In Praise of Paul Bowles

by Tony Shea on November 18, 2013


paul bowles Today marks the anniversary of the death of American expatriate writer Paul Bowles. While typically not as well known as certain of his contemporaries, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Albert Camus, Bowles surely ranks of one of the best. Bowles straddled a literary fence between the world of the Beatniks and the French Existentialists, neither group of which he was a member, but with whom he shared certain similar inclinations, perhaps most notably a predilection for the desert climes of North Africa, specifically Tangier, Morocco in his case, which he first visited in 1931 before relocating there in 1947 for the remaining 52 years of his life.

Bowles began his career as a composer, studying with famed composer Aaron Copland in New York and creating a number of theatrical and orchestral works before making his continental shift.

Undoubtedly however, Bowles will always remain most well known for his extraordinary first novel The Sheltering Sky which he published at the age of 39.

Bowles based the title of his book on the American pop standard “Down Among the Sheltering Palms,” and the book is notable for, among other things, its beautiful, musical prose.
The Boswell Sisters from 1932 perform their rendition of the song.

Following the journey of three Americans, Kit, her husband, Port, and their friend, Tunner, through the harsh and surreal landscape of the Algerian desert, the book is an exploration of the themes of death, madness, desire, and preordained fate.

The Sheltering Sky cover

The desert landscape is always at its best in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks: a ridge nearby can be a far-off mountain range, each small detail can take on the importance of a major variant on the countryside’s repetitious theme. The coming of day promises a change; it is only when the day had fully arrived that the watcher suspects it is the same day returned once again–the same day he has been living for a long time, over and over, still blindingly bright and untarnished by time.

The book was made into an excellent film from Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990. Starring Debra Winger as Kit and John Malkovich as Port, the film also features Bowles in a pivotal cameo role as the narrator who sets the action in motion and also concludes the film, reciting one of the book’s best known passages.

During his career Bowles produced more then 20 books of fiction, short stories, and poetry. He died in 1999 at the age of 88.

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Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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