered about The Sheltering Sky—I’ve frequently consulted atlases trying to find place names, but with no luck.
BOWLES: Well, they were jumbled, the place names, purposely.
PATTERSON: You were so specific in the two middle novels but I can’t get a fix on Up above the World or The Sheltering Sky.
BOWLES: Well, of course. Up above the World is no real place. Whatever is mentioned is fictitious. The Sheltering Sky has descriptions of actual places, but I didn’t call them by their real names.
PATTERSON: The Moresbys start from a port city and head south.
BOWLES: Oran, Algeria.
PATTERSON: Did you know when you wrote that novel that Port Moresby is the capital of Papua, New Guinea?
BOWLES: Yes! It was a kind of perverse thing to do. But I liked the name and wanted to visit it, and the nearest I’ll ever come to seeing Port Moresby is to name a character after it.
PATTERSON: I’ll bet not too many people noticed it.
BOWLES: One critic did. He said it was a nice touch, Bowles naming his hero after “the New Guinea hell-hole.” I didn’t know it was a hell-hole!
PATTERSON: You’ve written so much about Europeans or Americans traveling in what they think are exotic or strange countries. I wonder why you haven’t done more often …
BOWLES: The reverse? In fact I’ve never done it, except in “Here to Learn.” I’ve had the idea for years but never managed to work it out until a few years ago when I wrote that story. I found a way of doing it.
PATTERSON: You wrote an essay called “Mustapha and His Friends” in which there is a passage on how Moroccans communicate with each other, never revealing the complete truth.
BOWLES: The idea was never to tell the truth but to mix in some truth so that truth and non-truth become indistinguishable.
PATTERSON: I see some of that in Amar, in The Spider’s House.
BOWLES: That piece was in Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. I cut it out of the new edition. I didn’t think it was any longer applicable. It pertained to colonial rule. The way Moroccans communicate and relate to each other today is entirely different. And it didn’t seem very courteous, since I’ve been living here so many years. But the point is it’s no longer applicable. They no longer behave that way.
PATTERSON: Most Americans and Europeans I know who have visited this country have gotten the impression, walking down the street, that Moroccans have a different sense of personal privacy than we do. Do you know what I mean?
BOWLES: They have none.
PATTERSON: Are you aware that a rock band has turned one of your novels into a song?
BOWLES: Two of them.
PATTERSON: Two of them?
BOWLES: One was the Police and the other was King Crimson.
PATTERSON: What do you think of them, as a composer?
BOWLES: I’ve no right to express myself on that. I’m so unfamiliar with the object of that kind of music.
PATTERSON: I haven’t heard the King Crimson piece, but I noticed that the Police’s song altered the plot a bit.
BOWLES: Yeah. Anyway, they made a funny song. I’m afraid they may have meant it seriously, though.
PATTERSON: Turning to your more recent work, I noticed that Points in Time is different from your other collections.
BOWLES: Well, it really isn’t a collection.
PATTERSON: No, I suppose it isn’t, but it doesn’t seem to be a novel, either, despite what the American edition says on the cover—your first novel since Up above the World.
BOWLES: It’s very simple; it’s just a lyrical history … a few vignettes throughout the centuries.
PATTERSON: You seem to interweave historical fact with fictional material, but maybe all the vignettes are factual …
BOWLES: Yes. The material is all factual. But of course the conversation is fictionalized.
PATTERSON: One of the readers of my book corrected me on that point. I pointed out that some of the vignettes were very similar to your own stories or read as if they were your own, and he said that’s because they are. You made them up, he said.
BOWLES: It’s awfully easy to imagine that. The point is you have the choice of a certain number of interesting things that took place, and they will probably be more nearly the sort of thing you would write yourself. I could have chosen others; I chose the ones I liked. I did not make them up.
PATTERSON: I liked the episode about the priest who came to Morocco.
BOWLES: Oh, yeah. Fra Andrea. He was from Spoleto. I don’t know what happened to the other two [priests].
PATTERSON: And his fate was actually as grim as you record? He was actually killed?
