Paul Bowles; Author, Composer Led Salon of Beat-Era Expatriates in Morocco


In exotic post-World War II Tangier, the composer, translator, poet and writer Paul Bowles presided over a dazzling salon of expatriate American Beat writers whose counter-mainstream literature, often an acquired taste, won admiration.

His cadre, which included William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams and a disdainful Truman Capote, experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and macabre pranks involving scorpions and cannabis jam as liberally as they did with bizarre and labyrinthine plots.

Bowles, written and filmed about almost as often as he wrote a book or short story that spawned a motion picture, died Thursday in the Moroccan city where he had lived for more than half a century. He was 88.

The native New Yorker, who outlived all his colleagues, had been hospitalized since Nov. 7 with serious cardiac problems. He died of a heart attack in Tangier’s Italian hospital. Bowles had suffered from a painful nerve ailment in his hips and legs, as well as and sciatica that kept him nearly housebound for several years.

His eclectic output, written as he traveled the world or was ensconced in what he described as Tangier’s “inexhaustible succession of fantastic spectacles,” included more than half a dozen novels (notably “The Sheltering Sky”), a dozen books of short stories, a few books of poetry, an autobiography and two dozen books of translations, a couple of operas and a ballet, scores for several Broadway plays, including Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” and numerous works for piano and other instruments.


Perhaps living in the past he dominated, Bowles forbade installation of a telephone in his fifth-floor apartment in the Medina, or old section, of Tangier. But until the end of his life, he graciously welcomed visitors who came to consult him or interview him about the 1940s and 1950s literature and music that flourished there.

And consult they did.

He was the subject of three documentaries over the last decade: “Night Waltz: the Music of Paul Bowles” by Owsley Browne III and “Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles” by Jennifer Baichwal, both released this year, and the 1994 “Paul Bowles: the Complete Outsider” by Catherine Warnow and Regina Weinreich.

Bowles’ life was also chronicled at length in three recent books: the 500-page 1989 biography by Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, “An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles”; the 1994 “In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles” edited by Jeffrey Miller; and last year’s “You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles” by Millicent Dillon.

Years earlier, Dillon had written a highly rated biography of Bowles’ brilliant and unhappy novelist wife, Jane Sydney Auer, “A Little Original Sin.” Jane was her husband’s intellectual soul mate in an unorthodox marriage. Each was gay and each had significant relationships outside their marriage after their wedding in 1938. She died in Spain in 1973 after five years in Spanish mental hospitals.

“He chose a very difficult path as a writer: leaving the United States, going to Morocco and never returning,” Dillon said Thursday on learning of Bowles’ death. “But it was exactly the life he wanted to live. It allowed him to do exactly what he wanted to do.”

Bowles was probably best known around the world for his first novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” which was a best seller in 1949. It was reprinted for a new generation in 1989 and made into a 1990 motion picture of the same title, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger.

The iconoclastic writer narrated the film and appeared as the mysterious man in the bar at the picture’s beginning and end. Filmed on location, the movie featured memorable photography of the Sahara but was difficult for audiences to understand or embrace.

Many, including director Bertolucci, have considered Bowles’ epic “Sky,” involving Manhattan sophisticates Port and Kit Moresby’s journey to the North African desert to rekindle their flagging marriage, an allegory of the Bowleses’ own troubled life.

“Paul refused to admit any coincidence between their lives and the book,” Bertolucci told The Times in 1990. ". . . I don’t believe him.”

Bowles described the book as “an adventure story, in which the actual adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit.”

One of the film’s most staggering scenes is Malkovich’s portrayal of the hero’s death from typhoid--a sequence Bowles wrote under the influence of majoun, a mixture of cannabis, honey and herbs. (The writer’s usual recreational drug of choice was kif, a Moroccan concoction made from the tender leaves near the flower of the marijuana plant.)

When “Sky” was originally published, critics offered such assessments as “gripping,” “puzzling” or “strange.” As it settled into its historic niche, the book was praised, according to “Major 20th Century Writers,” as a “masterpiece of existential literature.”

As for the film’s place in cinematic history, Leonard Maltin noted in his 2000 Movie & Video Guide that Bowles’ “novels are often referred to as unfilmable, and this is certainly proof of that. Vividly atmospheric, well acted, and sexually explicit, but this is a journey you may not want to take.”

