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#BornThisDay: Writer / Composer, Paul Bowles

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1961., photo by Allen Ginsberg, via YouTube

 

December 30, 1910– Paul Bowles:

“I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born.”

He was one of the last surviving members of a generation of gay artists whose work shaped 20th century literature and music. In the introduction to Bowles’s Collected Stories (1979), Gore Vidal stated:

“His short stories are among the best ever written by an American: the floor to this ramshackle civilization that we have built cannot bear much longer our weight. It was Bowles’ genius to suggest the horrors which lie beneath that floor, as fragile, in its way, as the sky that shelters us from a devouring vastness.”

Bowles thought of himself first as a composer. His music is as full of light as his fiction is dark. In the early 1930s, he studied composition with gay composer Aaron Copland, with whom he had an affair, and he was also a protégé of gay composer Virgil Thomson. As a couple, Copland and Bowles travelled extensively in Europe during their love affair. They settled for a while in Paris where they hung out with Ezra PoundJean CocteauGertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Bowles nihilistic personality irritated Stein who encouraged both Bowles and Copland to travel to Tangiers. It was a journey that changed Bowles’ life:

“As a result of this arbitrary action, my life was permanently altered. If Morocco had been then as it is now, I should have spent the summer and gone away, probably not to return. But Morocco in 1931 provided an inexhaustible succession of fantastic spectacles.”

Bowles was a musical sophisticate who had a working knowledge of an enormous range of music: Film Scores, American Folk, Jazz, South American, Mexican and Moroccan music, plus many other genres. Bowles music from this period is similar to the experimental sounds of Eric Satie. He composed Operas, Ballets, Orchestral Pieces, music for choirs, and songs.

In NYC in the 1930s, Bowles became one of the most important composers of American Theater Music, producing moody instrumental pieces that enhanced plays by Tennessee Williams and other playwrights. Bowles:

“Climax-less music, hypnotic music in one of the exact senses of the word, in that it makes its effect without the spectator being made aware of it.”

Bowles was born in NYC. His father was a cold, inflexible man who was full of secrecy, characteristics that would mark Bowles’ own life and writing. As a boy, Bowles had few friends and found solace in his writing. He attended college, but academic life did not interest him and he moved to Paris in 1929, when he was just 18-years-old. After that, he would spend most of his life outside his native USA.

Vis Wikimedia Commons, public domain

 

Bowles’ literary reputation focuses on his fiction, but until he was 35-years-old, he mostly composed poetry. Bowles was gifted in a number of literary fields: Short Stories, Autobiography, Travel Writing, and translations of works from authors of the Africa and the Arabian worlds.

In 1930s Berlin, he met the gay writers Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood gave the name Sally Bowles to the main character in his story Goodbye To Berlin (the source for the musical Cabaret) as a nod to his friend.

With Copland, Bowles explored Morocco and the Sahara, Algeria and Tunisia. He was entranced by what he perceived to be the transcendental nature of North African life as well as by a society with a sort of tolerance of homosexuality.

In 1938, he had married fellow writer, Jane Auer, and in 1947, they went to live in Tangier. Jane Bowles had already published the lesbian themed Two Serious Ladies (1943), which became the inspiration for Paul to take up prose as a serious endeavor. She had explored gay relationships in both her private life and in her fiction. He was mostly gay and she was almost exclusively lesbian. They were devoted to each other.

bowles-both

Jane and Paul, from NY Public Library Archives

 

With the arrival of the Bowles, the Tangier ex-patriot community grew. American writers and artists, the literary, the louche, and the loaded came to pay their respects: William S. BurroughsAllen GinsbergTennessee WilliamsRick PeckCecil BeatonMick JaggerTruman Capote, and others, all visited and socialized with the smart, sexy Bowles. The atmosphere of Tangier, plus the experimental drug use and sexual expression, proved liberating and stimulating to the Americans. Life in Morocco was exotic and easy. Tangier was a city where anything could be had for very little money, where homosexuality was forgiven, where drug use was commonplace, and an American could enjoy a lifestyle that was decadently delicious and depraved.

Jane Bowles, given to emotional breakdowns and always on the edge of a sexual scandal, left this world in 1973, taken by a series of strokes at just 54-years-old.

After his wife’s passing, Bowles spent much of his time translating the works of talented Moroccan writers and poets. He lived alone and aloof, looked after by his trusted, loyal manservant. He continued to attract some very interesting personalities to Morocco, and in his discreet way, he gained an even bigger following. He continued to produce a steady stream of amazing work until he left this world in 1999, just weeks short of his 89th birthday. The day after he checked out for good, a full-page obituary was featured in The NY Times.

Although he had lived in Morocco for 53 years, he was buried in Lakemont, NY, next to his parents and grandparents.

Bowles lived most of his adult life in Tangier, and is much identified with the city that he loved. He became the symbolic American expatriate, and Tangier became the symbol of his expatriate status.

Bowles’ great existentialist masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky (1949), was made into a hypnotic 1990 film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich as the American artistic couple Port and Kit Moresby, stand-ins for The Bowles, and with Bowles himself making a cameo near the end of the movie.

In Paul Theroux’s terrific travel book The Pillars Of Hercules (1995), he paints a poignant picture of an old, frail Bowles, an American in an Arab city, still enjoying the illicit pleasures of boys, kif, and hashish jam in his 80s.

Photo by Birgit Stephenson, via YouTube

 

If you are interested in Bowles, and you really should be, try the documentary Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open. All of Bowles’ books are wrapped in mystery, yet are highly readable.

“If a man was not on his way anywhere… then the best thing for him to do is set back and be.”

 


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