Paul Bowles Essay - Bowles, Paul (Vol. 2)

Bowles, Paul (Vol. 2)

Bowles, Paul 1910–

An American-born novelist and composer, now living in Morocco, Bowles is the author of The Sheltering Sky. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The penalty for writing a brilliant shocker like The Sheltering Sky, which made Paul Bowles's name in 1949, is that the performance can never be successfully repeated unless it is more brilliant and more shocking. Nevertheless, in his novels and stories Mr. Bowles has doggedly kept to the same pattern: the disintegration of civilised man in primitive surroundings, at the mercy of a malevolent universe. After ten years his new novel Up Above the World, although changing the milieu from the North African scene of his earlier novels to Central America, follows the same obsessive theme….

Mr. Bowles is still a master at conveying emptiness of spirit and the angst of dissociated man, but in this novel the mechanism for producing it is cruder, and instead of being psychologically chilling it has a hollow Gothic staginess.

Patricia Hodgart, in Illustrated London News (© by Illustrated London News), January 28, 1967, p. 26.

[Bowles'] characters must move incessantly like the illuminated lines upon a radar chart: born without labour, seeking always to avoid being tracked, maintaining a monotonous brightness until sudden extinction. And in order to maintain their hectic impetus, these characters must be made to travel physically and cerebrally towards their ultimate objective: an impregnable ivory tower which can only be attained by death; in life they are deluded by drugs, taken voluntarily or unwittingly…. Bowles' characters are saved from absurdity by what Guy Chapman called 'a brutally comic spirit'. Moreover, all Bowles' work is distinguished by a limpid prose style reminiscent of Washington Irving, 'the American Gold-smith', and a redeeming sense of humour….

Up Above the World is indeed the first time that Bowles has attempted to reconcile his hallucinatory writing with the purely communicative; and the result, though his best-written work so far, is confusion.

It seems that Bowles will have to make a choice between the two approaches; and in view of his talent, it is to be hoped that he will concentrate upon writing that does not need artificial stimulants in order to be appreciated. His gifts of fantasy, of confronting the reader with the unexpected, of making him look into a distorting mirror, are very high; but he cannot explain the inexplicable. At present he seems to be aiming at an intimacy which cannot be shared by the un-addicted….

Francis Fytton, "The Pipe Dreams of Paul Bowles," in London Magazine, February, 1967, pp. 102-09.

Paul Bowles's … book, Up Above The World, is in a vein which will be familiar to his admirers. Once again we encounter the vacationing American couple, this time in Latin America, who are slowly sucked into a vortex of horror utterly beyond their comprehension. The exotic reveals first its fascination, then its fatality. At the same time, husband tugs against wife and wife against husband, each interpreting their strange and unassimilable experience in a different key. The bonds between them become taut and frayed, so that their concentration turns inward on the web which binds them together, rather than outward to the web in which they are both trapped. The will to escape is overcome by a dreadful mesmerized inertia.

At the root of Paul Bowles's view of the world is a vision of the fragility of the social norms of the North American middle class when confronted with the chthonic threat which surges out of the desert and the jungle….

However, it should be said that Up Above The World is not as fine a book as Paul Bowles's early achievements, The Sheltering Sky or Let It Come Down. Partly this is because the Latin American milieu, though he has used it previously in short stories, never seems so present, so concretely sensuous as the North Africa of his other books. It has a somewhat schematic quality, as though the burning sun and dryness of Morocco had been emended to fit a new context. And this abstractness of landscape and climate is accented by the abstractness of the plot, whose mechanics, sharp and angular, force their way out through the fabric of the narrative. As a result, the end of the book is unsatisfactory: the chain of murders, which had seemed at first dictated by the implicit viciousness of nature, symptoms of an underlying disease, are reconstituted explicitly as a logical chain of planned events. The chthonic evil is crammed into one man's brain: the structure of the novel becomes translucent.

Times Literary Supplement, February 2, 1967.