Earlier attempts to turn the innovative novel into a screenplay had failed. And Bertolucci and Mark Peploe collaborated on more than eight revisions of their script.

“The book is very literary,” Bertolucci told The Times. “It is full of interior voices, even interior dialogues. People think one thing, and say something else.”

“Sky” was a transforming event in Bowles’ career, shifting him from composing music to writing and translating, and was a perfect representation of the complex mythology of all his manuscripts. Subsequent novels, short stories and poetry also featured Western vacationers and curiosity seekers making haunting journeys to exotic locales in dense tales that critics have dubbed “psycho-thrillers” or “highbrow horror comics.”

Bowles narrated a subsequent film, “Halfmoon” in 1996 featuring three of his short stories: “Merkala Beach” about the affair of a Moroccan laborer; “Call at Corazon,” which was another allegory about Bowles and his late wife; and the supernatural “Allal.” When the film was screened at West Los Angeles’ Nuart, a Times reviewer rated it “an exquisitely wrought, sophisticated diversion” and complimented writer and narrator Bowles as “the consummate storyteller.”

Bowles’ protagonists, like many of his fellow writers in Tangier, usually destroyed themselves in what they viewed as the inferior society of North Africa, Mexico or a similar setting.

“Tangier doesn’t make a man disintegrate,” he once wrote, “but it does attract people who are going to disintegrate anyway.”

The writer originally visited Tangier in 1931 with his musical mentor, Aaron Copland, at the suggestion of his literary mentor, Gertrude Stein, who suggested it would be a creative place to write.

He never planned to make Tangier his permanent home, he wrote in his 1972 autobiography “Without Stopping.”

“My visit was meant to be of short duration--after that I would move onward indefinitely,” he wrote. “I grew lazy and put off departure. Then a day came when I realized with a shock that not only did the world have many more people in it than it had had only a short time before, but also that the hotels were less good, travel less comfortable, and places in general much less beautiful.

“After that when I went somewhere else I immediately longed to be back in Tangier. Thus if I am here now, it is only because I was still here when I realized to what an extent the world had worsened, and that I no longer wanted to travel.”

By then, Bowles had seen the world--at least the torrid belt of it--from Spain and Portugal to Italy, Africa, Turkey, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico and South America. He lived in Mexico awhile and briefly owned the island of Taprobane in Sri Lanka. He returned sparingly to the U.S., usually to teach a writing course.

Ironically, Bowles rarely mentioned Morocco in his novels, although it was the setting for “Let It Come Down” and “The Spider’s House” as well as “The Sheltering Sky.” He said doing so might wear out his welcome.

“The police used to be very snotty to me,” he told a Times foreign correspondent rather proudly in 1993. “I found it very difficult to get my annual permission to live here. Once it took 22 months. One policeman told me: ‘Monsieur Bowles, you have been here too long.’ ”

Nonetheless, Bowles endeared himself to Moroccans over the years by translating important literature from French, Arabic and the native Moghrebi into English, particularly the works of Mohammed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet.

Paul Frederick Bowles, born Dec. 30, 1910, in Jamaica, Queens, on New York’s Long Island, began writing music and fiction as a child. His first surrealist poem was published in a magazine titled transition when he was 16. The only child of a dentist who had wanted to become a concert pianist, he studied piano at the age of 8 and a year later he wrote his first opera.

Bowles enrolled at the University of Virginia but fled after a few months to Paris, where he became a protege of Stein’s, who pointedly suggested that poetry was not his metier.

He met Copland a year later in New York and studied composition with him there and during their travels to Europe and Africa.

Bowles composed prolifically during the 1930s, and did not return to writing until the mid-1940s. He churned out scores for Broadway plays by his friend Williams, Orson Welles and William Saroyan. He also created chamber works and operas, including 1941’s “The Wind Remains,” written under a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1959, Bowles received a Rockefeller grant to record native North African music for the Smithsonian Institution.

For most, Bowles was easier to listen to than to read.

“He had, I think, a very dark vision of the world that you can see in his writing,” his biographer Dillon said Thursday, “in the tales of cruelty and isolation told in the most elegant language. His music is something else again; it is charming, rhythmic, pleasing above all. It makes you want to dance.”