Pipe Dreams

An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles

by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 501 pp., $24.95

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes From the Non-Christian World

by Paul Bowles
Ecco, 192 pp., $8.50 (paper)

A Distant Episode

by Paul Bowles
Ecco, 352 pp., $11.95 (paper)
Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles; drawing by David Levine


“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…

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