Remembering Paul Bowles (page 2)
Remembering Paul Bowles
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4page 5

     I didn’t get to know Bowles’s other writing — nihilistic novels like The Sheltering Sky and the grotesque short stories of The Delicate Prey, until I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, during the Vietnam era. Until then, I had only thought of Bowles as the rather altruistic translator of Charhadi. Bowles’s own autobiography, Without Stopping, came out in 1973, and I found that he had been a composer and a collaborator with writers like Tennessee Williams. As a young man, he had known Gertrude Stein, traveled with Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. The Beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso — had visited him in Tangier, and he was a friend of William Burroughs. Bowles other novels, one set in Tangier, another in Fez, and especially his travel writing about the Sahara, Casablanca, and Berber music made me nostalgic for Morocco.

Elmira and Morocco — an unlikely shared experience
The debacle of Vietnam, the Nixon years, Watergate — all made me want to get out of the U.S. — and I found I was thinking more of Morocco and those earlier, sunnier days of the Peace Corps. In the mid-1970s I went back to the country as a Fulbright lecturer at the national university, Mohammed V, in Rabat. Before I left for Morocco, I made a visit to the Humanities Research Center to read the archives of Bowles and his wife Jane, also a writer of note. What intrigued me in Bowles’s autobiography was his memory of visiting his grandparents in Elmira, N. Y. — which happened to be my hometown and the only world I knew before I went off to Morocco with the Peace Corps. From his description, his grandparents’ house was on Church Street, just a few blocks from where I lived. I wrote to Bowles, mentioned that we had Elmira and Morocco in common, and asked if I could call on him in Tangier. He wrote back a warm letter of invitation, with the comment that he still visited the streets of Elmira, but only in his dreams.

Moroccan city life
Compared to my Peace Corps years in the villages and back country of Morocco, it was a kind of luxury to live in Rabat, a pleasant city on the Atlantic Coast which combines a white-washed air of the French Mediterranean with the centuries-old walls, fortress, and bazaar of the Moorish city. Equally beautiful was Bowles’s adopted home of Tangier, across from the straits of Gibraltar. (Being a Volunteer in Morocco had been a kind of schizophrenic experience — long periods of isolation in remote rural posts interrupted by in-country visits to alluring cities like Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez, with their cafes, cinemas, tourist hotels, and European veneer.)
     Tangier was one city I had not gotten to know as a Volunteer, since it was in the extreme northwestern corner of the country, just below Spain and Gibraltar. (It is curious to remember that as Volunteers in Morocco, we were forbidden to go to Europe — a mark perhaps of some neo-Puritan strain in the early Peace Corps. Needless to say, the Volunteers soon ignored the policy and made their way to Spain and France on holidays.) For most of us, Morocco was not only the Third World — it was the first experience with continental European culture — cafes, wine with meals, French cinema. (I saw my first Godard film in Morocco — “Breathless,” with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.)

A visit with the writer
Bowles lived in a nondescript apartment block, a walk-up surrounded by empty lots. Theroux’s account of entering the dark building and climbing up the damp stairwell brings back vividly my own impressions of my first visit there:

    I went up and rang the bell and waited. I rang it four times, sanding in the semidarkness of the hallway. Except for the jangling of the bell, there was no other sound inside. The afternoon was cold and damp, the building smelled gloomily of stewed meat. I thought: If I am spared, if I attain the age of eighty-five, I do not want to live in a place like this. Give me sunshine.

     When I arrived for my first visit, a tall Moroccan answered the door and motioned me in. I sat for a few moments in the small, dimly lit salon of the apartment, taking in the book-laden shelves and the skull of an animal over the small fireplace, in which a log was burning. (It was October, and Tangier was rainy and windy.)
     Bowles appeared, cigarette-holder in hand, and offered me tea, which I accepted, and one of his kif-filled cigarettes, which I declined. (A smoker of kif, the potent Moroccan brand of hashish, Bowles has written about how smoking and even eating majoun, a kind of candy made from the substance, helped him write certain scenes in his fiction, including the famous death-vision of the protagonist in The Sheltering Sky.) He looked just like his pictures — a slight, trim man, white-haired, in his late 60s. I had brought with me a picture of his grandfather’s house in Elmira to present him, and he scrutinized the old Victorian style dwelling with interest. “It has different paint, but otherwise looks pretty much as I remember it.”

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