There’s an incident described in Paul Bowles’ autobiography Without Stopping, relayed without sentiment or much elaboration, in which the author flips a coin as a method of deciding between two actions: heads he sets off for Europe as soon as possible, tails he overdoses on barbiturates. Bowles doesn’t recall having had the idea to do this, only suddenly, compulsively, performing the act. “It occurred to me,” he writes, “that this meant that I was not the I I thought I was or, rather, that there was a second I in me who had suddenly assumed command.” Whichever “I” took command of Bowles’ life at such turning points was clearly drawn to games of chance, and at times to outright danger—yet perhaps this “I” had a shapr eye for the odds. Had Bowles found tails, and had he followed through with its dictates, he would have died far too young, far in advance of most of the journeys and friendships with famous and talented people that would bless his life, far in advance of becoming the celebrated composer and fiction writer so many cherish. But Bowles got heads, went to Europe and many other, much stranger places, married a woman who would also prove a marvelous, eerily like-minded writer, produced a great deal of music and wrote or translated a good number of books, and lived until the age of 88. Last 30 December he would have turned 100. So this is a belated happy birthday.
As usual I reminded myself that since nothing was real, it did not matter too much.
William Burroughs, who came to know Bowles in Tangier in the 1950s, once quipped that Bowles should have titled his autobiography Without Telling, referring to Bowles’ indefatigable reticence regarding his sexuality. But Without Stopping actually tells us a lot about this very particular, very peculiar man, especially his enduringly hazy sense of volition and sense of the fluidity of self. That troublesome “I” referred to above tells us something about the narrator of ‘You Are Not I’, an escapee from a mental institution who seems to undergo some sort of psychic transference by placing a stone in her sister’s mouth. I read Without Stopping only after reading Bowles’ more famous works, namely the novels The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down and those incredible short stories, and found it to be easily one of the most vivid and fascinating items in the canon, though to be sure, it only deepens the mysteries surrounding Bowles’ life and work. The couple traversing the Sahara in The Sheltering Sky find only death or perdition; the widower in ‘Pages From Cold Point,’ who relocates he and his son to a remote island so as to escape what he deems a doomed and grotesque civilization, finds that what’s most repulsive about the life he’s left behind has been following him all along. Nearly everything Bowles published reads like a warning to Westerners to stay home, yet Bowles, raised comfortably—if under the terror of a reportedly draconian father—in the Eastern US, cultivated a legacy as the quintessential expatriate, always seeking roads less traveled and living out much of his life in North Africa. He couldn’t bear staying home. Thing is, however terrifying or fraught Bowles made traveling sound, something in his stories remained seductive. He certainly made me want to go everywhere.
“You don’t take a honeymoon alone,” he interrupted.
“You might.” She laughed shortly.
—‘Call at Corazón’
It’s easy to emphasize Paul Bowles’ weirdness—we’re talking about a guy who took an extraordinarily long time to differentiate between the sexes as a boy, and one who happily married a woman despite the fact that both he and Jane Bowles seemed primarily if not exclusively homosexual. But I think Bowles’ manner of grappling with ambivalence in both his personal life and his fiction is what resonates so intensely with readers. Those characters who most resemble Bowles seem perpetually torn between companionship and solitude. In an especially memorable chapter of The Sheltering Sky Port returns at night to a desolate, beautiful place he’d visited earlier in the day with Kit. By returning alone and in secret he seems to be correcting the earlier, shared, and somehow flawed experience of the place. Yet Port isn’t tempted to abandon Kit—he wants to keep sharing things with her, even at risk of spoiling some of them. Perhaps this tension is itself desirable. Perhaps, for all its detached, quietly unnerving qualities, The Sheltering Sky is simply an accurate portrait of marriage. It is, in any case, as good a place as any to discover Bowles if you’ve never read him. That or The Delicate Prey and Other Stories.