The renewed academic and media interest in Paul Bowles as a figure of a rare intellectual complexion and a remarkable talent owes perhaps more than anything else to the release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno’s An Invisible Spectator (1989). The first is a major film based on Bowles’ first novel set partly in Morocco and partly in Algeria; the second is a voluminous and resourceful biography which attempted with great success to reintroduce Paul Bowles to his American readers.
Similar testimonies to the richness of Bowles’ writing appeared in the form of reviews of his books in their Abacus and Penguin editions. To these were added a number of biographical accounts which delved into the author’s own records and sought to expose the peculiar life he had led across continents in far-flung towns and villages in search of new revelations and discoveries. This avant-garde, bohemian lifestyle had transformed him into a cult figure among belated critics who came to recognize the compelling qualities of his writing so reminiscent at once of Poe’s, Kafka’s and Camus’ fiction. Bowles’ writings fall into different genres and reflect the broad scope of his interests and experience. The list includes four novels, several collections of short stories, a collection of poems, an autobiography, diaries, travel narratives and a number of miscellaneous publications, not to mention the series of interviews he had given throughout his lifetime.
It may not be enough to characterize him as a prolific writer with diverse intellectual occupations, though this alone should guarantee him an eminent position among modern writers. His location as an American expatriate has never failed to raise questions as to what makes a writer of his calibre forsake all the luxuries of European and American cities to live permanently in Tangier. This voluntary exile had for long concealed his work from academic recognition. The pleasures of exile, however, can not be underestimated. For a freelance writer, sceptical of traditions as he was, only one road had to betaken, and that road involved constant travel, and a relentless search for exotic sights, sounds and satisfactions.
If such had been his own personal disposition, his literary work has appealed to readers of various backgrounds and expectations. Bowles’ books stand at the crossroads of several cultures and histories which are defined, among other things, by a long tradition of exclusion and opposition. They are statements about the postcolonial condition encompassing geographies as distant as Latin America and the Far East, or USA and North Africa. It may not worthwhile to try to press his books for a definite political moral, though his own voices emanates from the ‘interstitial space’ often associated with individuals of distanced and passive nationalistic sentiment. Gore Vidal noted once that the absence of a full-hearted reception of Bowles’ fiction in the United States was due largely to the type of characters and situations he portrayed in his novels. Modelled on himself, his characters lead lives far removed from American day-to-day experience. While they embark on long journeys that promise adventure and self fulfilment away from the routine of metropolitan cities, they retain their racial prejudices and fail to adapt their foreign identities to local rhythms. The ultimate impact of these journeys is portrayed as tremendous and everlasting, the revelations as shattering.
This interview took place in Paul Bowles’ flat in Tangier during a visit I paid him in June 1996. I must acknowledge Alfred Yeager’s generous help in securing the meeting and, more still, in taking pains to convince Bowles to grant this interview. Upon realizing the purpose of our visit, Bowles, a frail figure in his mid eighties, confronted me by saying that nothing was more detestable to him than giving interviews. While consenting to answer my questions, he desired the interview to be as short as possible.
Karim Bejjit: Tangier has been for many years your permanent home, and the locale of several of your short stories, what is it exactly that attracted you to this city?
Paul Bowles: Well, I had never heard of it, to tell the truth, until Gertrude Stein in Paris told me that she had come here a few times. She thought I would like it. So I said all right I would go.
KB: When did you first come here?
PB: In the summer of 1931.
KB: Did you settle then?
PB: I rented a house up on the mountains and bought furniture for it, which was absurd, because I knew I wouldn’t stay long. Well, I ended by selling it off. Then I went to Fez, I went to Marrakech, I went over the High Atlas, then to Ouarzazate…
KB: How did you perceive the difference between Tangier and Fez, for example, at the time you experienced them?
PB: Well, Tangier was an amusing place to live in, and Fez was fascinating, not to live in, but to explore, I spent very much time wandering in the Medina…
KB: You said Tangier was amusing. Can you elaborate on that?
PB: It was full of ridiculous foreigners. If you wanted to be entertained, you simply went to the so-called tea-pot and sat in a café and watched the circus. Right that was amusing. I had also stayed in Fez. Fez was much more serious, and it was so full of foreigners who did not seem to know anything about Morocco at all. It was full of people who drank a lot, which I didn’t do, so that amused me. I thought they did. I think I had made a fool of myself by watching them, but I didn’t know then.
KB: In your preface to The Spider’s House, you expressed your regret for the speed at which traditional aspects of Moroccan life had been disappearing in the aftermath of the colonial era. Why did you think it was regrettable?
PB: You mean change? The Europeanization of Morocco? Well, I knew that if it were Europeanized, it would be a kind of bastard culture (laughs).
KB: You mean there would be no sense of homogeneity?
PB: No, how could there be homogeneity?
KB: And was that discomforting for you?
PB: No, no, I regretted to see that Morocco would no longer be medieval, that it would share certain things with Europe.
KB: That was your personal feeling?
