Paul Bowles has a unique place in American literature. As an exile, he shared with 1920’s expatriate novelist Gertrude Stein, among others, a distanced perspective on his native culture. Through his translations, he earned an international reputation as an author with a North African sensibility. His fiction reflects a world akin to that written about by existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, and indeed he has been described as America’s foremost existentialist writer, a label more likely to restrict him to a time period than to characterize his fiction accurately. Although his nihilism does appear to be somewhat overblown, it also has a modern application, reflecting as it does a dark vision of the world as contemporary as the times demand.
Bowles became a guru of sorts to the Beat generation, although Bowles’s attraction for them had as much to do with his writings about drugs as it did with his generally pessimistic philosophy. Never an author of wide appeal, he has nevertheless had a loyal following among those interested in experimental and avant-garde writing. His work reflected a steady maturation, his 1982 experimental work Points in Time receiving praise from, among others, Tobias Wolfe, who wrote that the book was a completely original performance. Perhaps in the last analysis, Paul Bowles will be best remembered for his originality, his willingness to challenge definitions and the status quo in his fiction. With every work, he tried to forge new ground.