Collected Stories, 1939-1976 Analysis

Paul Bowles

Collected Stories, 1939-1976

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Paul Bowles, one of America’s most unusual authors of novels and short stories, has gained a considerable critical reputation (but only a limited popular following) by writing not about his native country but principally about North Africa, where he has lived most of his life. He first visited Africa in 1931, returned in 1932 and again in 1934, and finally made Tangier, Morocco, his home in 1947 (with an alternate home on an island near Ceylon). Thus it is not surprising that most of his short fiction, like his novels and travel writings, reflects his fascination with North African landscape, climate, people, languages, and customs.

Of the non-African stories in Collected Stories, only two clearly derive from Bowles’s brief stays in New York. Several others grew from his living for a time in Mexico after his marriage to the writer Jane Auer and from his travels in Latin America and the Far East. The few American characters in the stories are usually seen living abroad.

The thirty-nine stories (two of them novellas) in Collected Stories exhibit experiments and changes of style and technique as well as a variety of locales and characters. Favorite themes—such as the contrasting of “civilized” and primitive characters, the altering of consciousness through drugs, and the friendship of dissimilar persons—are repeated a number of times during the thirty-seven years between the earliest and the latest stories. Violence is sometimes seen, especially in two of Bowles’s best-known stories, “A Distant Episode” and “The Delicate Prey”; but it is more often implied without being described as, for instance, the rape of the woman tourist in “Under the Sky” and the strangulation murder of the Frenchman Royer, which has been predicted early in the novella “The Hours After Noon” and which occurs at the story’s end. Very few of Bowles’s characters are sympathetically portrayed. In fact, he seems often to have less interest in character than in scene. Dialogue is spare in most stories, and character is revealed more by authorial reporting and by action than through talk. Plotting is frequently slight and many stories stop abruptly, leaving the reader wondering what Bowles’s purpose was in writing them.

Such early stories as “The Scorpion” and “By the Water” Bowles looked upon as experiments in automatic writing or “surrealism,” by which he meant beginning to write and then putting down whatever came to mind with no idea what the outcome might be. As a result, the stories do seem to picture a surrealistic dreamworld. Bowles would later change his mind about this kind of writing, remarking on one occasion, “I don’t think one could follow the Surrealist method absolutely, with no conscious control in the choice of material, and be likely to arrive at organic form.”

The first four stories in Collected Stories are all African, and two contain a theme that appears again and again in Bowles’s fiction: people’s need or desire to communicate and their inability to do so. In “Tea on the Mountain,” a lonely American woman novelist living in Morocco takes tea on a picnic with two Moroccan boys, learns from one of them a few facts about native life and customs, and returns to her hotel as uncomprehending of an alien culture as the boy, who has spoken of taking tea with her in America and bringing back “cinema stars and presents from New York.”

“A Distant Episode,” which has been often anthologized, is a much more successful story. An unnamed professor, a linguist interested in North African dialects, wishes to buy some camel-udder boxes as curios and is told to visit a group of fierce Requibat tribesmen camped in the desert. He is captured and his tongue is cut out. Dressed fantastically in several belts with dangling, jangling tin can tops, he is sold as a living toy. Finally, after the professor has failed to leap and cavort as expected, his buyer kills a Requibat in revenge, and the wildly bellowing and suffering man runs into the desert toward the setting sun. The theme of the failure of representatives of two cultures to communicate is reinforced by the irony of a linguist who has lost his tongue and who at the close seems to an amused Foreign Legion soldier who takes a potshot at him only a “holy maniac.”

In “Pages from Cold Point,” perhaps the best of Bowles’s Latin American stories, another professor appears. Norton, having resigned his American university position after the death of his wife Hope, has taken his sixteen-year-old son Racky with him to live in an isolated house on a Caribbean island. Disgusted with modern civilization and contemptuous of his teaching profession, he wishes to escape both and to live a quiet life of aimless pleasure and no accomplishment except the writing of a few pages in his journal. Norton now loathes his older brother who in youth was his homosexual partner, and guilt-ridden Charles thinks Norton unfit to have custody of Racky. On the island, unknown to Norton, Racky seeks out men and boys, including young Peter, his father’s gardener. After a policeman’s warning that Racky is a bad influence and following a fight between Racky and Peter, Norton finds his own bed occupied by his nude son. The seduction succeeds, but Norton buys off Racky by setting him up in Havana with an apartment and a new convertible, and Norton returns to his idle, empty life at Cold Point.

Bowles’s fictional method in “Pages from Cold Point” differs from that which he used in “A Distant Episode,” in which the professor is seen largely from the outside. Norton tells his own story through his journal and frankly reveals himself as a hedonist whose ambition in life is to do nothing and who declares himself happy doing it. The homosexuality in the story is less...

(The entire section is 2387 words.)