An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles
Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes From the Non-Christian World
A Distant Episode
“For the American academic, Paul Bowles is still odd man out; he writes as if Moby-Dick had never been written.” Melville apart, Gore Vidal’s remark a decade ago remains true today. The laureate of loneliness and dislocation, of damaged psyches, of lives out of control or slipping through the net, is very different from the present-day practitioners of the literature of delinquency to which Bowles opened the doors, or floodgates, forty years ago. At the same time, an “American academic” biography has appeared, nearly all of the books have been reprinted, and a film of the best-selling novel The Sheltering Sky has been announced. Despite the kicking and screaming author, the mantle, or djellaba, of canonization as a comfy classic of American literature is in the making.
Sawyer-Lauçanno’s life of the uncategorizable artist and social outsider appears less than a year after Bowles published sections of his diary disavowing it. (“Twice or three times a year [L.] arrives from Boston, where he’s busy writing that biography which I rejected before he started.”)1 The book provides more facts than Bowles’s autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), but the same incidents are more skillfully told in the latter. To these two versions must be added the newly published “autobiography” of Mohammed Mrabet,2 the central figure in Bowles’s life for the last quarter of a century, whose tales in Moghrebi Arabic (a spoken tongue), Bowles has been translating since the late Sixties. Here Mrabet reveals above all a propensity to personal violence and a taste for exhibitions of homosexual sadism; Bowles and his wife appear in the latter part of the book.
The descendant of old New England families, Paul Bowles was born in Queens in 1910. A precocious, exceptionally intelligent only child, by the age of nine he was writing poems and stories and at the same time receiving lessons in piano and music theory. Bullied by his dentist father, the boy retreated into himself. Indeed, his whole life can be explained as an épater-le-bourgeoisie rebellion against the values and mores of his parent, and the fatherland he represented. Paul’s abandonment of college and escape to Paris at age seventeen fit this description, as do other gestures of revolt such as his marriage to the flamboyantly lesbian writer Jane Auer, his decision to live in Tangier, his strong opposition to Christianity, and his use and advocacy of drugs: he was ether-sniffing already in his first semester at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Bowles is the last of the “Lost” Generation and the first of the “Beats,” the peer of many of the former, a better artist than any of the latter.
Sawyer-Lauçanno helps to relate the life to the work and events in the fiction to their real-life sources, and he provides useful summaries and critical cribs of Bowles’s four novels. The reader’s obstacles are not here but in the more than half of the book devoted to Bowles’s career as a musician. His music is virtually unknown, and, except for a few recorded piano pieces and a recent release of eleven songs,3 unavailable. Since most of it consists of incidental scores for some twenty-two plays, an appreciation of it is likely to remain next to impossible. If concert suites could be stitched together from his theater-music fragments—185 of them in separate cues for the 1942 Theater Guild production of Twelfth Night—Bowles would doubtless have done so himself.
Sawyer-Lauçanno does not venture to compare Bowles’s strikingly different musical and literary personalities; and since the wry, light-hearted side of his music corresponds to nothing in the morbid world of his fiction, we are left with two apparently unrelated faces rather than a composite visage. Nor does the biographer examine the music close up, telling us instead, unhelpfully, that one of Bowles’s film scores came through “in a finely tuned manner,” and quoting the impressionistic verbiage of reviewers. A New York Times drama critic wrote that Bowles had contributed “spidery and tinkling music of exquisite texture” to Sweet Bird of Youth, and another New York newspaper reported that the score of the opera based on Lorca’s Yerma sounded “haunting,…mystical [and] modern.” Whether or not traditional operatic forms were employed is not vouchsafed, nor is there any discussion of the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, vocal, and orchestral language.
Bowles’s growth as a musician is fully, orally and archivally, chronicled. The teenage composer showed his music to Henry Cowell, who passed him on to Aaron Copland for lessons in composition. At nineteen, Bowles accompanied Copland to Berlin, Paris, and Morocco. The last was love at first sight for Bowles (not for Copland), a love that was consummated in 1947, when Bowles settled there for good, becoming more writer than composer.
Sawyer-Lauçanno’s picture of New York musical life between the late 1930s and the early 1950s tells us more about promotional finagling than about prevailing currents in musical philosophy. Bowles’s progress is charted from opus to opus until, in the mid-1930s, he was launched as a film, ballet, and theater composer. In a review of his incidental music for the 1937 Orson Welles Mercury Theater production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Virgil Thomson welcomed the young composer’s entry into “musical big-time.” Three years later Thomson devoted a column in the Herald Tribune to the Twelfth Night score, an unprecedented step for a music critic, given the lowly status of the genre. But when in the late Forties Bowles switched from music to writing, Thomson’s comment, according to Sawyer-Lauçanno, was that “Bowles’ lack of formal musical education began to hinder his ability to create the more serious classical compositions expected of a composer in middle age”:
Anybody without a musical education copies what’s around, and Paul’s music was always sweet and charming but the most advanced thing he knew or could handle was Ravel.
