By Paul Bowles
Original Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Current Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
Amity Gaige writes:
Never read Paul Bowles before bed. This injunction has little to do with the disturbing content of Bowles’ fiction—rapes, tortures, betrayals—but more to do with the quality of a Bowles’ vision, which reminds me of the beautiful and sinister iridescence of oil upon water. The work of Paul Bowles is qualitatively nightmarish.
Let me say that I love Paul Bowles, and that The Sheltering Sky blew my mind when I read it soon after graduating from college. I admire every disturbing story in Collected Stories, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1980. But Paul Bowles is a writer who writes from a deep, unfettered space, almost as in transcription of his most self-exposing dreams. I know that Bowles’ fiction is highly influenced by his drug use, but this makes me more embarrassed of the fact that I love and relate to his work when I’m totally sober.
Let me console myself: Paul Bowles’ stories are some of the most grounded, beautifully described narratives of travel in existence. The looming, intense, and merciless landscape is always the protagonist. “There came a morning sweeter than the rest,” observes the narrator of “The Echo,” “when the untouched early mist hung inside her bedroom, and the confusion of shrill bird cries came down with perfect clarity from the uncut forest. She dressed quickly and went out. There was a white radiance in the air she had never seen before.” As the girl in the story walks on, she reaches a bower of low trees where “it was still almost nocturnal… the air was streaked with chill, and the vegetable odors were like invisible festoons drooping from the branches as she walked through. A huge bright spider walked slowly across the path at her feet.”
I have never been to this place—somewhere near Comaguey in Haiti, if I’m interpreting correctly—but as in the best travel literature, I’d almost rather go there in my mind. Go there with Bowles, that is. For some senseless reason, I trust him.
Although Bowles is expert at evoking every kind of terrain, we often associate him with his descriptions of Northern Africa, specifically Morocco, or—since his stories rarely divulge a specific setting—places where Arabic peoples speak Spanish or French. These places were—for part of the time Bowles lived in them—colonized places. Is this the origin of the stories’ violence? The stories smoke with it. I get the sense that even the most sinister native characters have Bowles’ inherent sympathy. Of course, these are not nice people. How could they be, when the whole arrangement is sinister? I’m reminded of a story I don’t like reading, “Under the Sky,” in which the protagonist, a young man named Jacinto, rapes a foreign white woman who has come out of her hotel for a smoke in the middle of the night. I don’t like the story because I don’t like to have my fictional stand-in—a white, “yellow-haired” woman who likes to travel to out-of-the-way places—violently attacked. But I suppose the power of the story comes from the fact that Bowles makes this woman so vivid (she winces from the lightning even when her eyes are closed) and her rapist is just desperate enough that I feel a sickening knowledge of the tide on which he’s riding in. With an absolute lack of explanation on the part of Bowles, the rapist returns to the site of his own crime a year later and thinks of the woman and weeps.
Do I make it sound like Bowles has a coherent moral code in his stories? He doesn’t. He reminds me in spirit of his righteous contemporary, a woman I’m surprised he is not more often compared to—Flannery O’Connor. Bowles is as punishing a narrator as O’Connor, but Bowles’ punishments do not correspond with any system of justice. Punishment is not reserved for the non-believing, the hypocritical, or even the “yellow-haired” interlopers in the African desert. Everybody succumbs.
And me, the reader? In reading Bowles, in being absorbed by Bowles, in loving Bowles, am I like the open-minded Professor in perhaps his most brilliant and sadistic story, “A Distant Episode,” who follows a guide into a ravine where he is attacked by a dog, beaten, and gets his tongue cut out? Maybe the reader of any emotionally or physically violent literature is engaged in a form of guided, ritual reenactment of real and imagined occurrences. But I say yes to Bowles because I am duly transported to the intensely poetic landscapes I would otherwise never see. Paul Bowles writes in blood and sand.
Amity Gaige is the author of three novels, O My Darling (2005), The Folded World (2007), and Schroder, which is forthcoming from Twelve Books in 2013. She was the recipient of the Foreword Book of the Year Award for 2007, and in 2006, she was recognized as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Amity is the winner of a Fulbright Fellowship, fellowships at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and a Baltic Writing Residency. Her short stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, O Magazine, the Literary Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the current Visiting Writer at Amherst College.
Fiction (Paperback) Finalists That Year:
- Paul Bowles for Collected Stories
- Gail Godwin for Violet Clay
- John Updike for Too Far to Go
- Marguerite Young for Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Volumes 1 and 2
Fiction (Paperback) Finalists That Year: John Irving for The World According to Garp
Fiction Judges That Year: Not Available
The Year in Literature:
- The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Bowles was a Fiction Finalist once previously, in 1956 for The Spider’s House.