Paul Bowles, American composer and writer and expatriate, died last month at his longtime home in Tangier, Morocco. He was 88. In his honor, a roundup of books on the wandering spirit.
"My curiosity about alien cultures was avid and obsessive," Bowles writes in his 1972 autobiography, Without Stopping (Ecco, $16). "I had a placid belief that it was good for me to live in the midst of people whose motives I did not understand; this unreasoned conviction was clearly an attempt to legitimize my curiosity."
Reissued in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles's most famous novel, Without Stopping begins at the beginning: Bowles's unlikely childhood as the only son of a Long Island dentist -- on the surface, a strange pedigree for this aesthete beloved of the Beats, this poet of existentialism, this wanderer in the desert of the spirit.
To hear Bowles tell it, his bourgeois boyhood was anything but normal. Over it hangs his father, Claude, stomping around like the warped commandant of a prison camp. For instance, there's the famous story of how Claude supposedly put his infant son on an open windowsill during a snowstorm, hoping that a chill would carry the baby off. Paul survived that attempt on his life (if it really happened -- Bowles believed it did) only to endure years of paternal antagonism. By six o'clock every evening, when Claude came home, every toy had to be stowed away; anything left out would be confiscated. No wonder that Bowles writes: "Very early I understood that I would always be kept from doing what I enjoyed and forced to do that which I did not. The Bowles family took it for granted that pleasure was destructive, whereas engaging in an unappealing activity aided in character formation."
No wonder, too, that at 18 he quit the country without telling his parents and vamoosed to Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein (she put the idea of Morocco into his head). Then it was back to New York, where he launched a composing career and met and married Jane Auer, a writer and a lesbian. They had instant and apparently lasting rapport, intellectual if not romantic; he's not forthcoming on that point, but his affection for her steals through. He credits her with getting him interested in writing, and together they traipsed through Mexico and Europe and North Africa, sharing a certain sybaritic outlook on life. One time in Mexico, he had the idea of covering their bed with gardenias: "We got them at intervals throughout the day rather than all at once, so as not to be seen lugging a great quantity of them past the reception desk. When we had what seemed a sufficient amount of the blossoms, we dumped them all onto the sheeted surface of the bed, undressed, and lay on top of them. I have a hyperactive olfactory nerve, so the experience was unforgettable." In Morocco, while he worked on The Sheltering Sky, she was writing in the next room; they'd shout questions back and forth to each other.
Ecco couldn't have known that the reissue of Without Stopping would also mark Bowles's passing. The last pages of the book have a special resonance now; though written nearly 30 years ago, they show Bowles facing the end. "The Moroccans claim that full participation in life demands the regular contemplation of death. I agree without reserve. Unfortunately I am unable to conceive of my own death without setting it in the far more terrible mise en scene of old age. There I am without teeth, unable to move, wholly dependent upon someone whom I pay to take care of me and who at any moment may go out of the room and never return. Of course this is not at all what the Moroccans mean by the contemplation of death; they would consider my imaginings a particularly contemptible form of fear. One culture's therapy is another culture's torture."
Then, referring to the Valery epigram he chose for The Sheltering Sky -- " `Goodbye,' says the dying man to the mirror they hold in front of him. `We won't be seeing each other any more' " -- Bowles writes that when he chose it "it seemed a poignant bit of fantasy. Now, because I no longer imagine myself as an onlooker at the scene, but instead as the principal protagonist, it strikes me as repugnant. To make it right, the dying man would have to add two words to his little farewell, and they are: `Thank God!' "
Pieces of Eight
Crack open Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (Penguin, $5.95) and you're in a world as extravagantly extroverted, peopled with pirates and plucky lads, as Bowles's is introverted. No fatal Sheltering Sky-style alienation here, just lots of swashbuckle, as young Jim Hawkins comes into possession of a dead pirate's treasure map and sails off aboard the Hispaniola with Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey -- and a crew of cutthroats led by the ship's cook, one-legged Long John Silver, and his parrot -- in search of fierce Capt. Flint's doubloons.
