A Room of His Own

Edmund White recently completed a short biography of Marcel Proust. His most recent novel is "The Farewell Symphony."

I have a theory that the easiest way for a minor talent to become famous is to be the only celebrity in a city that everyone wants to visit. Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria and Paul Bowles in Tangier. . . .

In reading "You Are Not I," Millicent Dillon's frustrating attempts to spend some time alone with Bowles, I recalled my own single effort in the late 1980s when I went to interview him for Vogue. I recognized the same dirty little apartment in the ugly modern building, the dusty plants everywhere, the eternal smell of kif, the noisy histrionics of Bowles' lover-friend Mohammed Mrabet who, when I asked him if he was going to dictate to Bowles a sequel to his memoirs (Mrabet is illiterate), said, unsmilingly, "No, I don't like to write. I make more money from my sheep." The comings and goings (that day it was Patricia Highsmith and her girlfriend), the stoned jokes and silences, the rehashing of old hash anecdotes, Bowles' impeccable, dandified appearance in the midst of the squalor--oh, it all came flooding back, and I didn't envy Dillon her assignment one bit.

In 1981, Dillon published an excellent biography of Bowles' brilliant but unhappy wife, Jane, called "A Little Original Sin." It was based in part on conversations between Dillon and Bowles that took place in Tangier in 1977. At that point, Jane Bowles had been dead only four years and her husband had had a lot to get off his chest. In the intervening years, Dillon has published "The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles" and "Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970."

Now she has written a maddening, exhilarating, category-defying "portrait" of Paul. She dispenses with the biographical summary of his life and achievements in the first few pages and moves on to something altogether different: a record of her usually hapless efforts to pry something out of Bowles, whether it be an insight into his own works, acknowledgment of his feelings or just a simple recognition of Dillon's existence (in all their years together, the only personal question he ever asked her was how long she'd been living in San Francisco).

I kept reading it as a study in contrasts: between a sophisticated but relatively sheltered heterosexual woman and a thoroughly disabused homosexual man; between a biographer with a Jamesian sensitivity in search of spiritual drama and her subject, a man intent on letting everything--his past, his writings, his present, his loves and hates--wash over him as though he were a particularly stolid and impervious boulder at the foot of a waterfall. It is also the story of a woman who has devoted her life to studying Jane and Paul and who now, at 67, wants to discover how she and her story figure into the carpet she's been so patiently weaving for two decades. Finally, there's the story of a biographer who hopes her subject will finally say something profound or insightful--Bowles at 81 is truly old, tired, bored, and finds Dillon's probing vaguely irritating, although he's obviously extremely fond of her--and the sleepwalking novelist who has a superstitious fear of knowing too much about either his formal strategies or the paraphrasable meaning of his content, lest when he wakes up to write, he will have dissipated his dreams in mere talk.

One of Bowles' current friends said to me recently, "Paul is as passive as some of his characters," an observation that gains credibility when one reads that Bowles refused to encourage or discourage a woman who was courting him after Jane's death. "I never said anything," Dillon quotes Bowles as saying. "Well, I never do. I don't know why you have to say something. You just have to go on living. People can guess for themselves whether it's yes or no." Elsewhere, when Dillon asks him if his feelings were hurt when one of his Moroccan lovers left him for a rich woman, Bowles says in his best Zen or extraterrestrial manner, "I don't know. I don't know what it feels like to have your feelings hurt." It is a lack of passion that his readers may recognize in his most troubling short story, "Pages From Cold Point," in which the father who has just slept with his son says, "Destiny, when one perceives it clearly from very near, has no qualities at all."

When Dillon first began to research the life of Jane, many of the novelist's old friends gasped at her resemblance to Jane. The photographer Karl Kissinger said to her, "You know, you could be her more serious sistJer." Going into biographer overdrive, Dillon adds her own reasons for identifying with Jane: "[H]er mother's name was the same as my mother's; her grandfather's name was the same as my grandfather's. She lived in Woodmere, Long Island, at the same time I did. At 13, after her father's death, Jane and her mother moved to Manhattan, to the very building where my family lived when I was born. Jane broke her right leg in 1931; I broke mine the same year."

Perhaps because of this resemblance, Paul occasionally makes an uncharacteristically open, if scarcely reckless, admission to her, as when he says that it was his editing of Jane's book, "Two Serious Ladies," that convinced him he should put aside his music for a moment and take up writing. Up to that point, Paul had been composing incidental scores for the theater; suddenly, he was inspired to attempt fiction. And soon after that, he began his masterpiece, "The Sheltering Sky," published in 1949 (years later, in 1990, Bertolucci would film it with Paul playing himself).

There are recurring leitmotifs in this biography. For instance, Dillon admits she has always been disturbed by a scene in "The Sheltering Sky" in which the American heroine, Kit, is raped in the Sahara by a nomad--and likes it. More than 100 pages later in the biography, she comes up with a fresh, particularly Jamesian take on the scene. She realizes that Kit's husband has died shortly before the encounter with the nomads. "What if this narrative of Kit's sexual journey is not a sexual fantasy but is rather an accurate and precise representation of Paul's conception of the way a being--man or woman--would act if he or she were isolated in a universe of guilt, betrayal, grief, and abandonment? Would this being, this character, in the face of an overwhelming threat to the self, throw himself or herself into a kind of anti-universe of feeling, in which pain is pleasure, humiliation is praise, and violence is tenderness?"

Subtle and generous as this explanation is, it seems to me to be overly ingenious. Perhaps Dillon herself provides a better clue when she lets us know that Paul, as a teenager, felt his first sexual pleasure when he read an account of the effects of death by electrocution. But that's another recurring theme: Dillon is always disturbed by Bowles' easy admissions of sadism and doesn't want to believe them. Nor can she assimilate a childhood scene in which Bowles tortured a fat boy in an elaborate hazing scene involving ropes that were used to suspend the victim over a two-story stairwell. Nor can she cope with his having hit Jane in a moment of anger. She invents excuses for Bowles' cruelty rather than accept the simple truth.

Dillon stands--both in her scrupulous, sensitive writing and in her decency as a human being--for everything that seems to make life worth living. She uses all her intelligence to decipher life's half-effaced runes and, in particular, to analyze her over-interviewed, secretive subject, whose overly discreet autobiography, "Without Stopping," could be nicknamed "Without Telling." Bowles has an entirely different personality and a different strategy. He accepts everything, including cruelty, including the idea of black magic and including the stoned-senseless monologues of the men who've populated his life. He doesn't want to choose one thing over another, not even one person over another.

At the end of "You Are Not I," Dillon learns that Paul is giving interviews to another American female biographer, Virginia Carr. Dillon is outraged but tries to be mature about it; there's all the stuff of painful comedy here, since her bruised self-esteem is at risk. She triumphs, nevertheless, through understanding and analysis; the only thing that Dillon cannot learn from Bowles is his shocking indifference. On an amateur tape made in the early 1960s, Jane is talking to Paul and a friend. Soon Paul can be heard closing the door behind him. Jane says, "There's a disconnection. Even if he's on the same floor, he's in another room."

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