Yet with the possible exception of the two female voices at the beginning of A Picnic Cantata (1953, set to a poem by James Schuyler) superficially suggesting L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Bowles’s music is remote from Ravel’s, while, in the treatment of the voice and the word-setting in cadences of quotidian speech, close to Thomson’s own. The most conspicuous influence in Bowles’s earliest music is Satie, and, after him, neither Thomson nor Copland, but George Antheil, the composer of Ballet mécanique. What can safely be asserted about Bowles as a composer is that the songs and other music with words are more successful than such “abstract”—his word—instrumental pieces as the Concerto and Sonata for Two Pianos, commissioned and first performed by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold.
Bowles, the born exile (“I’m always happy leaving the United States”), attributes his change of professions to an aversion to New York. “I couldn’t make a living as a composer without remaining all the time in New York. I was very much fed up with being in New York.” But if his musical drive had been stronger, surely even “the city” would have been bearable. His friend Ned Rorem points out that the “writing brought him far more accolades” than the music, and Thomson, not seeing that the composer of promise might also be a writer of high accomplishment, said that money was the deciding factor. Yet while the biography shows the young Bowles to be an opportunist in various minor ways, he could not have been one in having seriously committed his talents once he realized that his natural gifts and temperament were more effective in literature than in music. In a 1952 interview in The New York Times Bowles explained that “there were a great many things I wanted to say that were too precise to express in musical terms.” This is revealing, for the hundred-percent composer would start at the opposite end, with Mendelssohn’s “What music says cannot be expressed in words because music is too precise.”
The essays, “The Rif, to Music” and “The Route to Tassemsit,” in the collection of travel essays Their Heads Are Green And Their Hands Are Blue, describe portions of Bowles’s 25,000 miles of Moroccan travel in 1959 on a Rockefeller Foundation grant to record indigenous music for the Library of Congress. He had begun to collect recordings of Moroccan music in 1934 and, in 1956, with modern equipment, portable Ampex, earphones and microphones, to tape it. The 1959 project, a major ethnomusicological undertaking, was abetted by US Embassy support but nearly blocked by the Moroccans. “I detest all folk music and particularly ours here in Morocco,” an official in the Moroccan government told him. “It sounds like noises made by savages. Why should I help you to export a thing which we are trying to destroy?” Bowles nevertheless succeeded in gathering a precious legacy, and in 1972 the Library of Congress finally issued recordings of a (small) part of it.
Music is “the most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture,” Bowles declares at the outset of “The Rif, to Music,” and he observes that Moroccans have a “magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm.” But he does not acknowledge that, while the counter-rhythms and syncopations of South Moroccan drum music are fascinating for a time, the music as a whole lacks structure in comparison to that of the highly developed musical cultures of, for example, Bali and India. Bowles is especially struck by the Moroccans’ manner of vocalizing, by the restriction in range to three adjacent pitches, and by the use of such Berber instruments as the double-reed zamar and the low-register reed-flute qsbah. When he invited a qsbah player to record a solo, the response was a corollary to Mendelssohn: “How is anybody going to know what the qsbah is saying all by itself unless there is somebody to sing the words?” But Bowles’s remark that the music of the qsbah, “more than any other I know, most completely expresses the essence of solitude” perhaps best explains its appeal to him.
In this charming book, so “normal,” sane, and sensible, the along-the-road anecdotes (“The flies crawl on our faces trying to drink from our eyes”) are as interesting as those in Bowles’s fiction. Here, as in the fiction, this subtle intelligence (“it takes an exceedingly insensitive person today to continue being an artist”) is a no less acute recorder of sensual experience. His descriptions of scenery, sonorities (a tape of “an old-fashioned rubber-bulbed Parisian taxi horn run off at double speed”), palpations, flavors (revolting foods), and nauseating, especially excremental, odors are particularly keen—and frequently off-putting.
Bowles’s description of a civilization that is dying is central to understanding his work. He sees a world where the basic wisdom of the people has been destroyed and cannot be replaced; religion may be superstition, but the sense of the helplessness of life based on beliefs that “‘it is written’ has given way to an even more unfortunate belief that man can alter his destiny.” For
Antaeus, Autumn 1988.↩
Mohammed Mrabet, Look and Move On: An Autobiography as Told to Paul Bowles (Peter Owen, 1989).↩
American Songs: Works by Paul Bowles, Lee Hoiby, Richard Hudley, Eric Klein, John Misto and Virgil Thomson (New World, NW369), CD and LP.↩