|Remembering Paul Bowles
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|| Bowles once wrote an article comparing alcohol to hashish, and argued that the latter was much healthier. He had seen a lot of his artist and writer friends in the 1930s and 40s ruin their health with alcohol or drink themselves to death, and he himself switched from alcohol to hashish and was the healthier for it. Bowles always was very careful with his health he declined my invitation to a restaurant because he feared not only bacteria but also the exposure to the wet and cold. He must have been right, because he lived almost to the age of 90.
Tangier had been an international city when Bowles first arrived, and over the years he had become a fixture in the expatriate society which still existed there. To the first-time tourist coming over to North Africa from Spain or Gibraltar, Tangier gives the impression of a border town, full of touts and parasites and invitations to all sorts of louche pleasures. It was a world that Bowles exploited in his fiction, especially in the novel Let It Come Down. Tangier has a reputation not unlike San Franciscos as a place beloved by gays, but the word gay just doesnt fit a somber figure like Bowles, who wrote in his autobiography of encounters with both sexes both, he said, embarrassing and overrated.
Another famous-writer sighting results
On one of my later visits to Bowles, my wife Molly, who had read all his work, came along to meet him. It was interesting to see Bowles become almost courtly, and he immediately got out pictures of his late wife Jane and began to reminisce about her. Molly was quite taken with him she said later that he reminded her of Fred Astaire. Bowles was in as genial a mood as I had ever seen him. He showed us a couple of first editions off his shelves early works of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce two writers who had been in the avant-garde when he was a young man. In his excitement, he had inadvertently dropped a bit of cigarette ash on his sofa, and we began to smell a different odor not the fumes of hashish but burning fabric, which we quickly extinguished. Perhaps his excitement was also stirred by the fact, as he told us an a reverent whisper, that Beckett is in town!
Samuel Beckett? I asked, incredulously.
He comes to Tangier occasionally, Bowles replied. He had heard through the Tangier grapevine that the great man had been spotted. He eats often at La Grenouille, he confided. (This was an old French restaurant, a favorite expatriate hangout.)
So Molly and I went to La Grenouille that night and sure enough, as we were halfway through the meal, in shuffled a very old Samuel Beckett. No mistaking that hawklike profile, even more pronounced in his old age. He moved slowly, tended by a very motherly wife, and they took a table in a dark corner behind us. We prolonged our meal, trying to be discreet but turning as often as possible to catch a glimpse of him. He seemed to whine a bit and fuss over his food, and his wife spoke to him in low, comforting tones.
I reported all this back to Bowles, and for a moment we were like a couple of Beckett groupies, savoring the sighting.
Composing vs. writing
What interested me most about Bowles was the relation of his music to his writing. For years he had been a composer, having given up writing, because, as he said, he just didnt understand human beings. He gradually moved back into fiction through the technique of automatic writing (these first efforts were a kind of beast fable, but he soon turned to humans who behaved in animal fashion.) It was very different than writing music, he said. Composing was quite logical and rational, and maddeningly internal. He felt that composing enclosed one too much within ones brain. Often when he composed, he would go for long walks compulsively while working out the harmonies and musical relationships in his head. Writing fiction was much less frustrating than writing music he said, once he had gotten back into it.