An Invisible Spectator
Paul Bowles was reared in the Jamaica section of Queens, a borough of New York City, in comfortable though by no means lush surroundings. His father, Claude, was a dentist who at one time had artistic aspirations, but Claude’s father had forced him to find a more practical career. When his son Paul showed a similar inclination toward the arts—by the age of eight, Paul was writing stories and diaries as well as exhibiting a precocious talent at the piano and in musical composition—Claude tried to stifle this manifestation of genius. On one occasion, Claude surprised his eight-year-old son drawing pictures of houses. Angry that Paul had locked his door to engage in this clandestine activity, Claude gave him a thorough grilling, discovering that Paul had purposely shut himself in because he knew his father would disapprove of his drawing before breakfast. In a fury, Claude spanked his son for several minutes, further angered by Paul’s refusal to plead for the beating to stop. Finally, Claude departed, confiscating his son’s notebooks, which he was to keep from the boy for two months. Paul was actually relieved, for he had feared that his father would destroy his work, and now Paul knew he could take any punishment without crying.
In later life, father and son would come to a partial reconciliation, but the young Paul Bowles had to struggle constantly against his father’s efforts to suppress his creative instincts. Paul almost never rebelled openly; rather, he kept to himself creating music and literature in secret. A thwarted artist himself, Claude seemed to suspect his son’s motivations at every turn and made his son’s home life miserable. He barely tolerated Paul’s piano lessons and his wife Rena’s more sympathetic attitude to the arts. It was Rena who read to Paul from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and soothed his hurt feelings when his father would attack him, but she did not dare stand up to her husband or defend her boy, so that Paul always had to wrest his art from hostile circumstances at home.
It is hard for Sawyer-Laucanno not to see these early years in New York as central to the shaping of Bowles’s life as an artist. Bowles did not easily share himself with others. Although he could be a pleasant companion, few people could say that they really knew him or that he opened himself up to them. He did not care to confide in others, and his art was a private matter—rather like his sessions as an eight-year-old boy in a locked room. Bowles’s very earliest stories have an exotic, almost surrealistic quality and are the antithesis of his urban, domestic life. He used his imagination to transcend his circumstances, not to analyze them—at least not directly. The imagination was a way of penetrating deeply into the self and not necessarily a way of uniting with others.
Even when Bowles began to be recognized by such artists as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Gertrude Stein, he seemed largely an introverted figure. As his biographer puts it:For Bowles the notion of the outer and inner selves still held sway. And as in childhood, the idea of revealing one’s true self was completely repugnant to him. Bowles was in many ways still a product of his father’s manufacturing.
By the time Bowles reached Paris in 1930, he had tried a year at the University of Virginia—mostly to please his parents—and had found the school a cultural backwater. He had already taken lessons with Aaron Copland, who was quickly establishing himself as the greatest American composer of his generation. Yet a curious passivity gripped Bowles. He was content to live off the generosity of others and even returned to the University of Virginia after a period of ill-health and penury in New York City.
Until the 1940’s, Bowles concentrated on his musical career, writing serious classical compositions as well as much work for films and for the stage. His reputation rose and his work received much favorable critical attention, especially from Virgil Thomson, not only a distinguished composer himself but also a first-rate critic, who saw to it that Bowles received important commissions. Yet Bowles never quite fulfilled his promise as a composer and was slow to learn instrumentation. He would interrupt his lessons frequently to travel abroad.
In fact, when Bowles did not have a specific assignment to write music, he usually traveled, trying to blend into...
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