Up Above the World seeks universality through a very special case. It is a thin little melodrama that tries to climb above its station by using irritating tricks like a mannered jerkiness of narration and making the reader mildly confused about who people are when he first meets them. An elderly doctor and his young wife are enjoying some rather grand hospitality from a South American planter when they both apparently succumb to a disease that blanks out bits of memory. Terror builds up among the cast; but the only sign of the Bowles one remembers comes in flashes of vivid background-setting….

R. G. G. Price, in Punch (© Punch, London), February 8, 1967, p. 210.

Paul Bowles ranks high among those connoisseurs of damnation whose hobby is to stage-design modern versions of hell. Less ingenious than Sartre, who visualized hell as a hotel room full of incompatible people, Bowles—an expatriate who has lived in Latin America, Ceylon and now Morocco—makes up with sheer exoticism for a lack of subtlety. His hell is a brilliant composite landscape, half North African, half the terrain of puritan conscience.

Color Bowles's inferno flame-orange, hot and sand-arid, with a sky of violent blue, suffocating and quite opaque. Enter, stage right, Bowles's repertory company of about-to-be-damned Americans and Europeans….

He survives, a unique trader in African Gothic, because he is a superb storyteller and because he avoids the one unforgivable sin of his genre: voyeurism. He extends to his characters a frail but consistent humanity they do not extend to one another or to themselves. Like Virgil and Dante before him, he has the common compassion to go to hell with the children of his imagination. There he abandons them almost gently, standing to one side with the sentencing papers in his untriumphant hands, knowing the outcome by heart, as one of his characters puts it, yet, like the kindly old hangman inside every decent pessimist, still hoping for the last-minute reprieve that will never come.

Melvin Maddocks, "Brilliant Hobbyist of Modern Infernos," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1967), July 21, 1967.

The pieces that make up Paul Bowles's first collection of stories in 17 years [in The Time of Friendship] read like obituaries of the soul. His characters, robbed of purpose, their spirits rubbed flat, move zombielike through exquisitely desolate landscapes—Moroccan ghettos, Algerian deserts, New York subway tunnels. Displaced in the present, they have vague pasts and menacing futures; sighing despair, they search for something unnameable.

Perhaps their quest is for what they find: hostility, hallucination, more intense dislocation, the last retreat of death—Bowles doesn't say. After several novels, books of stories and essays, he is still the inscrutable artist. He fixes his characters in his own hopeless wastelands and in the reader's shocked consciousness. His warped people are beyond help because they will not help themselves. They have surrendered, and Bowles, the devil's advocate, grinds them further into defeat. He is American fiction's leading specialist in melancholy and insensate violence….

At his best, Bowles has no peer in his sullen art, and he offers here two superb stories of despair that prove it. One, The Frozen Fields, shows how a father's hostility slowly corrodes the brain of a small boy. The other, Tapiama, follows an American photographer to the end of his skid. It is a masterwork on the psychology of the dropout, an exemplary model of existentialism in the service of fiction….

For his terrifying, black penetration of the heart, Paul Bowles commands cold admiration. Living in Africa, corresponding with America in a kind of code, he uses the same metaphors of loneliness and abandon that signaled his leap from music to the novel with The Sheltering Sky in 1949. His work is art, a minor art, mirroring a part truth—that man is alone.

"Specialist in Melancholy," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1967 by Time Inc.), August 4, 1967.

Paul Bowles's universe (and it is a mark of distinction that there is a Bowlesian universe) is made up of primitive but wise natives and effete children of the West searching for escape from the self—that self that supposedly hangs like an albatross around the neck of modern literature, from Hemingway to Herzog, feeding thought and stifling feeling.

These clichés of the romantic genre are the dangers he lives with; his victories over them are the signposts of his artistry. They are to be seen scattered through his new volume of short stories, "The Time of Friendship," his first such collection since that excellent book, "The Delicate Prey."

Daniel Stern, "Encounter East and West," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 6, 1967, pp. 4, 24.

