Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2584
Because of his small output of novels as well as his problematic relationship with American writing, Paul Bowles has not achieved a firmly established reputation as a novelist. A writer who always attracted attention, and serious attention at that, Bowles has not been accorded sufficient critical notice for his significance as a writer to be measured. To paraphrase Johannes Willem Bertens, one of his most perceptive critics, who has written on the critical response to Bowles’s work, Bowles as a novelist can be classified in three categories: Romantic, existentialist, and nihilist. As a Romantic, Bowles saw the modern world in a disjunctive relationship with nature, and that vision pushed him to depict the march of Western progress in very pessimistic terms, which accounts for one of his most frequently recurring themes, namely, that of a sophisticated Westerner confronting a less civilized and more primitive society in a quest of self-discovery. Such Romantic attitudes suggest the reasons for labeling Bowles as an existentialist. The search for an authentic life amid the self-doubts and the fragile, provisional nature of the civilized instincts, as Theodore Solotaroff has described it, places Bowles squarely within the existentialist tradition made more formal and philosophical by such writers as Camus and Sartre.
The search for values in a world without God, a world with an ethical vacuum, suggests the third possible interpretation of Bowles’s fiction, that of nihilism. There are those critics, especially Chester E. Eisinger, who understand the novelist’s universe as totally without hope, a region devoid of meaning and purpose and thereby representing a nihilistic philosophical position. This position is worked out through the clash between civilizations, or rather through the tension between civilization and the savage. Even Bowles himself remarked that life is absurd and the whole business of living hopeless, a conviction he shared with most of his central characters, thereby giving credence to any nihilistic interpretation of his fiction. Whichever position one takes, the central details of Bowles’s novels remain the same: A Westerner, often an intellectual, searches through an Eastern, less civilized culture for meaning and direction, usually finding neither by the end of the book.
The Sheltering Sky
The Sheltering Sky is both Paul Bowles’s first novel and his best-known novel. It is a book in which the author set forth those topics or themes that he would pursue throughout the rest of his fiction with almost obsessive tenacity. The story follows an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, who have traveled to Morocco in search of themselves and to reinvigorate their marriage after years of indifference. The couple appear in Oran shortly after World War II and there experience a series of devastating events that eventually kill Port and destroy the mental stability of his wife, Kit.
Soon after their arrival, Port insists that they travel inland into the desert. Kit is opposed, so Port, accompanied by an Australian photographer and her son, depart, leaving Kit with Tunner, their American friend, who is to escort her on the night train later that day. Bored by the ride, Kit wanders into the fourth-class, or native, section of the train and passes a frightening night among the Arabs, later sleeping with Tunner. Meanwhile, Port has come to the realization that he desires a reconciliation with his wife. The novel follows this hapless pair as they progress farther and farther into the heart of the country, leaving civilization more distantly behind them. Port contracts typhoid and dies, leaving his wife alone to face the rigors of the desert. She is picked up by a passing caravan and made the sexual slave of the leaders of the group. She is both entranced and repulsed by the experience and is soon completely disoriented by her subjugation. Finally, she is rescued by a member of the American embassy only to disappear once again, this time for good, into the Casbah, or native quarter, in Oran.
The Sheltering Sky is considered Bowles’s most uncompromisingly existential work and has been read by the critics along this line, with the fragile and provisional nature of civilized instincts being put to the test against the brutality and savagery of the primitive desert. Not only does Port test his febrile psyche against overwhelming powers of the North African terrain but also he must face the fact that he harbors in himself no reserves, no hope—for it is all too late—of anything better. Unable to commit himself to his wife, or to anything else for that matter, Port is left with a void that, in the end, exacts a heavy price, leaving him utterly alone and unequipped to face the hostile environment. So, too, Kit is stripped of her defenses and forced back on herself, only to discover that she has no inner resolve either. In the end, these two civilized Americans lack the inner strength to combat the primitive forces, both within and without, which they encounter in their North African adventures.
