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Paul Bowles

By Ned Rorem

Deaths which are “not unexpected” because they come to the very old, are sometimes for that very reason the least expected. Thus, for we among his friends who knew he’d been ailing for years, the 88-year old Paul Bowles’ demise in Tangier seemed nevertheless impossible; for if he could die, so could we all. And thus, on hearing the news I felt madly wistfula feeling one might not expect for this man who seemingly so removed from demonstrable reaction.

Still more contradictory was Phillip Ramsey’s report on the phone. The body will be shipped to France for cremation, the ashes returned to Morocco, then brought to America next February. They will then be taken by Phillip and the photographer, Chérie Nutting, upstate New York and buried with the Bowles parents and grandparents. These were Paul’s wishes. For one who hated the United States, who loved the Sahara, and whose wife, the underrated novelist Jane Bowles was lying in a Spanish cemetery, one might have expected a site less sentimentally homey.

If all artists are the sum of their contradictions, then Paul Bowles is an extreme example of that definition. Throughout his nearly nine decades he practiced two parallel careers which seemingly never overlapped. In 1949, with the publication of his very successful The Sheltering Sky at the age of forty, Paul Bowles became the author-who-also-writes music, after having long been the composer-who-also-writes-words.

That success brought him more than a re-emphasis of reputation; from the musical community’s standpoint it signaled the permanent divorce of a pair of professions. During the next four decades Paul Bowles produced fourteen books of various kinds, but little more than an hour’s worth of music. Did he feel that one art, to survive, needed to swallow and forget the other? Surely he received in a year more acclaim for his novel than he had received in a lifetime for his music. This need not imply a superior literary talent; indeed, if history recalls him, it will be for his musical gifts. It’s just that ten times more people read books than go to concerts.

Composer-authors generally compartmentalize their two vocations, allotting parts of each year, if not each day, to each career. But as authors their subject is invariably music (witness Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy, or Boulez, Sessions, Thomson), whereas Paul Bowles was a fiction-writing composer, the only significant one since Richard Wagner, and even Wagner’s fiction was at the service of his operas. Except during the war years when he functioned as a music critic, Bowles’s prose was antithetical to his music. Whatever resemblance exists between the working procedures for each craft, the difference between his results is like night and day.

His music is nostalgic and witty, evoking the times and places of its conceptionParis, New York, and Morocco during the twenties, thirties, and fortiesthrough languorous triple meters, hot jazz, and Arabic sonorities. Like most nostalgic and witty music that works, Bowles’s is all in short forms, vocal settings or instrumental suites. Even his two operas on Lorca texts are really garlands of songs tied together by spoken words. In 1936 Orson Welles’s production of Horse Eats Hat became the first of some two dozen plays for which he provided the most distinguished incidental scores of the period. The theater accounts for a huge percentage of his music output, and for the milieu he frequented for a quarter-century, most latterly the milieu of Tennessee Williams whose works would never have had quite the same tonalitythe same fragrancewithout Bowles’s melodies emerging from them so pleasingly. Indeed, the intent of his music in all forms is to please and to please through light colors and gentle textures and amusing rhythms, novel for the time, and quite lean, like their author.

Paul Bowles’s fiction is dark and cruel, clearly meant to horrify in an impersonal sort of way. It often bizarrely details the humiliation and downfall of quite ordinary people, as though their very banality were deserving of punishment. Bowles develops such themes at length and with a far surer hand than in, say, his sonata structures. His formats in even the shorter stories are on a grander plan than in his music; at their weakest they persuasively elaborate their plots (albeit around ciphers, and in a style sometimes willfully cheap); at their best they transport the reader through brand-new dimensions to nightmare geographies. Bowles communicates the incommunicable. But even at their most humane his tales steer clear of the “human,” the romantic, while his music can be downright chummy. Indeed, so dissimilar are his two talents that it is hard to imagine him composing backgrounds to his own dramas.

Paul Bowles’s real life was courageous and exotic. Whenever possible he spent it in what we like to call backward countries with hot climates, especially Ceylon and North Africa, like Prokosch before him, and Maugham. Yet no matter how far afield he wandered, he maintained active correspondence with the West, specifically American intellectuals who, since he seldom went to them, crossed oceans to meet him. Bowles, the social animal, traveled Everywhere, knew Everyone, and was much loved (though he never admitted to loving). His writings dealt extensively with the Everywhere, but never with Everyone, until the autobiography, Without Stopping, which failed.

We met during the summer of 1941, in Mexico, where I was traveling with my father who felt I should get away from the corroding arty homphilia of our native Chicago. How little did he know! Paul was thirty, I sixteen, good-looking and with a roving eye. Paul later would pen a story, Pages From Cold Point, about an adolescent in Taxco who seduces many a local male including his own parent. Naughty gossips suggested that…etc.

Paul, meanwhile, was the first professional composer I’d ever encountered. He introduced me to the music of Copland and Thomson and, especially, himself. The main soprano aria from his zarzuela, The Wind Remains, with its recurring drop of a minor thirdthe so-called Mahlerian “dying fall”so bewitched me, that to this day it has been the single most telling influence in my several hundred hours of music.

For the next sixty years we saw each other fairly regularly, over there and over here, and otherwise we corresponded. The correspondence, Dear Paul, Dear Ned, was published a few years back, by Elysium Press, with an introduction by Gavin Lambert.

How can I say how lucky I feel that this document remains of the most confusingly interesting, distantly lovable, gifted and reticent man who ever lived? The world weighs less with his departure.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April, 4, 2000.

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