BOWLES: Yes. Impaled with a lance.
PATTERSON: What about the first section of the book?
BOWLES: It’s a composite.
PATTERSON: It has almost a mythical quality to it.
BOWLES: Well, it begins with a quotation from Hanno, then there is an invention of mine right after that … A lot of it is quoted, quite a few quotations in there, cemented together, sometimes in verse. I wrote it in verse.
PATTERSON: You must have read Tobias Wolff’s piece in “Esquire’ about a year ago. [Wolff’s essay dealt largely with the recently published Points in Time.]
BOWLES: Yes, I did, of course. He sent it to me. A nice piece. I like his stories.
PATTERSON: In Unwelcome Words, is “Julian Vreden” a true account?
BOWLES: Yes. I’d read about it in a newspaper years before.
PATTERSON: And “Dinner at Sir Nigel’s”?
BOWLES: I was there—once. It was exactly as I described it.
PATTERSON: Was “Hugh Harper” someone you knew in Tangier as well?
BOWLES: I’d heard of him. He was an actual person.
PATTERSON: You use your real name in the title story, as Mrabet does in Look and Move On. Is it factual also?
BOWLES: The recipient of the letters [in that story] is invented.
PATTERSON: How did you come to publish Unwelcome Words with Tombouctou Books?
BOWLES: It was a trap. It was supposed to be a sort of package deal—Mrabet’s Marriage with Papers and a few stories (the three monologues) by me. Then he [the publisher] said he wanted more stories, so I sent him three short ones and a longer one. He didn’t offer me any more money. He said this was between friends. Appparently he felt that money should not be mentioned between friends. I’d like to publish with a big New York house. But they wouldn’t want anything as short as Unwelcome Words.
PATTERSON: Short story writers for a long time didn’t get as much attention as they deserve, but recently, at least in the United States, there’s been renewed interest in them.
BOWLES: Only because there are a few good ones, good writers, don’t you think?
PATTERSON: A few good ones clustered together, right now. I prefer to think that, rather than that the American reader’s attention span has shrunk so drastically that he can no longer read novels. You haven’t written a novel yourself in a long time.
BOWLES: No—not since 1966.
PATTERSON: Have you no desire to write novels any more?
BOWLES: It doesn’t work that way. If I have a desire to write something, I write it. I don’t have a desire to have a desire. I may have one again.
PATTERSON: It just happens when a “novel” idea hits you, something that requires that form and length?
PATTERSON: You’ve done a lot of translating of Mrabet and others over the years. Do you think that has affected your own writing?
BOWLES: Yes, I think it has . It’s made it simpler.
BOWLES: Only stylistically. Doing those translations showed me really how little description is necessary.
PATTERSON: Are you familiar with Edward Said? In one of his books he observed that there’s no real tradition of novel writing in the Islamic world, but that at some point writers in Arabic became aware of European novels and started writing works like them. And he also claims that the novelist’s desire to create an alternative world is inimical to the Islamic world-view, because they feel that the world is complete. I suppose that would be analogous to their hostility to mimetic pictorial art.
BOWLES: I think it all has to do with the same thing. Because it’s false. Any statue or painting is false.
PATTERSON: So every story that’s told is a lie? And yet there is narrative literature in the Arab world.
BOWLES: Very much so.
PATTERSON: Are the works of the storytellers you’ve translated read in Morocco?
BOWLES: No. A few may have read them in French, or Spanish, translations. But their books exist mainly in English.
PATTERSON: If Mrabet, for example, were translated into Arabic, it would be into classical Arabic?
PATTERSON: Is there no written form of Moghrebi?
BOWLES: They consider it shameful. Because it’s not true Arabic. It’s false. It’s not the Arabic of the Koran.
PATTERSON: You said somewhere that you consider your work innovative in terms of content rather than form. Quite a while back John Barth and Saul Bellow had an argument about the importance of technical innovation—formal innovation—in literature. Bellow said it was the least important aspect of fiction; Barth said it may be the least important but that it’s still essential. I bet you don’t agree with that.
