I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The productive climate throughout Europe from about 1900 on, was based, more or less, on the promise of a new world that industry would provide. The political movements, and ensuing wars and revolutions, served both to destroy and calcify idealism in the arts. As we approach the 21st century, we can clearly see that our hopes have been dashed; we grope blindly for a new set of ideals upon which to base a new ideology. Our links to this glorious past are quickly disappearing. All us youngsters (anyone under 50), can only dream of Paris in the ’20s, the luxury of sea travel, stately old hotels in undiscovered corners of paradise, and the efficient hush of servants. In a country where underwear is still ironed, and villages spring up overnight, Paul Bowles, one of those links to the past, has chosen to make his home. Despite television, one still has the sense of being isolated in Morocco.
Bowles was born in New York City in 1910, as an only child to a Unitarian dentist and his wife. As long as he can remember, he wanted to get away. But not run from, run to. At the age of 18, in 1929, he set off for Paris, with $25.00 left after paying his passage. He stayed one year in Paris where he worked for the Herald Tribune and cultivated a friendship with Tristan Tzara. On his return to the University of Virginia the following year, during a stint as guest editor at the University of Richmond, Bowles published Gertrude Stein’s poetry and consequently, developed a correspondence with her. He returned to Paris in 1931, went straight to Stein’s door, knocked on it, and was invited in. She decided Paul was not a good name for him, “it’s a romantic name, and you don’t look at all romantic” (which he did though, being desperately thin), so she called him “Freddie,” after his middle name. Through Gertrude, Freddie met everyone. He traveled with Stein and Alice B. Toklas (another correspondent) to their country house, where from the porch, Gertrude would yell: “Run, Freddie, run, so Basket can chase you.” Basket being her standard french poodle who chased Paul through the labyrinthian garden, jumping up from behind and clawing his thighs (Paul wearing only lederhosen), while Gertrude yelled: “Faster, Freddie, faster.”
Paul was composing music and writing poetry. It was through Henry Cowell that he met and studied with Aaron Copland (and later with Nadia Boulanger). With Copland, on Stein’s insistence, Bowles went to, and fell in love with, Tangier. Music, being his source of income, forced Bowles back to New York, where he wrote scores for the theater, beginning with Orson Welles, and going on to work with William Soroyan, Philip Barry, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams. In 1937, he met Jane Auer, who he married one year later. They lived together in W. H. Auden’s rooming house for artists, in Gypsy Rose Lee’s old rooms. It was through Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies, that Paul Bowles’s desire to write fiction was kindled. During the next two decades, Paul (with or without Jane) traveled compulsively throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America. He eventually settled in Tangier, where he lives a somewhat Spartan existence. His home is dark and lined with books. The canaries chirp endlessly. Visitors come and go unannounced, as Bowles refuses to have a telephone.
Paul Bowles’s novels include: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider’s House, andUp Above the World; volumes of short stories: The Delicate Prey, The Time of Friendship,Things Gone and Things Still Here, and Midnight Mass; travel books: Yallah! and Their Heads Are Green; an autobiography, Without Stopping; translations: the stories of Isabelle Eberhardt (published under the title: The Oblivion Seekers), and many Moroccan tales translated from the Moghrebi dialect, most notably, those of Mohammed Mrabet. He is the founder and co-editor of Anteus magazine. His books have been published by Random House, Simon & Schuster, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Putnam, and New Directions. They are currently available in editions by City Lights, Echo Press, Black Sparrow Press (in the US), Peter Owen (in the UK), and have been translated in a dozen languages.
His writing in general has something eerie about it; wandering characters, detached, often subjected to deception and violence … aimless. Almost black fairy tales. Bowles claims the violence stems from the belief that our civilization is predicated upon violence, that at any minute, we can all disappear in a nuclear holocaust. One could call his work a race against time in slow motion.
This interview took place during one of many unannounced afternoon visits.
David Seidner You said you could only write music in New York, and that you always did it for the purpose of making money, that you had no desire to write music here in Morocco …
Paul Bowles Well I have written music here in Morocco, of course, quite a bit. It doesn’t really matter as long as I have a piano and I have had a piano on several occasions here. But in New York I was writing functional music and making my living doing it, which is something else. I also wrote serious music.