The novel offers a convincing portrait of the disintegration of a couple of innocents thrust into a cruel environment for which they are totally unprepared. The writing in places is luminescent, the locale wonderfully realized—so much so that the novel’s shortcomings pale by comparison, leaving a work, if flawed, at least magnificently so, and convincing in its portrait of nihilism in the modern world.
Let It Come Down
Bowles’s second novel, Let It Come Down, continues an existentialist quest by following Nelson Dyer, an American bank clerk, who throws over his job to join an old acquaintance who lives in Tangier and who offers Dyer a position in the travel agency he runs there. When he arrives, Dyer finds that his friend Jack Wilcox does not operate a successful agency and in fact seems to possess a mysterious source of income. As the story advances, Dyer’s relationship with Wilcox takes on a Kafkaesque tone, as he is obviously not needed at the agency.
Out of money and in desperate need of a job, Dyer accepts an offer to help in a money scheme by transporting cash between a local bank and a shop. Realizing that he is being used for illegal purposes, Dyer takes the money he has been given and flees Tangier, only to discover that he is utterly helpless in a country where he neither speaks the language nor understands the customs. After he has killed his native guide, the novel concludes with Dyer alone and hunted in a foreign country but curiously pleased with his state of affairs as an isolated individual.
Once again, Bowles has thrust an upper-middle-class American into a North African environment and allowed him to become submerged in the native and alien culture. With his loss of identity, Dyer discovers something far more authentic about himself as he is systematically stripped of his civilized supports and is forced to fall back on what little reserves he possesses as an individual human being. This peeling away of the veneer of civilization reveals underneath an emptiness and void that leaves theprotagonist, like Port Moresby, totally unprepared for the unfamiliar culture into which he is thrust. Under such pressure, he collapses and must seek refuge in internal strength, of which he possesses precious little. His plunge into an exotic culture, instead of rejuvenating him, debilitates his vigor, leaving him in a weakened if also enlightened condition.
As with other American writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, Bowles wrote of the exhaustion exacted by primitive cultures on the more civilized. It is a reversal of the romantic notion that cultured humans, tired of their culture, can find rejuvenation through immersion in a more savage environment. Instead, like Joseph Conrad’s heroes, Dyer finds only confusion and despair. At least, it may be argued, he discovers the truth, however unpalatable it might be, and the conclusion of the novel leaves him possessed of a dark actuality, if robbed of a comforting illusion.
The Spider’s House
Bowles’s next novel, The Spider’s House, was set in 1954 against the political upheaval caused by the deposition of Morocco’s hereditary ruler, Sultan Mohammed, by the colonial regime of the French. The fiction traces the tension caused by the collapse of the traditional way of life of the native inhabitants of the city of Fez through a fifteen-year-old boy, Amar, who, halfway through the novel, is befriended by John Stenham, an expatriate American writer, who has fallen in love with an American woman tourist named Lee Burroughs. By the conclusion of the novel, John leaves Fez with Lee, abandoning Amar to deal with the destruction of his way of life any way he can.
Although it is not a political novel, The Spider’s House uses the tensions of the French colonial rule not only to highlight the theme of the disintegration of Muslim culture under the French but also to provide a backdrop against which to play out the drama of the on-again, off-again love affair between Lee and John. Amar is from a devout family but one that is not caught up in the political conflicts between the Istiqlal, the Nationalist party, with their use of terror, and the colonials. Both the French and the Nationalists are bent on stopping the ritual religious festival of Aid el Kabir, and Amar, who has been forbidden to leave the Medina where his family resides, gets caught outside the city’s walls and is rescued by Lee and John, who have been observing the unfolding cycle of violence that is developing between the French and the Moroccans. John helps Amar return to his family through the city’s walls, and Amar offers to take the couple to see the religious celebration in a village outside Fez. The Americans are fascinated by the exotic quality of the Arab life around them and agree to accompany Amar. The festival turns out badly for them, however, when Lee is shocked and repulsed by the rituals of the feast. After a quarrel, Lee and John decide that they are beginning a love affair.
