Paul Bowles Bowles, Paul (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowles, Paul 1910–

Bowles is an expatriate American novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, and composer who lives in Morocco and travels widely. An existentialist who probes what Theodore Solotaroff terms the "abysses and furies of the human psyche" and emerges with an empty vision, Bowles has been compared to Poe for the Gothic mood of his fiction and to Conrad for his plots in which moral anarchy results when civilized people enter a primitive environment. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Those who have read Mr. Bowles's short stories will know that his domain is one of nihilism and terror. In The Sheltering Sky, his first novel, he has extended this Saharan territory of the unknown to encompass, without the loss of tension, a series of incidents whose grotesqueness and futility reach almost beyond plausible limits. Almost, but not quite. For Mr. Bowles has conjured out of the bizarre interior journey made in the Sahara by an American couple whose marriage has gone off the boil, a series of remarkable episodes, each of which, though increasingly macabre and pointless, still retains some kind of hallucinatory logic. It is possibly only the logic of the horrifyingly absurd, of that realm where sexual frustration acquires a garish fulfilment. But it is an intense logic in which passion, jealousy, indifference, rape and lunacy follow one another with a kind of ritual compulsion. Mr. Bowles's characters, in their North African world of sun and sand, dirt and corruption, bad hotels and typhoid, have to surrender eventually to the desert's own habitués—wandering tribesmen who take their pleasure cruelly, exiled French officers, disease—each of which in turn dominates the handful of Americans and English who are helpless outside their natural elements. As an exercise in futility, in the remorseless exposure of the despair and indifference which place people at the mercy of fate, unsure of their wishes or wants, their loves or their hates, The Sheltering Sky is an exciting and remarkable book.

"Strained Relations," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1949; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2487, September 30, 1949, p. 629.

Tennessee Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Bowles is a man and author of exceptional latitude but he has, like nearly all serious artists, a dominant theme. That theme is the fearful isolation of the individual being. (p. 19)

Certainly a terrible kind of loneliness is expressed in ["The Delicate Prey and Other Stories"] …, but the isolated beings in these stories have deliberately chosen their isolation in most cases, not merely accepted and endured it. There is a singular lack of human give-and-take, of true emotional reciprocity, in the groups of beings assembled upon his intensely but somberly lighted sets. The drama is that of the single being rather than of beings in relation to each other. Paul Bowles has experienced an unmistakable revulsion from the act of social participation…. ["The Delicate Prey and Other Stories" is] the exploration of a cavern of individual sensibilities, and fortunately the cavern is a deep one containing a great deal that is worth exploring.

Nowhere in any writing that I can think of has the separateness of the one human psyche been depicted more vividly and shockingly. If one feels that life achieves its highest value and significance in those rare moments—they are scarcely longer than that—when two lives are confluent, when the walls of isolation momentarily collapse between two persons, and if one is willing to acknowledge the possibility of such intervals, however rare and brief and difficult they may be, the intensely isolated spirit evoked by Paul Bowles may have an austerity which is frightening at least. But don't make the mistake of assuming that what is frightening is necessarily...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Robert Gorham Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is nothing obscure or surrealist in "Let It Come Down"; the writing is always perfectly lucid, the author always completely in control. Bowles is writing in a well-defined romantic—decadent mode with such a sharp reportorial eye for current realities that his story is fully engaging so long as we can keep from thinking about its philosophic intentions or about the character of the hero.

The metaphysical and imaginative dimensions of the pathological visions are impressive as created by Paul Bowles. They are quite unaccountable in the lay figure Dyar to whom they are attributed and who is totally uninteresting when not under narcosis. Yet it is clear that the action of the novel is intended to be taken as a philosophical and even spiritual quest for "reality" on Dyar's part. There is an uncomfortable suggestion that Dyar's murderous hashish dreams are the only possible equivalents in our time for the Platonic delight in beauty, even for the beatific vision, and that a masochistic torture dance is the only equivalent for the redeeming sacrifice of love.

