Discussion Topics

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What do Paul Bowles’s isolated Westerners discover about themselves when confronted by alien civilizations?

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Why do Bowles’s characters travel so far from home to go to such isolated places?

Characteristically, when and how does violence make its entrance into Bowles’s tales?

How does Bowles portray the North African desert in The Sheltering Sky?

In any Bowles story or novel, does foreign travel bring about a new state of mind in his main characters? If so, what is it?

How are nomadic tribesmen portrayed in The Sheltering Sky?

Other Literary Forms

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Though he began his literary career relatively late, Paul Bowles produced a significant body of work in a variety of forms, including the novel (his most famous is The Sheltering Sky, 1949), travel essays, poetry, and an autobiography (Without Stopping, 1972). Bowles also translated the work of some Moroccan writers and published the collection Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles in 1993. Before turning to writing, Bowles won fame as a composer.


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Paul Bowles won the Rea Award in 1991, and his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, was widely acclaimed as an existential masterpiece. Esquire magazine called the creative nonfiction work Points in Time (1982) a “brilliant achievement, innovative in form.”

Other literary forms

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Paul Bowles (bohlz) is probably critically appreciated best for his short fiction, even though he is also known for his novels. Famous as a translator especially of Moroccan fiction, he translated from Arabic, French, and Spanish and wrote poetry, travel literature, and even music, to which he devoted himself during the 1930’s. His autobiography, Without Stopping, was well received when it was published in 1972.


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Paul Bowles has a unique place in American literature. As an exile, he shared with 1920’s expatriate novelist Gertrude Stein, among others, a distanced perspective on his native culture. Through his translations, he earned an international reputation as an author with a North African sensibility. His fiction reflects a world akin to that written about by existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, and indeed he has been described as America’s foremost existentialist writer, a label more likely to restrict him to a time period than to characterize his fiction accurately. Although his nihilism does appear to be somewhat overblown, it also has a modern application, reflecting as it does a dark vision of the world as contemporary as the times demand.

Bowles became a guru of sorts to the Beat generation, although Bowles’s attraction for them had as much to do with his writings about drugs as it did with his generally pessimistic philosophy. Never an author of wide appeal, he has nevertheless had a loyal following among those interested in experimental and avant-garde writing. His work reflected a steady maturation, his 1982 experimental work Points in Time receiving praise from, among others, Tobias Wolfe, who wrote that the book was a completely original performance. Perhaps in the last analysis, Paul Bowles will be best remembered for his originality, his willingness to challenge definitions and the status quo in his fiction. With every work, he tried to forge new ground.


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Caponi, Gina Dagel. Paul Bowles. New York: Twayne, 1998. Provides an excellent introduction to Bowles and his writings. After a brief chronology and biography, Caponi explores the breadth of Bowles’s canon through various critical lenses: existentialism, postcolonial literature, detective fiction, surrealism, extraordinary consciousness, travel writing, and historical fiction.

Caponi, Gina Dagel. Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Biographical and critical study of Bowles’s life and art examines the sources of his fiction, his major themes and techniques, and his methods of story composition.

Caponi, Gina Dagel, ed. Conversations with Paul Bowles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993. Collection of reprinted and previously unpublished interviews reveals Bowles’s own opinions about his life and art. Bowles often tended to give perverse responses to interview questions, but he still communicated a great deal about the relationship between himself and his work. He claimed that the man who wrote his books did not exist except in the books.

Dillon, Millicent. You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Biography traces the relationship between the author and his wife Jane Auer Bowles. Dillon reevaluates the views she expresses in her biography of Jane Bowles and provides her own speculations on Paul Bowles’s life and work.

Green, Michelle. The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Presents a lively account of the artistic and socialite sets that congregated in Tangier in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Investigates the life of Bowles and those who came to stay with him in Morocco, providing some interesting background details for readers of Bowles’s fiction. Includes photographs and index.

Hibbard, Allen. Paul Bowles: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. This introduction to Bowles’s short fiction discusses his debt to Edgar Allan Poe’s theories of formal unity and analyzes his short-story collections as carefully organized wholes. Also includes material from Bowles’s notebooks and previously published critical essays by other critics.

Lacey, R. Kevin, and Francis Poole, eds. Mirrors on the Maghrib: Critical Reflections on Paul and Jane Bowles and Other American Writers in Morocco. Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1996. Collection of critical essays on the Bowleses and the Beats explores the relationship between the concept of otherness and Morocco. Includes a number of essays by Moroccan critics, who provide a North African viewpoint on the strengths and weaknesses of Bowles’s depiction of their homeland.

Patterson, Richard. A World Outside: The Fiction of Paul Bowles. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. Comprehensive, scholarly examination of Bowles’s work provides extensive discussion of The Sheltering Sky. Includes informative endnotes and index.

Pounds, Wayne. Paul Bowles: The Inner Geography. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Serves as a good introduction to Bowles and his use of landscape. Demonstrates the connection between setting and the spiritual states of Bowles’s characters.

Sawyer-Laucanno, Christopher. An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. Very readable account of the writer’s life offers some intriguing speculation on the connections between events in Bowles’s life and the plots of his stories. Includes notes, a select bibliography that lists Bowles’s major works in literature and music, and an index.

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Critical Essays