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.)
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.
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...
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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 inhuman. It is curious to note that the spirit evoked by Bowles in so many of these stories doesnot seem inhuman, nor does it strike me as being antipathetic.
Even in the stories where this isolation is most shockingly, even savagely, stated and underlined the reader may sense an inverted kind of longing and tenderness for the thing whose absence the story concerns. This inverted, subtly implicit kind of tenderness comes out most clearly in one of the less impressive stories of the collection. This story is called "The Scorpion." It concerns an old woman in a primitive society of some obscure kind who has been left to live in a barren cave by her two sons. One of these deserters eventually returns to the cave with the purpose of bringing his mother to the community in which he and his brother have taken up residence…. [The cave] is curtained by rainfall and it is full of scorpions and it is not furnished by any kind of warmth or comfort, yet she would prefer to remain there than to accompany her son…. (pp. 19-20)
Here is a story that sentimentality, even a touch of it, could have destroyed. But sentimentality is a thing that you will find nowhere in the work of Paul Bowles. When he fails, which is rarely, it is for another reason. It is because now and then his special hardness of perception, his defiant rejection of all things emollient have led him into an area in which a man can talk only to himself.
The volume contains among several fine stories at least one that is a true masterpiece of short fiction—"A Distant Episode."… In this story Paul Bowles states the same theme which he developed more fully in his later novel. The theme is the collapse of the civilized "Super Ego" into a state of almost mindless primitivism, totally dissociated from society except as an object of its unreasoning hostility. It is his extremely powerful handling of this theme again and again in his work which makes Paul Bowles probably the American writer who represents most truly the fierily and blindly explosive world that we live in so precariously from day and night to each uncertain tomorrow. (p. 20)
Tennessee Williams, "The Human Psyche—Alone," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1950 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 51, December 23, 1950, pp. 19-20.
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 impossibility of love. The evidence is insufficient, especially when we have only the blank eyes of a Dyar to see it through.
What "Let It Come Down" does demonstrate is Paul Bowles' talent for dealing with the macabre, the dreamlike, the cruel and the perverse in a genuinely imaginative way. As a comment on the human situation in Western civilization today, Paul Bowles' novel has exactly the same relevance as "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Castle of Otranto," and some of the more Freudian of Grimm's fairy tales. So taken, it has its place in a well defined literary tradition with deep psychological roots. But if we try to make it mean more than that, if we take it as a serious social or philosophical novel, then it seems malign and corrupting. (pp. 1, 17)
Robert Gorham Davis, "A Relentless Drive toward Doom," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1952, pp. 1, 17.
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 impeccably sure in conveying the grainy, sensuous texture of African life, and his novel, freighted with a burden of symbolic and moral significance, seems perpetually to tremble on the edge of some major insight. Yet all these virtues—admirable minor successes though they are—cannot veil the inescapable fact of his larger failure: the fact that he never really succeeds in imposing Let It Come Down upon us, never quite manages to make it either convincing or persuasive.
The failure is specifically one of moral imagination, for Bowles simply lacks, as a novelist, the sense of that extra dimension which would confer proportion and magnitude on his violent tale. He had at hand the materials for a mordant portrait of spiritual erosion, but dissipated this opportunity to give us, instead, a drama of shock, in which sensation is substituted for feeling, and significant action surrenders to the exigencies of melodrama.
Neither can he sustain the novel's ambitious intellectual structure. There is some evidence that he implied, in the fate which ultimately overtakes Dyar, an ironic commentary on certain abuses of existentialist theory. But these moral preoccupations seem, at best, factitious and willed, without reference to any larger imaginative design. They are further limited by Dyar himself, a character of congenial mental and moral poverty, who contracts rather than expands as the novel progresses.
The fruit of which Paul Bowles has eaten is, unfortunately, that which confers knowledge only of evil, not of good. But a writer with no awareness of this essential duality can never fully explore the country of horror into which he has ventured. The act of violence with which Let It Come Down concludes is terrible indeed, and reverberates fearfully in the mind, but it is terror only of this flesh, of this bone, powerless to strike the man within.