DS Do you think you could write novels in New York?
PB I don’t know, I’ve never tried. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to say. I’ve written many short stories in New York. Probably if I had a regulated life in New York, I could work on a novel, but it would have to be a quiet house, with good food, etc … .
DS You don’t like noise?
PB Oh no, no. It bothers me very much.
DS Have you ever crossed the Atlantic by air?
PB Never, no.
DS Even when you went to the States last, in ’68, you went by sea?
PB Sure. I went on the Leonardo da Vinci, and came back in ’69 on the Raffaelo. You can’t go wrong on an Italian liner out of the Mediterranean. Very good ships. Marvelous food, wonderful accommodations … in first class. I don’t know about the other accommodations, but mine were very good.
DS You always travel first class by ship?
PB Generally, yes … No, I’ve gone many times by freighter.
DS What year did you first go to Ceylon?
PB In ’49.
DS And you owned an island there?
PB Well I didn’t own it then, I bought it later, in ’53. I was in Madrid, when I got a cable from “Sri Lanka,” saying that the island could be bought, giving me the price, and I immediately cabled New York and bought it.
DS How much was it?
PB It was very cheap, a little over five thousand dollars, I think, with the house and all. (laughter) I think that was it, it might have been ten. Anyway it was extremely low, a fluke. It belonged to a rubber planter who lived up country in Sri Lanka, who also bred race horses and bet on them very heavily and of course the inevitable happened, he lost, and one of his assets was this little island, which he bought as a pleasure dome, you know …
DS How did you first hear about it?
PB Through David Herbert. I was staying at Wilton and David had this pile of scrap books, photo albums really, not scrap books, and one album was almost completely devoted to this marvelous looking place called Taprobane, and I said “Oh, I’d love to see that,” and he said “Oh, it’s heavenly, just marvelous,” and of course it was. He had been there with Lord and Lady Mountbatten and took pictures of them all … beaming … (laughter)
DS Did you always feel a need to isolate yourself in somewhat paradisiac corners of the world in order to produce, to write?
PB Well, no. One doesn’t know about those corners until one’s visited them. Certainly in the beginning I didn’t suspect they existed, but once I had seen them, I wanted to be in them, surely.
DS And when you came to Morocco, you decided you were going to live here?
PB No, no … I first came in ’31. I never had any ideas about the distant future. It was a desire to come back here after the war, in ’47, that I returned.
DS Was it with the idea though that you would continue wandering as you had in the past?
PB Without any ideas. I never had any ideas at all about what I was going to do. Because it was generally decided for me by the amount of money at my disposal.
DS According to the music that you wrote?
PB At that time according to the music, before that according to small inheritances, and what I was able to get, you know. (laughter)
DS Did you begin to have recognition as a composer in conjunction with Tennessee Williams’s play, or was it before?
PB Before. I didn’t do anything with Tennessee until eight years after I did the first show. I started working with Orson Welles, and that was long before Tennessee.
DS In the ’40s?
PB In the ’30s. ’36.
DS What kind of projects were they?
PB Oh, it was called Project 891. It was marvelous. Orson was the czar, he did everything, and at that time he also had a program in Chicago for some reason, every Sunday night, for Bond Bread, for which he was quite well paid. There was no money at all in ’36, you know. And with the money he made from Bond Bread, he kept his project going, even though it it was subsidized by the government, as part of the Federal Theater, But he’d made it so much better than it could have been without the extra money.
DS They were projects that he wrote?
PB Well, yes and no. The first was a project that he and Edwin Denby wrote together. It was a translation actually, of LaBiche’s Chapeau de Paille d’Italie the one that Cavalcanti made a film of earlier. A marvelous, terribly funny piece. Horse Eats Hat, it was called. Joseph Cotton was the lead with Arlene Francis playing the hat girl, the modiste, and Orson playing the father-in-law. It was marvelous!
DS What theater was it performed in?
PB Maxine Elliott.
DS And how many projects did you do after that?
