Without Stopping: An Autobiography
The Thicket of Spring: Poems 1926-1969
Paul Bowles was in the Orson Welles-John Houseman orbit, which was discussed in the last issue, for two shows—Horse Eats Hat and Dr. Faustus—and for one play never produced, William C. Gillette’s farce Too Much Johnson—though some film-making for certain parts of that play did go on, intended for interpolation with music by Bowles. He was almost exclusively a composer during the 1930s. Earlier, in the late Twenties, he had written poetry and published in blues, transition, and other spots of the literary outfield. In the Forties he took up fiction and travel writing, through both of which he has earned money and an international public.
His autobiography is called Without Stopping. Why do they choose such shallow titles? (John Houseman’s is called Run-through, though as a life’s run-through it is short by thirty years.) Bowles’s title too I suspect of being casually selected, since his life as I know it and as it is told by him has shown no such continuity. Rather is its characteristic that of having several times changed directions.
For Bowles, though he began his life-in-art as a poet, spent a good fifteen years (more too) as a practicing composer, a critic, and a collector of folk music. The turn to travel writing was preceded by a long history of moving about in semitropical countries and of picking up languages. French, Spanish, and Arabic are those in which he is most accomplished. And in the course of his travels he picked up stories too, also acquired a knack for shaping them and for assembling others out of “found” elements, which is what most storytellers do anyway, since inventing a human character is inconceivable.
Eventually Bowles got to taping the stories told him by an Arab friend and translating these, a procedure which relates to his habitual folklore collecting. And now we see him telling his own story, as a gentleman of fifty-nine residing in Morocco, though still moving around the globe along the warmer parallels of latitude, an accomplished writer who has known everybody and been lots of places and remembers lots of stories about all those people and places.
Unfortunately these stories do not get told. Not that the experienced storyteller fails; he simply declines to tell them. He hints at their existence; that is all. So that except for an utterly charming account of his forebears and his childhood upstate near the Finger Lakes, his autobiography is a geographical décor peopled by celebrities from Krishnamurti to Gore Vidal, none of whom we ever see in close-up. And his reticence covers also himself. No friendship is declared, no love admitted. Which after all is the way Bowles has always led his life. He has been intensely loved by friends both men and women. And he has accepted their love with its attendant perquisites. Whether he ever returned it none of us has much known from services rendered, though his attentions to his wife Jane during the last …