The American writer and composer Paul Bowles-born in Queens, New York-- would be 100 years old tomorrow. In our age of instant fame, it is useful to think about an artist who was famous for not being in the limelight. In his time, the cult of personality was taking hold, and would worsen in the days of Warhol, auguring the era of the “superstar.” (Although after seeing the current show of his screen work at MoMA, Warhol managed to make a formidable art of “stardom,” as both celebration of the self and ironic take on it.) Old-fashioned, gentlemanly, and romantically pure, Paul Bowles shunned post-war American culture.
In the 1950's with the advent of television a new invention, the talk show, provided extraordinary access to the widest audience then imaginable. Bowles retreated to Tangier, Morocco-first visited in 1931 at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas-- where he lived modestly in an apartment that had the look of a spare place in Greenwich Village. In fact, when Bowles was famous as a composer of incidental music for the plays of Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman on Broadway, and wrote music reviews for the Herald Tribune under the editorship of fellow composer Virgil Thomson, he and his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, lived for a time on 10th Street, between 5th and 6th. He also shared a house in Brooklyn Heights with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee. The Chelsea Hotel was also home, for a while.“The writer doesn't exist,” Bowles, handsome as a matinee idol, famously exclaimed. What mattered is the work. His autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), was famously dubbed “Without Telling” by fellow novelist William Burroughs. A who's who of the 20th century, the book features anecdotes of friendship and collaboration with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, and Salvador Dali.
Even after this illustrious and glamorous early career as composer, Bowles became famous as a writer, perhaps following the example of his wife's most celebrated work, a novella published in 1943 called Two Serious Ladies (now available in a handsome edition, see www.sortof.com). His first novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) became a film in 1989, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Three other novels would follow: Let it Come Down (1952), The Spider's House (1955), and Up Above the World (1966). A collection of his travel writings has been reissued, Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993, (see www.sortof.com). A master of the short story, his Collected Stories 1939-1974 (Black Sparrow) remains a favorite. Readers fascinated by a westerner's take on life in a Muslim culture will do well to read such stories as “A Distant Episode,” “Pages from Cold Point,” “The Time of Friendship,” and the fable, “The Hyena.” The story, “You Are Not I” was made into a film by Sara Driver in the early 1980's. Thought lost, a print was found in Bowles's apartment and then taken to his driver's house and stored. Recently discovered and restored, the film of “You Are Not I” is a brilliant evocation of this writer's unique sensibility. In addition, Bowles' literary career includes translations of the Moroccan writers and storytellers, Larbi Layachi, Mohamed Choukri, Mohammed Mrabet, and Ahmed Yacoubi. For updates on all things Bowles including centennial celebrations, see www.paulbowles.org.