PB: Of course, I couldn’t have an impersonal feeling.
KB: Your work cannot be charged with complicity with colonialism, although you were writing long before the Moroccans had their independence. Yet, neither did you ally yourself with the local politics as it was unfolding in Morocco. How did you perceive your position as an American writer?
PB: No, I never had anything to do with local politics. I wasn’t French. I wasn’t Moroccan of course.
KB: The Sheltering Sky was your first novel. I know I am taking you many years back, but what particular circumstances had suggested to you the writing of that novel?
PB: None, I mean, I had no idea. I just started to write it. I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing, really. I understood what I wanted though.
KB: Did you feel you were writing within a particular literary tradition? I mean who is the writer that influenced you most?
PB: Well, I suppose Jean Paul Sartre. I appreciated his philosophy. What would you say, he was an atheist existentialist, which I liked.
KB: This reminds me of an incident in The Sheltering Sky when Kit ventures from her comfortable first-class carriage in the train. Frightened and disgusted by the ‘natives’, she ultimately withdraws to change her clothes for fear she catches pneumonia.
PB: No he is forced to do so by Tunner!
KB: Right. I wonder if this failure to communicate with the ‘natives’ is cultural or ontological.
PB: Certainly not cultural, seeing nothing whatever by the culture and the land she was travelling through. I don’t think she was interested in it really, but she was obviously repelled by the sheep’s head, by the crowds of natives in the train, so she felt she was in an environment that wasn’t hers, and where she shouldn’t be.
KB: I wonder to what extent you are using autobiographical details in your fiction. I mean, how much of your personal experience is reflected in The Sheltering Sky?
PB: I don’t know. In many places I set down what I remembered seeing. There was more invented, though. But the inventions there were often based on memories. I suppose that’s what you do with all novels anyway.
KB: Several scenes in The Spider’s House display more intimacy with the Moroccan life than The Sheltering Sky could allow about Algeria. There is an entire narrative in the novel that is dominated by Moroccan characters. Adjacent to that narrative runs another dominated by Westerns. Only at the end do the two distinct narratives converge. But the encounter is once more a defeating one. Why such pessimism?
PB: Well, it was inevitable. What else could have happened? You are saying the final pages of The Spider’s House are pessimistic; well, the whole novel is pessimistic of course.
KB: But at one time, it seemed there was a chance for some mutual understanding. It didn’t survive till the end of the novel where everybody had to go their own ways.
PB: Of course, there was no other organization possible. Roads and cultures can merge and blend, but I don’t believe it. I think one destroys the other. It’s a battle and one wins, and the inevitable winner in this case will be European culture; in this case not, always.
KB: From mid 1960’s till mid 1970’s you worked with several Moroccan writers as editor and translator. Can you comment on that experience?
PB: Well I decided to do translation because Mrs. Bowles was very ill, and I had to see her every other minute, and so I had neither privacy nor solitude which were very necessary to me. It was then that I found I didn’t need to do that for translating, because I could stop it at any moment and return and pick it up where I left it off. But I couldn’t do that for writing fiction. So that’s why I was doing translating for several years, until Mrs. Bowles died. This was in 1973.
KB: The books were published in the United States.
PB: Yes. They were translated into several languages, well reviewed accepted, enjoyed, I think, by readers. But you have to remember that the only one that wrote was Choukri. The others were oral. In other words, the others couldn’t use Arabic; they used darija. I couldn’t translate in Arabic. Well, I don’t know, I never learnt it. But I enjoyed doing translation. I thought it would perhaps shed light on the culture that was much despised. I thought it probably did.
KB: Do you think your own work has generally received its fair share of academic criticism?
PB: I’ve no idea!
KB: Well I remember Gore Vidal once saying that your work wasn’t very much known in the U.S. mainly because you wrote about individuals and situations that Americans would find very difficult to identify with.
PB: Hmm, that’s true, he did write that.
KB: Would you agree?
PB: I don’t know. I don’t think it interests me any more. I don’t like academic criticism, or academic thinking. I’d certainly be happy not to have academic recognition. But now it has begun for several years and goes on.
KB: Besides your creative writing, you also write music. How do you see the connection between literature and music?
PB: I don’t think there is a connection. I think one effaces the other, that is to say if I’m writing prose and I become restless I can go into the other room of my mind and write music, and vice versa. One more or less cleans off the blackboard for the other in my mind.
KB: Looking back is there something in your life you regret not having done?
PB: Not having done? No. Well, I wasn’t able to convince Mrs Bowles that she shouldn’t drink so much. I regret having allowed her to go ahead till it killed her. It isn’t really regret, not remorse. No, no. I suppose I wasn’t strong enough to stop her. Well, I don’t think it would have helped. One can’t convince someone else to be other that what they are. You can’t change people. I can’t …I mean… I don’t know.
KB: That’s a power no one has.
PB: I suppose so.
[Interview published initially in Moroccan Cultural Studies Journal, vol. 1 N° 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 115-119]