“I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind … I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”
I feel as if some people are so inexplicably labyrinthine that it’s difficult to digest them in their entirety;
Paul Bowles was definitely one of those people.
Known as one of the most prolific writers of the late twentieth century, Paul Bowles lived in Morocco and wrote about the Maghreb region of North Africa for more than fifty years. Born to a dentist from Queens in 1910, Bowles lived a fairly privileged childhood. He grew up with all of the material comforts in the world, but his domineering father was strictly opposed to most forms of entertainment. Luckily, his mother provided much of the warmth that his father lacked. Later in life, Bowles recalled that it was his mother who fueled his inspiration to write; authors like Hawthorne and Poe were commonly devoured during their late-night reading excursions.
Bowles could read by age 3 and was writing short stories by age 4. By age 17, his poem titled “Spire Song” was accepted for publication in Transition, a Paris-based modernistic literary journal. In 1928, Bowles entered the University of Virginia, dropping out within a year; he never informed his parents of his termination and purchased a one-way ticket to Paris. Over the next two years, Bowles would work for a Paris publication, return to New York, work at a bookshop, re-enroll at the University of Virginia, drop out within in the semester, and return to Paris once more.
In December 1931, Bowles finished his first musical composition, titled the Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet, which premiered in New York at the Aeolian Hall. Bowles became a part of Gertrude Stein’s literary circle in Paris, and upon her advice, made his first visit to Tangier in the summer of 1931.
In 1937, Bowles returned to New York, establishing a reputation as a composer. In 1938, he married Jane Auer, an author and playwright. It could be argued that theirs was one of the most interesting marriages between two of the most interesting artists of that generation, seeing as how they were both homosexuals. Each of their intimate relationships were with people of their own sex, yet they remained incredibly close and maintained a rich marriage. In fact, Jane published her first novel, Two Serious Ladies, in 1943, and inspired Bowles to write novels of his own. In 1947, Bowles received a contract for a novel and moved permanently to Tangier; Jane followed suit a year later. While writing his novel, Bowles traveled alone into the Algerian Sahara to work on the novel, titling it The Sheltering Sky. He later published Let It Come Down (1952), a novel set in Tangier that explored the disintegration of an American who was unprepared for culture shock. In 1955, he completed The Spider’s House, which was published prior to Morocco’s independence from France in 1956; it examined the conflict between Moroccan nationalism and French colonialism.
In 1957, his wife Jane suffered from a mild stroke, eventually leading to her death in Málaga in 1973. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bowles traveled throughout Morocco, recording a wide variety of traditional Moroccan music from a number of different ethnic groups, including the Sephardic Jewish communities of Meknes and Essaouira. Also during these years, Bowles spent much of his free time translating the works of Moroccan authors such as Mohamed Choukri, Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi, and Mohammed Mrabet, a good friend of Bowles’.
Bowles and Mrabet, 1991 (Jearld Moldenhauer)
After Jane’s death in 1973, Bowles continued living and writing in Tangier, often receiving many visitors at his humble apartment until his death in 1999.
During his days of hosting visitors, reporters and fans alike would search him out, just for the chance to meet him.
Enter: Edgar Oliver.
An American actor, poet, performance artist, playwright, and alleged British accent impersonator (Not really, but his voice is extremely flamboyant and unique.), Edgar Oliver actually paid Paul Bowles a visit in 1991 without really knowing where he lived. Along with his sister Helen and friend Jason, Oliver traveled to Morocco with the intention of meeting Paul Bowles—and meet him he did.
During the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, Oliver regaled his peculiar, yet completely hilarious story of drunkenly losing his way in the medina, getting pelted with stones by schoolchildren, and fleeing from a clingy guide named Mohammed–all to track down Paul Bowles. If you have twenty minutes to spare, I highly recommend you listen to this wonderful story on what it took to meet the man, the myth, the legend: Paul Bowles.
Note: I heard this in an episode of The Moth, and you don’t really need to watch the video to listen to his story. You can absolutely listen to it like a podcast. Enjoy!