PB Then I did the next one with him which was Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. That was incredible too, beautiful! He did all his magic tricks, and the entire front of the theater was simply black velvet, all the way up, and the lighting! … fantastic. He did costumes, sets, everything. He knew exactly what he wanted. A genius. He made us all feel inferior, not intentionally, but he had so much energy! He could go on and on and on, all night at times, while everyone was thoroughly exhausted.
DS How did you two originally meet?
PB Well, we met … I remember the night we met, but I don’t remember who introduced us. I don’t think anyone did. He was living on 14th Street in a basement, near Union Square. He was married to Virginia, and I was taken down there, but I can’t remember by whom. It might have been either John Houseman or Virgil Thomson, I’m not sure. Anyhow, I was taken down there and I met this, you know, roly-poly youth (inflating his cheeks); he was only 19! I think. Very young. He had already done a very successful negro Macbeth in Harlem, which everyone raved about. It had voodoo in it … just incredible. I remember going to see it before I met him.
DS In ’35?
PB It must have been.
DS Paid for by Bond Bread?
PB Very likely. I’ve got it all in the other room, the book on the Federal Theater. Have you seen it?, it’s interesting.
DS And were you well paid as a composer?
PB No, nobody was well paid. Everyone got the same salary $23.86.
DS Twenty-three dollars and eighty-six cents per week?
PB Per week. Everyone got the same. John Houseman got the same, Virgil Thomson got the same, Orson got the same. (laughter) It was, uh, democracy.
DS And what year did you first start working with Tennessee Williams?
PB Tennessee … I think it was the winter of ’43–44. He came to me with a script called The Glass Menagerie, and left it with me. That was in New York. But we met in Acapulco. Lawrence Langner of the Theater Guild had given him my address there, and he just arrived. I didn’t know who he was. I opened the door and saw this young man wearing a huge floppy-brimmed hat and he said (imitating a southern drawl): “I’m Tennesseeeee Williammmmms, and Lawrence Langneh’ told me te look u up … ” (laughter) We went off to the beach that day and simply left him in the house. He chooses to forget that, I noticed in his memoirs. He says we were living in a Pensione somewhere; far from the fact. And he lay in the hammock all day drinking rum and coke, which the servants brought him, and we came back from the beach about 5:00 and he was still there, surrounded by parrots and guacamayos. But he was very nice, really. He said the Guild was doing a show of his … what was it called … ? Battle of Angels, with Miriam Hopkins. But it never came in. It died at the Plymouth in Boston, I don’t know why. He redid it though; I think he called it Orpheus Descending the second time.
DS And later you worked together writing, for Senso, no?
PB Well, we didn’t exactly work together. I was here and I got a telegram from Tennessee asking me to come to Rome. He’d been asked to do the dialogue, adapting that is, from Bonn’s novel, but he was too busy doing something else, so I went and worked with Visconti everyday for two months. But he wasn’t happy with the love scenes, and I couldn’t rewrite them, so Tennessee did, and I went off to Istanbul to write an article for Holiday. It was in ’53 … and I remember Visconti’s sister taking her private plane to Stalin’s funeral.
DS So it was a whole family of arm-chair communists.
DS Why do you hate Wagner?
PB First of all, I don’t like the sound it makes. (laughter) Most of Wagner’s vocal … I don’t like vocal music. I don’t like Heldentenors, I don’t like coloratura soprano, I don’t like any voices at all, really. (more laughter) It’s all these things put together, plus the insanity of the decor and costumes. Naturally it’s something to see, yes, but it’s certainly nothing to go to for pleasure.
DS Many people do though.
PB I know, I realize that, but it doesn’t give me any pleasure. I don’t like the heavy sound of the music. That goes for practically all 19th-century German music, as far as I’m concerned, including Beethoven.
DS Do you have a favorite composer?
PB Yes, Bach, if I had to choose one. It seems a mad thing to do. Favorite is a bad word. I love Stravinsky, and Satie.
DS Is any of your own music available on records?