Meanwhile, Amar has received a large sum of money from Lee so that he can join the Nationalists in their fight against the French. Still apolitical, Amar again gets caught up in the action of the revolution and is manipulated by the Istiqlal, barely avoiding capture by the French. At the end of the novel, he wants to rejoin John and Lee but is rebuffed by the novelist, who is set on going off with his new lover. The fiction concludes when Amar is abandoned by his newly won friend in the political turmoil of a struggle he barely understands.
As the critics have pointed out, The Spider’s House contains a nostalgia for a past that does not belong either to John Stenham or to Bowles, but it is a longing that is nevertheless keenly felt. It has also been described as a deeply religious book, one in which Bowles mourns for a lost religious belief no longer possible in Western civilization, with its emphasis on the rational and the scientific. Certainly, the book focuses on the consequences of destroying a traditional way of life and on a myopic colonialism that blunders along in an attempt to apply Western methods to a totally unsuitable situation. It is the story of all colonial experiences in which a foreign power tries to forge a new life for a people it only partially understands, which accentuates one of the main achievements of the book, the faithful rendering of the North African landscape with its traditions and cultures.
Up Above the World
For his fourth novel, Bowles shifted his location to South America and his plot to that of the detective novel. Although seen by many critics as genre fiction of the whodunit variety, Up Above the World is a far cry from a run-of-the-mill thriller. It is, in fact, a deeply psychological study of the disintegration of another couple, Taylor and Day Slade, who, much in the same vein as the Moresbys, undergo a tragic transformation that ultimately destroys them.
The Slades arrive by ship in an unidentified South American country at the port town of Puerto Farol. A woman whom they had befriended on the ship is found dead in her hotel room—murdered, it is discovered later, at the behest of her son by a thug named Thorny. The son, Grover Soto, afraid that the Slades have been a witness to the killing, hunts down the couple, who have by now taken a train to the interior of the country. The Slades are finally subjected to the use of drugs and a variety of brainwashing techniques in order to erase the memory of Mrs. Rainmantle, the murdered woman, from their minds. While recuperating at the ranch of Grover Soto, Day sees some written instructions that were to have been destroyed, and in a moment of panic, Soto drugs and then kills Taylor. As the novel concludes, he is about to do the same with Day.
The novel is a psychological thriller much in the vein of Graham Greene’s “entertainments,” a lesser work not demanding the exertion either to read or to write that a more serious novel requires. Certain themes and characters immediately label the book as one of Bowles’s, however. Echoes of his earlier novels appear in the wandering Americans confronting themselves amid the exotic background of a less civilized and unknown world, their eventual disintegration as they experience an alien culture, and the search for meaning in what appear to be meaningless lives. Even the appearance of chance events, encounters onto which critics have latched to tie the volume to the thriller genre, are also present in his earlier work. The big difference in Up Above the World is the novel’s compactness. It is streamlined, and in that sense it provides a faster, perhaps more accessible read, but it is a novel no less interesting for all that.
The critics, especially Bertens, have been particularly hard on this book, largely because of its thriller status, which is unfair, given that the novel goes beyond the requirements of mere genre fiction and into a netherworld of the truly black. In many ways, this book is Bowles’s most pessimistic and most nihilistic, and, writing in the thriller vein, Bowles has made a contribution to the American fictional form most foreboding and dark, a form, in short, closest to his own hopeless vision.
Bowles’s fiction will remain attractive both to the few who truly admire advanced writing and thinking and to a general reading audience. It is unfortunate that Bowles’s reputation as a writer’s writer has limited the enjoyment of his work by the public, as he not only deserves a wider readership but also has much to offer the general reader. Too easily dismissed as the product of an expatriate writer and therefore of little interest to students of American literature, Bowles’s work is nevertheless central to the American literary experience, dealing as it does with the protagonist facing the frontier on the edge of civilization, a position that recalls that of Melville’s Ishmael, James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, and even Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Finally, critics and the public alike need to read Bowles’s fiction for its relevant encounters between modern humankind and an increasingly mechanistic and depersonalized world, a place truly of nihilism and despair.
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