In Paris, Young Paul Bowles
by ALEX CARNEVALE
You see I shouldn't be so wretched if there were only some way I could be sure that some day, be it fifty years hence, I shall be able to justify to myself the fact that I'm alive, but now I see no way, not even a vista of what might become a hope. It is not a help for me to repeat that life is its own excuse. I say: my life is no excuse. I have a horror not of anyone's failing to find merit in my existence, but only in my own. And in order for me to find myself worthwhile, I have got to be pretty brilliant, and understand everything.
Paul Bowles arrived in Paris in 1931. When he rode up to the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, they could not believe they had been corresponding with a college student. "I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman, at least seventy-five," Stein told him. He was twenty-one years old.
Bowles started fast. He had been insulated from the world until the age of six, when he was sent to school. "I developed a superiority complex the first day," he wrote in one of his many, many letters. His advancement continued apace:
When I was eight I wrote an opera. We had no piano, but we had two or three pieces of sheet-music which I studied and I had a zither which I tuned in various scales and modes. My first sexual thrills were obtained from reading newspaper account of electrocutions. At the time I was quite unconscious of the facts, except that I had the New England guilt about it.
Bowles' first literary idol was Poe, and crossing the Atlantic aboard the S.S. McKeesport he contemplated setting some of the man's poems to music. As a self-described modernist snob, Bowles' perspective on other artists resembled his shaky feelings about being turned on by torture - a mix of wonder, awe and pain. Upon his arrival in Paris, the first person he went out of his way to meet was Jean Cocteau. At the beginning of April 1931 he writes that Cocteau
rushed about the room with great speed for two hours and never sat down once. Now he pretended he was an orangoutang, next an usher at Paramount Theatre, and finally he held a dialogue between an aged grandfather and his young grandson which was side-splitting. I think never have I seen anyone like him in my life. He still smokes opium every day and claims it does him a great deal of good. I daresay it does. By definition, the fact that it is considered harmful for most mere mortals would convince me of its efficaciousness for him.
Reading Bowles' private letters is like watching the precise movements of a guided laser. He writes completely differently depending on the level of intimacy with his correspondent. He penned almost stream-of-consciousness Joyce imitations to his friend Bruce Morissette, adopting a more formal tone for those whose friendship he coveted and had yet to earn. With his closest ones he even vacillated between styles with a severity of purpose nearly bipolar in its enthusiasm.
By June of 1931 he was in Berlin. He hated the city, all rain and mosquitos, but it was mostly that the place suffered in comparison to Paris. It is obvious how much his surroundings affected Bowles' personality. In his letter to the Paris-born Jew Edouard Roditi, Bowles accurately described his view of the German metropolis:
if only the world were stronger! if only there were more dimensions! if only we thought in terms of perfumes! if only there were a third world where we could hide from the other two. then the other one would not be always grinning in feeling so perfectly well that we could do nothing when it intended to enter. there would be two of them there, and the two would be easier to fight than the one. but now it is always either one or the other, and neither one stays away long enough. in full noon sleep falls upon one for one tiny second without measurement and one knows there is no escape. berlin is not a beautiful city
Later he would tell Roditi, and in a sense himself as well, that "I have the feeling you are primarily two people, one of which should be killed."
Among so many potent writers and artists, it was natural for young Bowles to feel a bit discouraged in his own writing. Yes, he could write or speak to Gertrude Stein anytime he liked, but reading further and further into her work, he despaired of his own.
All my theories on her I discover to be utterly vagrant. She has set me right, by much labor on her part, and now the fact emerges that there is nothing in her works save the sense. The sound, the sight, the soporific repetitions to which I had attached such great importance, are accidental, she insists, and the one aim of her writing is the superlative sense. "What is the use of writing," she will shout, "unless every word makes the utmost sense?" Naturally all that renders her 'opera' far more difficult, and after many hours of patient reading, I discover she is telling the truth, and that she is wholly correct about the entire matter. And what is even more painful is that all my poems are worth a large zero. That is the end of that. And unless I undergo a great metamorphosis, there will never be any more poems.
In August he boarded another ship, the S.S. Imerethie II, with a destination of Tangier. His reaction to this lush place was the polar opposite to his experience of Berlin. In a postcard to John Widdicombe he wrote, "here I shall live until the eucalyptus leaves all fall and it starts to rain across the strait." He took up residence in a villa with Aaron Copland. The villa featured a permanently out of tune piano, and while Copland found he could not do his work, Bowles' mood improved immediately. After a sojourn in Marrakech, Bowles returned to Paris before stopping in London at the beginning of December.
London did not offend him as a city, but as a way of life. In a letter to Charles Henri-Ford, he writes,
I have crossed the little water that is mightier in its human gap than an ocean, and fallen again into the great pit of London. The chalk cliffs at Newhaven were all greyer through the dawn rain than any human eyes could be, and white gulls fluttered out of the black wind into the vague lights of the boat, and seemed to cry when their flight crossed the boat, but to be silent when they went back into the darkness again. There is little change, save that Piccadilly grows more and more like a sprawling Times Square, running down Haymarket and Coventry and Regent, all garish and burning with neon. It doesn't fit. In New York, the great planes of the lifting buildings can carry it off, in London it stays right there, on the ground, on your mind, on your hands, and you can't lift it. I am sad for this.
Paris left me empty. I look only, everywhere, all hours, for that new way of looking at the human thing, the heart, I suppose, of the world, and I found it not there. I was childish to look for it. Only the echo of the beat, not the strong pulse.
At any rate, it was good of you to lead me about by my nose, and to let me meet so many people. As you know, I like to meet everyone in the world at least once.
He had met many of the most important artists of his generation; from Klee to Gide to Stein to Copland to Pound. For a short time, it raised all boats to be amidst such individuals, but eventually Bowles' surroundings discouraged him:
Literature has never lived on literary talk, and literary acquaintances. I want to take every poet and shove him down into the dung-heap, kick all his literary friends in the ass, and try to make him see that writing is not word-bandying, like Stein, and the thousand legions of her followers, but an emotion seen through the mind, or an intellectual concept emotionalized, and shaping its own expression. You can't write from a literary vacuum, and all of Paris, I felt, was trying to. They get all tangled up in trying to write cleverly and as no one else has, and get lost in the timber hills of their effort. I can't help thinking Shakespeare never worried about writing a new kind of blank verse, just went ahead instinctively and did it.
The artists and writers Bowles once idolized had begun to let him down, as they had to. (He called Gertrude Stein, who told him, "Why don't you go to Mexico? You'd last two days there.") Friends he depended on for money were no longer as forgiving; after all, he had been in Europe for almost a year. A traveler is always welcome, a wayward resident finds himself more swiftly resented. Even Copland became slow in answering his letters, and Bowles stopped visiting the Stein home. He developed syphilis and then acute tonsilitis, medical expressions of how little Europe had left for him. How he loathed these ancient cities! By the same token, he did not want to go home at all.
In Algiers he began, for the first time in his life, to read the work of Marcel Proust.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Blue Jasmine and the Fullbright Company's Gone Home. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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