We are expected to believe that these rootless, purposeless, irresponsible Americans, cut off from their own pasts and the traditions of their own country, are exposed to the worst aspects of a totally alien civilization, which they have no real desire to understand, are somehow demonstrating the meaninglessness of modern life, the impossibility of creativity,...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Richard Hayes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Bowles stages his impressive novels in a climate of violence and pervading sentient awareness. The atmosphere in which his characters move and have their being is arid and parched, nourished by no springs of feeling or sentiment, relentless and neutral as the shifting yet ineluctable sands always just beyond the city.

The impact of this experience on a disintegrating Western mind has served as subject for Bowles' very special fiction…. Now with [Let It Come Down], Bowles has again set out to explore the patterns of moral decline.

Let It Come Down opens with great promise. The focus of interest is Nelson Dyar, a young American of commonplace proportions, who has come to the Moroccan city of Tangier seeking relief from the burden of his desolate life in a New York bank….

[His] public disintegration is rapid and sensational, but no more so than his private dissolution. He has always been haunted by the sense of isolation and exclusion, of himself as only "a helpless incidental somewhere in the middle of the line of events." The novel records his obsessive concern with this perception, and his final exorcism of it by an act of will which, however depraved, must nevertheless place him in a reciprocal relationship—even a criminal one—with the rest of men.

Bowles elaborates this situation with all the complex resources of his distinguished talent. He is...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

William Peden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Bowles knows the Arab world and seemingly understands it as very few "foreigners" have. "The Spider's House" is his fourth work of fiction and unquestionably his best. It is alive with the drama of a few tension-filled days in present-day Fez, its action culminating in open warfare between the French and the Moslems.

The novel is primarily one of character and idea. It is a delineation of good and evil, centering on the contrasting personalities of a fortyish American novelist named John Stenham and a Moslem boy named Amar….

In individual Moslems Stenham eventually begins to see the embodiment of what he himself has striven to attain—the "mystery of man at peace with himself."…

Stenham's path finally crosses that of the boy Amar, who is the son of a Moslem holy man. Amar is a masterly creation. Although he hates and fears savagely and violently, he is the only character in the novel who is above and beyond corruption. A lonely, abused figure, he is alone in his integrity as he threads his way, untarnished, through a quagmire of deceit, intrigue, and hypocrisy. His subsequent involvement in the personal affairs of Stenham and in the larger conflicts of opposing political movements are the high points of a novel that is engrossing, suspenseful, and meaningful.

The world and the people created by Mr. Bowles are completely convincing. "The Spider's House" is not a pleasant book, and its uncompromising portrayal of individual, group, and national wrongdoing will disturb the romantic or the squeamish reader. But this is the work of a mature writer who has freed himself from the excesses and eccentricities of his earlier fiction, who has something significant to say, and who says it with authority, power, and frequently with beauty.

William Peden, "French Islam," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 38, No. 44, October 29, 1955, p. 18.

Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Spider's House" was written] by the author of "The Sheltering Sky," but it is the product of a far more mature and more delicate mind. The Morocco Mr. Bowles described in "The Sheltering Sky" was a papery playground in which moral tourists took holidays from Protestant sexual ethics…. It was only the excellence of the writing that made this excursion into triviality tolerable. In ["The Spider's House"], Mr. Bowles writes with as much grace and sharpness of line as ever…. It is an unusually successful description of the erosion of private lives by public events. The creation of the awareness of gathering crisis and its movement from background to foreground has rarely been better done…. [It is] moreover, a thoroughly sound piece of political reporting and an admirable treatment in depth of the Moroccan crisis…. Altogether, "The Spider's House" is an impressive combination of the use of the creative imagination and a rational appreciation of actualities. (pp. 220-23)

Anthony West, "Books: 'The Spider's House'," in The New Yorker (© 1955 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 31, No. 42, December 3, 1955, pp. 220-22.