Richard Hayes, "Books: 'Let It Come Down'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1952 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 22, March 7, 1952, p. 547.
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.
["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.
["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.
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 Sky is a savage pastoral. Its characters do not long for gardens but for a life reduced, like the desert landscape, to its primary elements—to the bedrock realities of food, sex and death. The problem, Bowles seems to be saying, goes deeper than the discontents of city life or technology or class conflict. Its roots are consciousness itself and the vehicle of consciousness, language. Only when she becomes an animal so traumatized that she cannot think, enslaved by the sexuality of a man whose language she cannot understand, is Kit at peace with herself. This is fulfillment as annihilation. It is familiar in the literature of mysticism and is a recurrent theme in the novels of D. H. Lawrence, who shares with Bowles a fascination with the idea of annihilation through sense experience. It should be added that Bowles pares the idea to its essential and strips it of the sentimentality that softens much of Lawrence's work.
When he wrote The Sheltering Sky Bowles was under the influence of Albert Camus. He apparently learned about North Africa from Camus, and his travelers are aliens in their world in the manner explored by Camus in L'Etranger. The existential sense of rational life as anguish, of consciousness as a thin wire stretched between death and animal instinct, is as powerful in The Sheltering Sky as the desolate infinity of the desert. The characters are constantly struggling against the cage that their minds have built around them. They drift from hallucinations and dreams into self-consciousness and back. Raw experience, however, never dominates the novel. Existentialism apparently provided the intellectual framework that Bowles needed to control the irrational elements in his design. The moment does not recur in later work. Increasingly the later novels and short stories tend to be transcripts of altered states of consciousness, usually induced by drugs. (p. 64)
The characters are shown being drawn to their destiny in spite of themselves. Their conscious efforts to escape merely advance the process. This has its fascination not because it is horrifying but because it touches on a powerful subconscious wish to be dominated, to be released from responsibility, to be destroyed without dying, to move past the world of consciousness into whatever lies behind the sheltering sky. One is reminded here not only of Lady Chatterley's Lover but also of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Story of O.
Why, in spite of its use of themes that are common in modern literature, does The Sheltering Sky continue to seem exceptional 30 years after its publication? The big headlines during this period were made either by novels dealing with social issues like class or race, or by long, introverted novels in the tradition of Joyce. By contrast The Sheltering Sky is a wellmade novel. It begins as a brilliantly executed artistic design and ends with personal rather than social experiences. Evidently, in describing Kit and Port, Bowles is describing his readers. The feeling that life is a game that has been lost but must be played out to the end, that consciousness is an overwhelming burden, that we are aliens in our own world goes deep into the modern psyche. The work of the Soviet dissidents suggests that it may be as common in the Socialist world as in the West. The Sheltering Sky defines a limit that is precisely the limit against which modern society is pushing. In the old canonization ceremony, an advocatus diaboli—a devil's advocate—was considered necessary to plead the case against sainthood. Paul Bowles is a brilliant advocatus diaboli against the chances for success of the modern experiment. He articulates doubts that we have all felt at one time or another. He remains important because he shows us an aspect of life that is part of us whether we admit it or not. (pp. 64-5)
O. B. Hardison, Jr., "Reconsideration: Paul Bowles' 'The Sheltering Sky'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 173, No. 13, September 27, 1975, pp. 64-5.
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 title indicates, a sense of transformation (which takes the form of a linear narrative). In "Allal" a boy with nothing else makes a friend of a snake and they exchange bodies; "Mejdoub" details the life of an idler who poses as a sidi, a holy beggar, and is trapped in that role; the paths of several lives are determined by customs followed and broken in "Reminders of Bouselham." The title story is no more than a sequence of observations about mystic phenomena, rituals still present in the culture. The course of Bowles' characters' lives, transformations notwithstanding, is markedly flat, owing to the fatalism he uncovers repeatedly….