Critics have already placed Mr. Bowles as a writer of Gothic tendency with a taste for gamey, melodramatic situations and not much liking for humanity. This is a fair enough description of his short stories; still one must insist on his extreme verbal skill, while finding what he does with it very limited and ultimately monotonous. He places his characters before us and then destroys them in an unerring way: it is a remarkable performance, but one expects something more from literature.

Bernard Bergonzi, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1967 by NYREV, Inc.), November 9, 1967.

Reading The Time of Friendship, Paul Bowles's … collection of stories, I was aware of a career honest in its aims but only occasionally swinging free of a steady performance…. Bowles sticks with what he can do. Here are the gothic tales with their meaningless violence and seedy Arab settings which repeat the formula established in The Delicate Prey seventeen years ago. Here are the macabre Saki endings and the landscapes beautifully tuned to an indefinable melancholy. The stories are always carefully written but, for the most part, they are too self-contained and seldom have anything to match the atmosphere of frenzied desolation that drives through The Sheltering Sky to make it Bowles's masterpiece. He is still involved with his ideas of twenty years ago but he has lost his passion for them. The existential experience of The Sheltering Sky can never seem dated, but many of the empty exotic scenes in The Time of Friendship depend upon a bleak modernity which has worn thin even for Bowles.

Maureen Howard, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1968 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1968, p. 149.

Bowles has not adapted his style to the changing years, with the result that he now seems old-fashioned, and this latest volume of short stories [News from Cold Point] can only be evaluated in terms of his early work. It is not a question of a lack of contemporary facts, but of a basic disharmony with the prevailing geist. This is always a problem for the expatriate writer (as has recently been evidenced by Lawrence Durrell); and in Bowles this problem seems to be focused on an inability to deal simultaneously with two cultures.

John Gray, in Books and Bookmen, June, 1968.

In 1949, with the publication of his very successful Sheltering Sky at the age of 40, Paul Bowles became the author-who-also-writes-music, after having long been the composer-who-also-writes-words. That success brought more than a reemphasis of reputation; from the musical community's standpoint it signaled the permanent divorce of a pair of careers. During the next decades Paul Bowles produced some 14 books of various kinds, but little more than an hour's worth of music. Did he feel that one art, to survive, needed to swallow and forget the other? Surely he received in a year more acclaim for his novel than he had received in a lifetime for his music. Which need not infer a superior literary talent; indeed, if history recalls him it will be for musical gifts. It's just that ten times more people read books than go to concerts. Someday Bowles may fully release the underestimated musician who doubtless still sings within him. Meanwhile, perhaps chagrined by the underestimation, he coolly enjoys an international fame based solely on his books….

Paul Bowles' fiction is dark and cruel, clearly meant to horrify in an impersonal sort of way. It often bizarrely details the humiliation and downfall of quite ordinary people, as though their very banality was deserving of punishment. Bowles develops such themes at length and with a far surer hand than in, say, his sonata structures. His formats in even the shorter stories are on a grander scale than in his music; at their weakest they persuasively elaborate their plots (albeit around ciphers, and in a style sometimes willfully cheap); at their best they transport the reader through brand new dimensions to nightmare geographies. Bowles communicates the incommunicable. But even at their most humane his tales steer clear of the "human," the romantic, while his music can be downright sentimental. Indeed, so dissimilar are his two talents that it is hard to imagine him composing backgrounds to his own dramas….

Though he may not be a human portraitist, he has, like some film-makers, created character from scenery. Deserts, jungles, city streets are personages in his books as in his life, and he causes them to breathe and suffer and threaten us as only a god can do. But when discussing real people the effect is desperate, touching, even sad, sometimes humorous, though only secondarily the effect he intended, that is, a pose of non-involvement. That effect, which fills the novels, no longer seems viable for our troubled world—perhaps precisely because the world has turned into a Paul Bowles novel where one is inevitably involved, though nightmarishly.

Ned Rorem, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), April 22, 1972, pp. 24, 35-6.