BOWLES: Essential? No. I don’t know why, for example, one should strive to invent new language. You’re attempting to get across certain ideas. Experimentation should not become a hindrance.
PATTERSON: It seems to me that in contemporary fiction, some of the technically experimental writers tend to discover occasionally a new form that works well, then continue to experiment with that until it becomes sterile or repetitive. I think that’s what happened to Nabokov and Barth, and maybe the New Novelists, too.
BOWLES: You could say that about a lot of the New Novelists, but not Duras.
PATTERSON: Let’s talk about a few other writers. Did you ever read H. Rider Haggard?
BOWLES: No! Not even She.
PATTERSON: Apparently he made quite an impact on Graham Greene.
BOWLES: Yes, so Greene says somewhere. I don’t know whether he was very much read in the States, or not.
PATTERSON: You’ve mentioned that you translated Borges.
BOWLES: I only translated one story, but it was the first one to be done in English, “The Circular Ruins.” I was surprised he had written this much. Aren’t you?
PATTERSON: What about Conrad and Hemingway? Any influence there?
BOWLES: In childhood I never read Conrad. I never read Conrad until I was in my sixties. Hemingway of course I read. The stories I love. I also like The Sun Also Rises.
PATTERSON: Sometimes I get a little sense of similarity between scenes—including some in the novels—in which you have a man and a woman trying to communicate with each other but there’s an edge of hostility or a lack of understanding … They remind me of some things like “Hills Like White Elephants.”
BOWLES: That’s a very good story. And in fact, that was the first thing of Hemingway’s I ever read. That was in high school … then I read the others . . A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is a really bad novel, a tract.
PATTERSON: That’s Fidel Castro’s favorite.
PATTERSON: For Whom the Bell Tolls was Fidel Castro’s favorite Hemingway novel.
BOWLES: I suppose Castro likes tracts!
PATTERSON: You said once that you don’t care for the works of Thomas Pynchon.
BOWLES: Among others.
PATTERSON: It seems to me that in some ways his sensibility is similar to yours.
BOWLES: I don’t understand!
PATTERSON: His sense of the fragility of civilization and reason, and the insubstantiality of what we call truth—that sort of thing.
BOWLES: Oh well, philosophically, yes. But I’ve not been able to get through Gravity’s Rainbow. I don’t know why he has to be so willfully difficult. Perhaps it would be more difficult for him to say exactly what he means.
PATTERSON: So much has been made about the influence of Poe on your writing, and early on you were labeled a Gothic writer by Leslie Fiedler and others …
BOWLES: A “pornographer of terror”?
PATTERSON: Yes, that’s it. I was trying to recall that phrase.
BOWLES: I remember just where I was when I read that, at the Hotel Palais Jamaï in Fez. Someone cut it out and sent it to me. I decided I didn’t like Leslie Fiedler if that was what he thought.
PATTERSON: So you don’t consider yourself a Gothic writer?
BOWLES: Not at all.
PATTERSON: Do you consider yourself a realistic writer?
BOWLES: Yes, basically. Sure.
PATTERSON: More often than violence, your work dramatizes the terrors of everyday life—acute anxiety and so forth. One of your most “terrifying” stories to me is “How Many Midnights,” in which there’s no violence at all.
BOWLES: It’s a story of anguish. A lot of my stories are stories of anguish.
PATTERSON: Not long ago I received in the mail a complimentary copy of a new short story anthology, co-edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which includes one of your stories that does involve violence, “A Distant Episode.”
BOWLES: No! At this late date! It’s been anthologized into the ground. It’s been in twelve or fifteen anthologies. If they use me at all, fifty per cent of the time they choose that story. I don’t know why. I’ve written fifty or sixty stories. That one is not the best.
PATTERSON: But it’s the most famous.
BOWLES: Yes, that’s it. But why is it?
PATTERSON: Joyce Carol Oates wrote the introduction to the contemporary section of the anthology, which includes a very long paragraph on “A Distant Episode.” I’ll send it to you if you’d like to see what she has to say. I thought maybe you already knew all about it.
BOWLES: They don’t tell me anything.