Authors reveal themselves as well. Such an attitude seems to flaw many of the stories in this book—they move by, it scarcely matters, only the Sahara remains. After the first two—"Allal" and "Mejdoub"—it was a dry walk home.
Michael Pettit, "Books in Brief: 'Things Gone and Things Still Here'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1978 by Hollins College), Vol. XV, No. 2, April, 1978, p. 18.
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 her mother's lover, she "uttered the greatest scream of her life"—pure sound, bestial and liberating.
Too much has been made, perhaps, of the dream-like brutality of Bowles's imagination, which evokes a horror far more persuasive than anything in Poe; or in Gide (whom Bowles peripherally resembles). But the stories, like fairytales, tend to dissolve into their elements because so little that is human in a psychological sense is given. The reader is usually outside Bowles's characters…. (p. 9)
[Stories] in which nothing explicitly violent happens, stories that would probably not offend the average genteel reader … create an unnerving suspense by virtue of Bowles's masterly craft. He has learned from Hemingway as well as from that other 20th-century master of short fiction, D. H. Lawrence; even his descriptions are wonderfully dramatic. Nothing is extraneous, nothing is wasted. If one wants, at times, more humanity—more "consciousness"—surely this is a naïve prejudice, a wish that art always and forevermore affirm our human vantage point, as if the brute implacable otherness of the natural world were no more threatening than a painted backdrop for an adventure film.
Though Bowles's marvelous landscapes call to mind Lawrence, it is misleading to read Bowles in the light of Lawrence. Even in Lawrence's coldest, most "legendary" tales, where landscape overcomes humanity …, one confronts and, to some extent, enters into the lives of recognizable human beings whose personalities are always convincing; and this is not true in Bowles. Lawrence's people are like us, Bowles's people tend to be our very distant kin, shadowy and remote, unclaimable. One cannot imagine Bowles creating a Constance Chatterley or a Mellors, trembling with apprehension of each other, or a Gerald (of "Women in Love"), so susceptible to erotic passion that he chooses death rather than a life without the woman he desires. "Desire" in Bowles's fiction—"Under the Sky," for instance, where a Mexican peasant rapes an American woman—is no more articulated than the emotion of the deranged professor of linguistics. Bowles does not write about sexual love, like many contemporary writers, in order to challenge its mythology; he does not write about it at all. His interests lie elsewhere.
[This] collection, a companion to "The Thicket of Spring" (1972), which brought together four decades of Bowles's poetry, should strengthen the author's somewhat amorphous position in our literature. Like Bowles's novels, the best of these stories are beautifully fashioned, and as bleakly unconsoling as the immense deserts about which he writes with such power. They have a way of lingering in the memory for decades—disturbing, vexing, like a partly-recalled dream. The reader is advised to approach them with caution, however, limiting himself to one or two at a sitting, beginning perhaps with the wonderful "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté." For these are stories set in an epoch "before God was love," and beside them most acclaimed fiction of our time—brightly and nervously ironic, or dutifully attuned to the latest "moral" problems—seems merely shallow. (pp. 9, 29)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Bleak Craft," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1979, pp. 9, 29.
[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 cultural or geographical categories against which we usually measure people, places, actions. Unable to locate the events simply within behavioral conventions, we become newly attentive to the relationships of characters and the landscapes they inhabit. We begin to discover the disturbing beauty of intractable lands where chilling nights are followed by furnace hot days…. (p. 495)
Within the violent landscapes we encounter the mysteries of human relationships under stress. (p. 496)
Sometimes Bowles focuses precisely on the moments of discovering the familiar unexpectedly made alien, when readers (and occasionally characters) realize that usual patterns of comprehension are impossible or inapplicable. The instances can be comic, as in the marvelously detailed predicament of "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté."… The moments of confused apprehension can be moving, too, as in the tale depicting "The Time of Friendship" of an aging European woman and a young North African—an interlude laced with the poignancy and painful ironies of half completed and nearly missed communications in a quiet setting about to be exploded by war between the French and Moslems. Most often, though, in the worlds of Bowles's fictions, the discoveries are wrenching, perhaps nowhere more so than in the terse and terrifying evocations in "A Distant Episode" of the hideous mutilation, humiliation and final reduction to madness of a linguistics professor by wild Reguibat tribesmen.