Freya Stark

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue" is] a collection of nine essays on journeys to remote areas of the Hindu, Mohammedan and Buddhist worlds with an excursion to Central America. It combines a superb gift for observation with an almost complete lack of the capacity to deal with it once it is made. The second step, as it were, is missing, and we would resign ourselves to this deficiency with a better grace if the preliminary processes were not so excellent. The vision is there; the characters move and speak as they do in life and are in fact alive. The zest of the author, that most important ingredient, is not wanting. But, whenever there is a conclusion to be drawn or a reflection to be made—the result and climax one would hope from all those most uncomfortable journeys—the whole thing falls flat; the author … has already ceased to be interested; he produces a comment which is not only casual but often inaccurate—and is off with renewed excitement on another excellent bit of description….

[It] leaves us dissatisfied not with what the author writes, but with what the rich texture of his travels could bring forth if he took the trouble.

This is particularly true of the chapters on Ceylon, India, Istanbul. As the author comes to Africa (he lives in Morocco), to the Rif and the Sahara, the background of love and knowledge is felt. The "statistical truth" ceases to intrude, and conclusions which are not expressed yet make their way through the clear and accustomed eyesight that observes them….

The secret of a good travel book is, I think, this capacity for the thing that has been felt to make its way through the density of language, a gift denied to the journalist, however brilliant he may be, by the mere speed of his production. The long African distances are there in Paul Bowles, both in space and time; and he has only to listen to them to write words that will last.

Freya Stark, "Beyond the Bazaars, the Hushed Air of the Sahara," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 25, 1963, p. 3.

O. B. Hardison, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Bowles is not a one book author, but The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, stands head and shoulders above his other work. For that matter it stands head and shoulders above most other novels published in English since World War II. The story is brilliantly told against the vast, shimmering, desolate space of the desert, that contains and dominates the action. It is a metaphor without an object. Like a dream, it takes on different meanings depending on the drifting emotions of the characters.

Civilization is the most obvious villain of the novel. It has driven a wedge between the minds and the instincts of the characters. It this is the recurrent theme of pastoral, The Sheltering...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Michael Pettit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are nine stories in [Things Gone and Things Still Here], all but one set in North Africa …, characterized generally by a modest narrative style, rather dry and not inappropriate to the settings. In place of splashy prose and technical nuance, Bowles relies most often on the quality of Moroccan life to carry the story forward. That life is one of villages and tribes, of beggars and servants and holy men, of cafes and kif (hemp) and snake charmers. The impulse behind most stories seems to be a sort of naturalism, with the implicit scientific stance that of a cultural anthropologist.

And what does that impulse reveal, what does Bowles find in the lives of his characters? As the...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In one of his poems, D. H. Lawrence speaks of a creature whose origin predates not only man, but God—a creature born "before God was love"—and it is precisely this sense of a natural world predating and excluding consciousness that Paul Bowles dramatizes so powerfully in [his "Collected Stories"]. It is no accident that the doomed professor (of linguistics) in the story "A Distant Episode" loses his tongue before he loses his mind and his humanity—a captive of an outlaw tribe in the Sahara; nor is it by mere chance that an American girl, visiting her mother and her mother's lesbian companion in Colombia (in "The Echo") succumbs to an irrational violence more alarming than any she has ever witnessed. Attacking...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Harry Marten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bowles's Collected Stories is] often brutal, sometimes night-marish, full of sudden inexplicable violences. They present an unsettling mixture of linguistic austerity and exotic settings. Many of the tales are located in North Africa or Mexico, places Bowles knew well, but likely to be unfamiliar to Americans, and therefore both intriguing and discomforting. These are not easy reading, but they are compelling. Unflinchingly honest, they illuminate life's uncertainties and terrors.

The most telling stories are often those set distressingly on least familiar ground. The dizzying surfeit of sights and sounds commands close attention to detail precisely because it offers few of the expected...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Although] the meticulously described landscape changes [in The Collected Stories], the situation of Bowles' heroes remains the same.

The hero is usually a displaced person; he is suddenly, often brutally compelled to see the "heart of darkness." He is abused, violated, transformed. But Bowles refuses to allow him more than a few seconds of understanding; his broken hero disappears under "the sheItering sky."

Although we expect some final clarification of the disturbing mysteries—some "sense of an ending" … we merely discover more shadows. There is no ultimate, rational solution—even after abrupt mutilations of self. It is, indeed, the sustaining axiom of these stories...

(The entire section is 692 words.)