ON THE VERY LAST page of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein mentions, in passing, a boyish new arrival paying court amid the Picassos on the rue de Fleurus -- "a young man who first made Gertrude Stein's acquaintance by writing engaging letters from America." His name: Paul Bowles, then a very young composer and writer. Legend has it that Gertrude Stein advised this ephebe to, first, lay off writing surrealist poetry, and, second, go to Morocco -- specifically, Tangier. Bowles promptly did both.
That remarkably obedient youngster is now 68-years old and still in Tangier, the very last in the grand line of American expatriates. (Given the new realities in currency balances, the line seems unlikely to be renewed). Here are his Collected Stories -- after all these years, a thick book. Stein's advice about Tangier proved fruitful: The implication was that a good expatriate should pick some specific place as his own, just as she, presumably, herself had picked that rather more luscious plum, Paris.
After World War II, Bowles and his wife, the late Jane Bowles (whose Collected Works appeared in an expanded edition last year, published by Ecco Press) set up permanently in Tangier -- that sun-whitened first step, across the Strait of Gibraltar, into the exotic, oriental Beyond. There, the Bowleses worked. (Interestingly, he had only composed music until Stein's death; then the stories resumed.) There, they were masters of the cultural revels. There -- since eventually everybody passes through Tangier -- they knew Everybody.
The stories, themselves legendary, are all here. The chilly, shiny, slightly spooky "Pages from Cold Point"; Bowles two desert nightmares of castration, "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode"; the moving, singular, "A Time of Friendship."
Bowles is an artist of landscape; Stein was right to advise him to find a place. His characters at times are vague; his landscapes vivid, to the last rock, puddle, bush. Whether set in Morocco, Mexico or the New York subway, the Bowles scene is invariably ominous with secret terrors. Familiar comforts are delusions. Awful things are going to happen: I can think of no other writer who induces that impression so often, so convincingly. Even in such relatively genteel pages as those of "The Echo," hairline cracks are everywhere in the smooth surface of decency, sanity, reasonableness. A pleasant American college girl waits for her nice American mother. But the place is an unnameable Mexican dive; the mother, for some reason, is not there. Mute Indians stare at her, knowing but not telling. The girl slips, falls.
And so the essential Bowles format consists of a westerner -- i.e., a rationalist, therefore a naif -- disoriented in some seductive, alien Elsewhere. In a way, it is yet another version of the familiar romantic obsession with the mysterious East, and one can't help thinking of recent attacks on that fantasy -- notably Edward Said's Orientalism. But this is a hard romanticism. The stories are wonderfully crafted; yet, despite their elegant order, one senses a contempt for all appearance of order.One even senses -- 20 years before Main Street's head shops mimicked Tangier -- a certain pre-'60s taste for mind=blowing. One character speaks of "that unpardonable mechanism, the intellect." It is all here -- the Casbah, the kif dens, the mazes of slums, the hurt, lurking, imperialized Arab boys. Bowles has lived this murky Western dream, brought his formidable artistic intelligence to it. Its paradoxes and possibilities find expression here.
Terror can be a kind of ecstasy. Except for William Burroughs -- Bowles' friend and admirer -- I know no modern writer who can produce quite Bowles' impression of an almost charnel horror of the flesh. There are agonies, there are mutilations. Bowles' stories are more polished, more "conventional" that Burroughs' wild dissociations, but at moments his pages are almost too much to bear. Even reading through his more benign moments, I have rarely felt so often the classic shiver of anticipation at the thought of plain mortality. The mind holds still. No matter what, it -- It -- will come. Later. Sooner.Maybe even now.
"I refuse to die this way," thinks the Professor in "A Distant Episode" -- the western rationalist, who has been "waiting for a sense of reality to come to him" -- just before nomad abductors cut out his tongue. His wish is granted: the Professor lives, enslaved as a gibbering performing clown -- shades of The Blue Angel -- in the desert. Years later he rebels, and runs, squealing and leaping, across the sand, dodging the potshots of his pursuers. "Tiens ," thinks a French soldier, watching this comic flight from a distance, "a holy maniac."
Complicated, unexpected violence, awful forebodings, horrific ecstasies -- these are the hallmarks of the high stylist of Tangier. But the summary misleads: There is also, wit, certainly charm, even a touch of low comedy at times. Perhaps the best story in the collection -- I liked it best -- moves on quite different principles of perception and intelligence. "A Time of Friendship" portrays the relation of an elderly German spinster and an Arab child named Slimane, passing through nuanced changes that make it a near-perfect work.
In his lucid introduction, Gore Vidal remarks that Bowles' horrific desert tales of the '40s are "unlike anything else in our literature." Well, maybe. Nowhere does Bowles strike me as a true innovator in the short story as a form. Rather, he is a classic, master craftsman: precise, incisive, knowing. Whatever his mood, light or low, there is always some strange mystery lurking in his stories, and there is never a shoddy or lazy line. The result combines the exemplary and the unspeakable in a way that cannot be found anywhere else.