In this, as in virtually any edition of "Collected" as opposed to "Selected" works, there is unevenness…. "Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz" is little more than a predictable tale of the rite of passage of a young man's first shipping. And "How Many Midnights" is a stilted drama of broken love which takes its heroine down to the river's edge and back with unsalvageable lines like "her whole life falling to pieces before her."… But the majority of Bowles's stories are important fictions…. [The stories] are almost without exception uncompromising acts of attention to details of place and of human lives interacting. Written with exactness and great beauty, they explore in little known parts of the world complex violent instincts and actions that are finally all too familiar a part of life closer to home. (pp. 496-97)
Harry Marten, "'Collected Stories, 1939–1976'," in New England Review (copyright © 1980 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. II, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 495-97.
[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 that the self—or the outside world—is tentative, fragile, and obscure. Bowles disdains any psychological explanation (except indirectly); he offers moments of ecstasy and fright—these are oddly married—and not the causes, preconceptions, or origins of the moments.
"Allal," one of the most brilliant stories in this collection … introduces us to a youngster in North Africa. He plays alone; he works for slave wages; he enjoys little time for self-analysis. (Nor does he believe in such rationalism.) He is possessed, "primitive," dream-filled: he prefers "the sound of the wind in the trees." We are unable to understand in our "civilized," Western manner any of Allal's apparent choices. We are simply thrust into his situation.
Allal develops another pattern. He falls in love with snakes. He admires their delicate markings…. He decides—probably the wrong word!—to become a snake. He moves like one; he sleeps like one. Eventually he loses whatever human identity he had. He sheds his skin of self and achieves his unlimited "freedom." Before an axe severs his head, he has the pleasure of "pushing" his fangs into the bad men who pursue him.
Obviously, Bowles dislikes Allal's pursuers—civilized men who cannot recognize the beauty of madness. in "Pages from Cold Point" he gives us a narrator who is a complete, cynical rationalist. This hero, unlike Allal, refuses to submit his will. By writing his journal, he believes that he can control himself, the reader, and the "process of decay." He is, however, a divided personality—again the clinical words have little meaning in a Bowles story—because he loves chaos even more than the semblance of stability.
At first he devotes himself to his son, Racky, in a "normal," earnest way. But Racky is his snake—the other side. Soon it becomes impossible for father and son to act in conventional roles. They merge identities—such fluidity of reversal obsesses Bowles—and they assume mad parts in a romance.
It is, indeed, unclear whether father seduces son or vice versa. The shock, of course, is that homosexual incest occurs at Cold Point, the wonderfully named location. Here the "love" exchanged is frigid and spooky. We are chilled by the deliberate understatement of an outrageous situation. And when we read that the narrator is so insane as to believe "nothing very drastic" has happened or will happen to his island of contentment, we are even more astounded. The tonal coldness—which covers the emotional underground—is perfectly appropriate.
In both stories there is the sense of a spirit hovering over the landscape. And we are not surprised to see the spirit appear as hero in "The Circular Valley." The spirit moves in a restless way. It becomes a deer, a bee, a serpent. It overhears the love-and-struggle words of human beings. But it refuses to settle for a mere self. It is, if you will, an eternal, circular being—more powerful and beautiful and unpredictable than mankind.
I do not think that Bowles is a sensationalist in these stories—or, for that matter, in any of the others I have omitted from my discussion. He does not glory in his painstaking depiction of madness or destruction or mysticism. He believes firmly that life is unpredictably cruel—even to cruel heroes!—and that his accurate, intense art must contain the cruelty.
His style is thus stripped of prettiness. It is clear, direct, bold. (pp. 91-2)
Irving Malin, "Abrupt Mutilations," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1980 by The Ontario Review, Inc.), No. 12, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 91-3.