PB Well it was, not any more though. Peggy Guggenheim produced it and sold the albums at “Art of this Century.” She was a very good friend, we saw a great deal of each other. We met when she came to New York at the beginning of the war and married Max Ernst, around 1940. They were living on Beckman Place. And then I went to visit her in Venice, and she came to visit me in Sri Lanka. She said she had come to Asia not to visit me, but to meet a Maharaja in India, and buy some dogs, Lhasa Apsos, in Tibet. She came alone and I went to fetch her in a Bullock cart, purposefully. It was a very primitive way of traveling in Ceylon. It only had two wheels, and it bumped over every cobblestone. Peggy adored it! She kept crying: “Ah! It’s heaven! Ah … love it!” and my teeth were being shaken out of my head. And then another time, the three of us (with Jane Bowles) stayed together one summer on what Peggy called the “non-Jewish lake.” In Connecticut, near the New York border. I’ve forgotten what it was called, you know, some unheard of little place. But they didn’t want any Jews.
DS Strictly WASP.
PB Strictly! So she got the idea of getting me to sign the rental contracts and so on, and pay out the money. I had to go down to Wall Street I remember, and this awful, you know, heavy man with glasses looking very formidable, went out of his way to tell me: “You know we don’t let any Jews in, that’s one of the reasons it’s expensive. There’s not a Jew within five miles!”
DS It sounds like Auntie Mame.
PB I don’t know, it sounds like Germany to me, I mean Hitler’s Germany. So I said: “Yes, I see, ah hah,” and signed it all. And I had to smuggle Peggy in as Mrs. Bowles. (laughter)
DS Jane Auer and Peggy Guggenheim around the non-Jewish lake!
PB We laughed a lot. Next door to us, was let’s see, Sybille Bedford, and Kay Boyle’s children by Lawrence Vail, but not Peggy’s children by Lawrence Vail. Not in the house that Peggy took, but the reason she wanted to go to this lake was that on the property next door where Sybille Bedford and Jean Connolly, Cyril Connolly’s first wife, were staying, Lawrence Vail was staying there too.
DS And you never kept a diary?
PB No, never.
DS Do you think the fact that you never kept a diary has anything to do with your claim that your ego is practically non-existent?
PB Possibly, could be. But I don’t see the connection.
DS Oh because often people who keep diaries feel that they’re living something important, even historical; they have very high estimations of themselves.
PB I see. Well I had a high estimation of what I was living, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with anything historical. I was living in the present, there was no need to put anything down.
DS You felt you were a man of your own time?
PB Well how can one be anything else?
DS Because you said once that you felt you were never of “today,” that your whole life you never really felt of today, and that you never understood what it meant.
PB I must have been speaking from a social point of view.
DS Do you feel akin to any particular era more than another?
PB No. No. Not that I can think of. I imagine all eras have had their horrors. Things get worse as we progress, obviously. The horrors today are greater than they were in the 19th century, and the 19th was worse than the 18th. For many reasons. Population and the spread of democratic deals. I don’t mean to sound undemocratic, that’s not what I mean. But the misapprehension and misapplication of democratic ideals.
DS Do you see yourself as being a pessimist at all? Negative?
PB Not really, no.
DS I ask because the characters in your stories very often seem detached, aimless, even lost. Negative in so much as, broken, in terms of spirit.
PB Well, perhaps what you’re referring to is a lack of volition. That could be. Because most of my characters are guilty of compulsive behavior.
DS Is that autobiographical?
PB No. No. I mean one writes what one writes, one doesn’t decide what to write, one writes what comes out. Whatever one writes is in a sense autobiographical, of course. Not factually so, but poetically so.
DS So you don’t research your novels?
PB No, never. They’re completely intuitive. Formed organically. They just come.
DS Do you consider yourself a romantic?
PB What else can one be? I’m certainly not a classicist.
DS Conrad for example, who you admire, you criticize in his early work as being too sentimental. Is there one thing that constitutes sentimentality for you besides something overworked?
PB Well, sentimentality comes after all when the emotion expressed is not really related to the emotion which should be felt at the moment.
DS How do you feel about your poetry?
PB I’m a little ashamed of it.
DS Of all of it, even the poems published by Black Sparrow?
PB Well, I went through them. You see, they sent me a great big sheaf of stuff they had got together out of many many magazines from the ’20s and ’30s where I published. Because I sent it out like mad, cause I wrote it like mad. I typed it as fast as I could without any thought at all. And another sheet, and another …
DS That for you was surrealist poetry?
PB Right. (laughter) I didn’t know what I was typing.