Read this boys' adventure tale on a dreary day, like the day Stevenson began it on, as he explains "My First Book," an essay appended to this edition: "On a chill . . . morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire, and the rain drumming on the window, I began the `Sea Cook,' for that was the original title. I have begun (and finished) a number of other books, but I cannot remember to have sat down to one of them with more complacency." (Stevenson goes on to confess his debts to Washington Irving and others -- "No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe.").
What ties Treasure Island to Bowles? The lure of the exotic, the anywhere-but-here. Everybody has a touch of the Jack Hawkins in them, or Jack Hawkins's negatives, Port and Kit Moresby, the devolving protagonists of The Sheltering Sky. At work on his seafaring tale, Stevenson discovered, to his delight, that it enthralled not only his stepson but his father, many years removed from boyhood: "My father caught fire at once with all the romance and childishness of his original nature. His own stories, that every night of his life he put himself to sleep with, dealt perpetually with ships, roadside inns, robbers, old sailors, and commercial travellers before the era of steam. He never finished one of these romances: the lucky man did not require to! But in `Treasure Island' he recognized something kindred to his own imagination; it was his kind of picturesque; and he not only heard with delight the daily chapter, but set himself actively to collaborate."
Penguin has also come out with Stevenson's travelogue In the South Seas ($13.95), a record of several island excursions. (Never robust, the Scottish-born Stevenson preferred warmer climes; he and his wife made a home for themselves in Samoa, where he died in 1894.) More curiosity than tour de force, In the South Seas has its pleasures (and its embarrassments -- times have changed), but I'd stick with Treasure Island. Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Not exactly a swashbuckler, Peter Fleming's Brazilian Adventure (Northwestern, $16.95) takes a Bowles-style situation -- a small band of Westerners adrift in alien regions, in this case an uncharted stretch of Brazilian jungle -- and turns it upside down, shaking the comedy out of it. His opening is worthy of a Stevenson adventure tale: "It began with an advertisement in the Agony Column of The Times." Someone was mounting an expedition to Brazil to search for a lost explorer, Col. Fawcett, who'd gone looking for lost civilizations. "This is my favourite sort of advertisement," Fleming writes. "It had the right improbable ring to it." A few days later he sees an article about the expedition: "Its plans were outlined, its itinerary indicated, and the latest theories about Colonel Fawcett's fate were discussed with that almost medieval disregard for the geographical facts involved of which I was shortly to become a leading exponent." He signs up and ships out; this book, first published in 1933, is the happy and very readable result.
The King and I
What Paul Bowles would make of Jodie Foster as a 19th-century English governess and Chow Yun-Fat as the King of Siam in "The King and I" is beyond me. He might have found a grudging respect for Anna Leonowens, the real-life model for Foster's character in the forthcoming movie, though he'd hate the reforming spirit she brought to her post as governess to the children of the Thai royal court. Anna and the King of Siam (HarperPerennial, $14), Margaret Landon's account of how Leonowens got the job and what she did with it (HarperPerennial, $14), came out in the '40s and inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical; it's back in print now, thanks to the movie. (Hollywood sometimes does good things for literature.)
Landon was living in Washington, D.C., when she finished the book; married to a missionary, she'd spent a decade in Thailand and researched Leonowens's story there. Part fairy tale, part anthropology, this account -- of a plucky woman's unlikely relationship with a king and country very different from her own -- doesn't redefine any genres; at times it reads like a Victorian tale of moral uplift, brisk and not ashamed to edify. Talk about spirit, though -- Leonowens had it in spades, and Landon's not afraid to celebrate her.
Freshly out in a swank paperback edition is the granddaddy of wanderers' tales: Homer's Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin, $14.95). Packaged in a boxed set with Fagles's version of The Iliad (Penguin, $15.95), this translation got raves when it came out in hardcover. Some phrasings grate a little; would a Greek goatherd really say "Not a chance" when asked a question? And "quick change artist" sounds more Broadway than Aegean. But the meat of the story's as juicy as ever, and Fagles keeps it cooking: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course, once he had plundered/ the hallowed heights of Troy./ Many cities of man he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,/ fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home."
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.