Paul Bowles has lived a fascinating life, one that has stretched across continents and cultures. In novels such as The (1949)and in the rich array of shorter works assembled in his Collected Stories, 1939-1976(1979) and Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles(1993), Bowles has entertained, startled, and enlightened six decades of readers. While his life story has been recounted in the unauthorized biography An Invisible Spectator (1989) and Bowles’s cautious autobiography Without Stopping (1972), readers and critics have always sensed that there was another story to be told, one of greater emotional honesty and immediacy. That story is now disclosed in the letters that make up In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles. Jeffrey Miller has done a superb job of selecting pieces that capture a life of great risk-taking, heartache, and fulfillment. Drawing from more than seven thousand pages of correspondence and working with the full cooperation of Bowles himself, Miller has assembled more than six hundred pages of letters, ones that contain revealing passages of personal, cultural, and social commentary and that make for consistently riveting reading.
Beginning with correspondence from Bowles’s adolescence, Miller has chosen letters that illuminate the influences on, insights of, and trials endured by a reclusive writer, whose guarded nature stands in remarkable contrast to the shocking frankness of many of his fictional works. Bowles’s juvenilia offers clues to this peculiar combination. Letters from the 1920’s and 1930’s to his parents and friends reveal Bowles’s painful sense of isolation and tendency toward introspection but also his need to perform in ways that compel others’ attention. From a childhood in New York to the beginnings of a writing career nurtured during college in Virginia and trips to France, Mexico, and North Africa, Bowles demonstrates a remarkable descriptive talent and keen ability to mock hypocrisy and vacuous forms of social conformity. At the same time, he is haunted by restlessness and a feeling of hollowness. He is caught up in a search for emotional and aesthetic fulfillment that takes him on voyages across the globe, even as he is left perpetually unsatisfied, agitated, and insecure.
Bowles’s writing matures and his mood improves dramatically with his discovery of Morocco as a personal paradise. In the relative sexual freedom allowed to men there, he finds a space that accommodates his bisexuality. In the exotic sights, smells, and sounds, he finds balm for an overwhelming sense of ennui. Yet in the apartness that an expatriate lifestyle allows, he manages to retain the outsider’s perspective that feeds his creative talent. Furthermore, in his marriage to fellow writer and bisexual Jane Auer in 1938, he finds a soothing combination of emotional support and personal autonomy. Bowles’s trials and successes are both memorable and inspirational, for they demonstrate that the individual when refusing to bow to social norms, can succeed at creating a happy and productive life, one that may not be easy or materially comfortable but that meets deep needs for emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic fulfillment.
For Bowles, many of these needs have been met through remarkable friendships with some of the most inventive and insightful artists of the twentieth century. Bowles first corresponded with Gertrude Stein in late 1930, asking her to contribute to a literary magazine that he was guest-editing at the University of Virginia. He paid a visit to Stein in Paris in 1931 and began a fulfilling relationship with the brilliant writer and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. Like Stein, Bowles has retained a lifelong fascination with the conventions of language. His letters from this period demonstrate an eager playfulness, as he experiments with rhythm, punctuation, capitalization, and word order. Similarly productive was his long, close friendship with the composer Aaron Copland, who encouraged Bowles’s interest in new sounds and forms, influencing not only his literary works but also...
(The entire section is 1671 words.)