DS That was according to Breton’s instructions?
PB I never met Breton.
DS But you said you read that book of his that told you how to do it.
PB Oh, yeah (laughter) … yes. What I read of Breton only emphasized what my mother taught me as a child, to exist with a completely empty mind, not think of anything. She thought it was good for the mind, relaxing you know. To banish all ideas, not let anything come within your field of vision as it were. It’s very difficult of course, you always think of something, you’re likely to.
DS It’s very Hindu, actually. Maybe that’s where your non-existent ego comes from.
PB No, I don’t think so. How can one attribute it to anything. It’s like having blue eyes or brown eyes. You attribute it to your genes I suppose. And besides, I may have a great deal of ego and not know it. Isn’t that possible? Unless egoless is the man who thinks he’s egoless, I don’t know. I hope, I hope at least; I wouldn’t want to have an ego.
DS Yes artists in general have enormous egos.
PB I can only speak for myself.
DS Was it Gertrude Stein that introduced you to Cocteau?
PB No, I was taken there by another friend. He lived on the Rue Vignon, I remember, behind the Madeleine. He put on a great act and I was very much impressed by him. All that I remember I wrote in my book, more or less. When I went back to see him another time, Jean Desbordes answered the door, and said: “M. Cocteau est au fond de son lit, je regrette.” When I told my friend who had taken me there what Jean had said, he said: “Oh, he was just smoking opium.”
DS Who else did you meet in those days? Did you know Gide at all?
PB Well I met him, yes, but I never knew him, no. I met a lot of people, you know, “how do you do?” I spent a lot of time with Carlos Suares, an Egyptian banker who supported Krishnamurti. I met him in Holland where Krishnamurti had that castle. And of course I saw a lot of Stein, and Virgil Thomson was a great friend. He used to say that all French perfumes could be divided into three categories: flower, underarm, and urine. (laughter)
DS And you regularly went back to New York, no?
PB Well, initially I went back because I didn’t want to stay on any longer, working at theTribune and earning so little money. I had a chance to go back before I was completely broke, so I did, naturally. And I wanted to finish the year at the University of Virginia.
DS Do you have a diploma?
PB No. I have no diplomas, from anywhere.
DS And when you went back to Paris in ’31, how long did you stay?
PB Then I stayed from March until the summer, summer of ’31 I came to Morocco, the winter I was back in Paris, then the spring of ’32 I was in Spain, came back to Morocco, stayed here and caught typhoid, went back to Paris and was there to have typhoid, at the American Hospital, then I went to the Alps, my mother came over, and we spent the summer in Monte Carlo, then we went to Spain, and Majorca too, then I took her back to Paris, and she went to New York, then I went back to Monte Carlo.
DS Why Monte Carlo?
PB Because I had a friend there with whom I could stay without paying any rent, that simple. And I had a very good grand piano to play on, with no strings attached. Also I had food, everything.
DS Where does Berlin fit in?
PB Oh yes, I was there in ’31 also, with Aaron Copland.
DS Where did you meet?
PB I met Aaron in New York in 1930. Yes, must have been, beginning of ’30, yes. Because in the summer of ’30, he was in Yaddo, an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, and I went there then. He was writing the Piano Variations, I remember. And then I studied with him that winter until I left for Paris, and I stayed in Paris only a month I guess until Aaron arrived, and then we went together to Berlin. He had an apartment there that had belonged to a poet called Alfred Kreymborg, and I found a place to live and it was fine.
DS And that’s where you met Isherwood who named Sally Bowles after you?
PB That’s right. And I had the letters to Isherwood and Spender from Edward Roditi. And he also is the one who put me in touch with Carlos Suares.
DS Oh you mean letters of introduction?
PB I had letters of introduction, yes. Oh Roditi’s a great one for writing them, always was.
DS Have you kept all your letters?
PB No, I had to sell everything when Janie was sick.
DS The letters from Gertrude Stein too?
PB Yes, beautiful letters. I had a beautiful one from Cocteau too that I had pasted on the inside of Opium. I had written to ask his permission to use a collection of his poems called Memnonfor a song-cycle I had written. He wrote back: “Imaginez moi refusant un tel honneur!” It’s somewhere in Texas now.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee