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Stories of Paul Bowles

Stories of Paul Bowles

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by Paul Bowles, Robert Stone (Introduction)

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An American literary cult figure, Paul Bowles established his legacy with the novel The Sheltering Sky. An immediate sensation, it became a fixture in American letters. Bowles then returned his energies to the short story -- the genre he preferred and soon mastered.

Bowles's short fiction is orchestral in composition and exacting in theme, marked by a


An American literary cult figure, Paul Bowles established his legacy with the novel The Sheltering Sky. An immediate sensation, it became a fixture in American letters. Bowles then returned his energies to the short story -- the genre he preferred and soon mastered.

Bowles's short fiction is orchestral in composition and exacting in theme, marked by a unique, delicately spare style and a dark, rich, exotic mood, by turns chilling, ironic, and wry. In "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté," a Protestant missionary is sent to the far reaches of the globe -- a place, he discovers, where his God has no power. In "Call at Corazón," an American husband abandons his alcoholic wife on their honeymoon in a South American jungle. In "Allal," a boy's drug-induced metamorphosis into a deadly serpent leads to his violent death, but not before he feels the "joy" of sinking his fangs into human prey. Also gathered here are Bowles's most famous works, such as "The Delicate Prey," a grimly satisfying tale of vengeance, and "A Distant Episode," which Tennessee Williams proclaimed "a masterpiece of short fiction."

"Beauty and terror go wonderfully well together in [Bowles's] work," Madison Smartt Bell once said. Though sometimes shocking, Bowles's stories have a symmetry that is haunting and ultimately moral. Like Poe (whose stories Bowles's mother read to him at bedtime), Bowles had an instinctive adeptness with the nightmare vision. Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to Too Far from Home, writes that his characters are "at the mercy of buried wishes experienced as external fate." In these masterful stories, our deepest fears are manifest, tables are turned, and allegiances are tested. Fate is an inexorable element of Bowles's distant landscapes, and its psychological effects on his characters are rendered with penetrating accuracy. Like Hemingway, Bowles is famously unsentimental, a skilled craftsman of crystalline prose.

Editorial Reviews

How do you tell a great writer from the also-rans? Vladimir Nabokov claimed it was easy. A "master artist" always has a profoundly distinctive vision, with the power to annex and transform one's own. Read a Jane Austen novel, and life becomes a sharp-edged comedy of mismatched domestic fancies. Immerse yourself in Henry James, and experience transforms itself into a shimmering web of fugitive impressions. With Paul Bowles, the effect may be even stronger, as this first complete collection of his stories makes clear. You only need to read a passage or two from one of his best pieces to feel thrust at breakneck speed into Bowles' universe. It is a realm of shocking cruelty and cold detachment, and—to the revulsion of some readers and the illicit thrill of others—it proves powerfully seductive. Bowles' stories are full of pits and voids and gorges, and as you read, it becomes hard not to feel as if he were pulling you implacably toward the abyss. You lift your head from his pages with the unnerving sense that you have been sucked willy-nilly into Bowles' brain and now look out on the world with his Olympian eye for suffering and violence.

In fact, that experience closely matches the events Bowles' stories obsessively recount. Bowles loved disorientation, whether it came from travel or disease or drugs. And he seems to have enjoyed inflicting it on his characters as much as on his readers. In his paradigmatic tale, a diffident American or European tourist arrives in a harsh and exotic landscape—usually Morocco, but sometimes Sri Lanka or the coastal lowlands of Colombia—there to be confronted by primitive locals he or she regards with mingled fascination anddread. The journeys teach Bowles' protagonists variations on a single lesson: The veneer of bourgeois civilization is tissue-thin; beneath its facade, the truth of life and its beauty is barbarous and cruel. Almost always, the lesson destroys them. Like the protagonist of "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté," Bowles' heroes find themselves cast "outside God's jurisdiction ... passed over into the other land."

To summarize Bowles' stories in this schematic way, however, does little to convey their extraordinary power, which owes more to the artistry of his narrative and the adamantine quality of his prose than to their more evident themes. In truth, those themes, along with a number of Bowles' motifs, were hardly new. As the many gorges and abysses might suggest, what his fiction did at its most basic was refurbish the Gothic tradition that had descended from Edgar Allan Poe. Grafting the genre's outworn conventions onto Joseph Conrad's literature of imperial decline, Bowles preserved the Gothic obsession with the dark underside of the middle-class psyche. But he divorced it from the hulking manses and labyrinthine tunnels that had traditionally provided the genre's setting, and he jettisoned its typically feverish diction. In classically restrained prose that any modernist might envy, Bowles projected this sensibility in new directions, both outward—onto impenetrable jungle forests and the blinding emptiness of the desert—and inward, into the meanderings of his protagonists' minds. In the process, he created a Gothic literature for the jaded, late-twentieth-century palate—one so subtly handled that it managed not to seem Gothic at all, but rather a kind of dispassionate reportage. As Bowles himself explained, for the visitor to places like the Moroccan desert, who fell among the superstitions of its nomadic tribes, life could seem to bend suddenly to a dark and potent magic.

Indeed, it's only by taking his stories as a complete oeuvre that one begins to grasp the nature of Bowles' innovation, and the deftness with which he achieved it. In the best examples (the notorious "A Distant Episode" and "The Delicate Prey," and less-celebrated but equally impressive masterworks like "Pages From Cold Point," "The Hours After Noon" and "The Frozen Fields"), Bowles' eerily neutral tone and his acute eye for psychological nuance lend his stories devastating power.

Unfortunately, reading the whole collection of his tales also shows the stature of his best work by comparison. Nearly all Bowles' great stories, along with his novels, came during a decade-long burst of creative activity that began in the late '40s, and while Bowles continued to write and translate prodigiously nearly until his death in 1999, little that he produced would match the strength of his early work. ("The Time of Friendship"—a surprisingly gentle story about a Swiss woman whose love affair with the people of the Sahara is ended by nationalist anticolonialism—is a brilliant exception.) An earlier version of his collected stories, published in 1980, had already included some experimental longeurs. This new edition adds twenty-four entries, and while they will be of interest to scholars and enthusiasts, they can do little to burnish Bowles' reputation as an artist.

Even at their most impressive, though, Bowles' stories may be best taken in small doses. Read in the stark isolation Bowles favored, they impose themselves on the reader with the sense of dark fatefulness that traps his characters. Their grasp feels cold and sinister—and utterly compelling.
—Sean McCann

Publishers Weekly
As elusive as his enigmatic fiction, which is epitomized by the 1949 autobiographical bestselling novel, The Sheltering Sky, Bowles (1910-2001) arguably has been venerated as much for being the mythical forerunner of the Beat Generation as for his considerable genius, both musical and literary. A darling of iconoclastic literati both here and abroad, he first became known as a composer, writing music for stage and screen. Only after his marriage to Jane Auer (herself soon to become a cultishly popular writer under the name Jane Bowles) in 1938 did he turn seriously to fiction. The exotic settings of the 62 stories collected in this landmark volume reflect the wanderings of nomadic Paul and Jane as, during the '30s and '40s, they flitted from Europe to Mexico, the Caribbean and the U.S. before finally settling in Tangiers in 1949. Over the years, Bowles's fascination with Western man's intrinsic decadence, laid bare in clashes with exotic cultures, became the signature motif of his existential fiction ("The Hours After Noon" and "Too Far from Home"). His oblique language and abrupt endings ("At Paso Rojo") are curiously confounding, and his tales are invariably charged with subterranean currents. Frankly incestuous and homosexual, "Pages from Cold Point" is almost certain to stir anew speculation about Bowles's sexual orientation. Earthy, violent and comfortable with corruption, these deeply affecting stories are distinguished by their lyrical rhythms and meticulous regard for language. The assemblage of this impressive collection marks a literary event of the highest order. (Oct.) Forecast: This definitive volume will be a must-have for all major libraries, and should attract much reviewattention and feature coverage. Bowles cofounded Antaeus magazine with Daniel Halpern in 1968, and soon afterward the magazine became the Ecco Press. This collection is being published to coincide with Ecco's 30th anniversary, and publisher Halpern will be available to discuss his longtime friendship with Bowles. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Raymond Carver once said that he liked short stories that had "some feeling of threat or sense of menace." He would have loved Bowles's work. These pieces, set mostly in Tangier where Bowles, an American expatriate, lived most of his life and died in 2001 are often bizarre, sadistic, and menacing. In appearance, Bowles was an elegant man, but as a narrator he was remote, pitiless, and unsympathetic, and he dealt harshly with his characters, whether Moroccan or European expatriates. In "The Garden," "Mejdoub," and "Things Gone and Things Still Here," which echo Moroccan legend and folklore, the unrelenting desert is a huge presence. In other stories, like "The Hours After Noon" and "Too Far from Home," Bowles exposes the psychological fragility of the non-African in the North African desert, where Western values are a chimera. Containing 62 stories arranged chronologically and spanning 40 years, this edition is being published as part of the 30th anniversary of Ecco Press, of which Bowles was a cofounder. Essential for larger fiction collections. Mary Szczesiul, Roseville P.L., MI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Lavish first collected edition of Bowles's harsh, unsparing short fiction-published in conjunction with Ecco's 30th anniversary: 62 elegantly wrought, compact nightmare visions, including the contents of classic earlier volumes, The Delicate Prey (1950) and The Time of Friendship (1967). Bowles (1910-99) was the ultimate American expatriate writer (Robert Stone's judicious introduction identifies him as "a cosmopolite who bridged the worlds of Gertrude Stein and Allen Ginsberg"): a longtime resident of Tangier, where he held court for numerous contemporaries and acolytes (many Beat Generation charter members among them), composed the music for which he's also justly famous, and wrote pungent tales of Western values corrupted and consumed by the amoral appetite of impoverished, pre-literate Latin American and (especially) North African cultures. A limpid understated style and a gimlet eye for human weakness and folly are the hallmarks of such bleak fictional marvels as "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode" (in which the Moroccan desert seems itself a vengeful cannibalistic entity), a chillingly urbane account of the violation of an ultimate sexual taboo ("Pages from Cold Point"), a withering satire on misguided "civilizing" impulses ("Pastor Dowe at Tacate"), and the troublingly enigmatic fablelike stories of Bowles's highly interesting (if uneven) later (1981) collection, Midnight Mass. A few of the early stories are, arguably, apprentice work, and several written in the 1980s (notably "Hugh Harper"and "Dinner at Sir Nigel's") feel like scarcely dramatized retreads. On the other hand, don't miss "Too Far from Home" (1993), another bitter black comedy about Westerninnocents adrift in the Sahara that conjures up images of both Bowles's surpassingly strange marriage to neurasthenic novelist Jane Bowles (who predeceased him by decades) and the psychosexual labyrinth explored in his famous first novel, The Sheltering Sky. Bowles was a great writer whom many readers may find hard to stomach (imagine a collaboration among Tennessee Williams, Andre Gide, and the Marquis de Sade). Those attuned to his hammer-blow rhetoric and nihilistic lyricism should find this generous volume just about irresistible.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

By the Water

The melting snow dripped from the balconies. People hurried through the little street that always smelled of frying fish. Now and then a stork swooped low, dragging his sticklike legs below him. The small gramophones scraped day and night behind the walls of the shop where young Amar worked and lived. There were few spots in the city where the snow was ever cleared away, and this was not one of them. So it gathered all through the winter months, piling up in front of the shop doors.

But now it was late winter; the sun was warmer. Spring was on the way, to confuse the heart and melt the snow. Amar, being alone in the world, decided it was time to visit a neighboring city where his father had once told him some cousins lived.

Early in the morning he went to the bus station. It was still dark, and the empty bus came in while he was drinking hot coffee. The road wound through the mountains all the way.

When he arrived in the other city it was already dark. Here the snow was even deeper in the streets, and it was colder. Because he had not wanted to, Amar had not foreseen this, and it annoyed him to be forced to wrap his burnous closely about him as he left the bus station. It was an unfriendly town; he could tell that immediately. Men walked with their heads bent forward, and if they brushed against a passer-by they did not so much as look up. Excepting the principal street, which had an arclight every few meters, there seemed to be no other illumination, and the alleys that led off on either side lay in utter blackness;the white-clad figures that turned into them disappeared straightway.

"A bad town," said Amar under his breath. He felt proud to be coming from a better and larger city, but his pleasure was mingled with anxiety about the night to be passed in this inimical place. He abandoned the idea of trying to find his cousins before morning, and set about looking for a fondouk or a bath where he might sleep until daybreak.

Only a short distance ahead the street-lighting system terminated. Beyond, the street appeared to descend sharply and lose itself in darkness. The snow was uniformly deep here, and not cleared away in patches as it had been nearer the bus station. He puckered his lips and blew his breath ahead of him in little clouds of steam. As he passed over into the unlighted district he heard a few languid notes being strummed on an oud. The music came from a doorway on his left. He paused and listened. Someone approached the doorway from the other direction and inquired, apparently of the man with the oud, if it was "too late."

"No," the musician answered, and he played several more notes.

Amar went over to the door.

"Is there still time?" he said.


He stepped inside the door. There was no light, but he could feel warm air blowing upon his face from the corridor to the right. He walked ahead, letting his hand run along the damp wall beside him. Soon he came into a large dimly lit room with a tile floor. Here and there, at various angles, figures lay asleep, wrapped in gray blankets. In a far corner a group of men, partially dressed, sat about a burning brazier, drinking tea and talking in low tones. Amar slowly approached them, taking care not to step on the sleepers.

The air was oppressively warm and moist.

"Where is the bath?" said Amar.

"Down there," answered one of the men in the group, without even looking up. He indicated the dark corner to his left. And, indeed, now that Amar considered it, it seemed to him that a warm current of air came up from that part of the room. He went in the direction of the dark corner, undressed, and leaving his clothes in a neat pile on a piece of straw matting, walked toward the warmth. He was thinking of the misfortune he had encountered in arriving in this town at nightfall, and he wondered if his clothes would be molested during his absence. He wore his money in a leather pouch which hung on a string about his neck. Feeling vaguely for the purse under his chin, he turned around to look once again at his clothing. No one seemed to have noticed him as he undressed. He went on. It would not do to seem too distrustful. He would be embroiled immediately in a quarrel which could end badly for him.

A little boy rushed out of the darkness toward him, calling: "Follow me, Sidi, I shall lead you to the bath." He was extremely dirty and ragged, and looked rather more like a midget than a child. Leading the way, he chattered as they went down the slippery, warm steps in the dark. "You will call for Brahim when you want your tea? You're a stranger. You have much money...."

Amar cut him short. "You'll get your coins when you come to wake me in the morning. Not tonight."

"But, Sidi! I'm not allowed in the big room. I stay in the doorway and show gentlemen down to the bath. Then I go back to the doorway. I can't wake you."

"I'll sleep near the doorway. It's warmer there, in any case."

"Lazrag will be angry and terrible things will happen. I'll never get home again, or if I do I might be a bird so my parents will not know me. That's what Lazrag does when he gets angry."


"It is his place here. You'll see him. He never goes out. If he did the sun would burn him in one second, like a straw in the fire. He would fall down in..."

The Stories of Paul Bowles. Copyright © by Paul Bowles. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Paul Bowles was born in 1910 and studied music with composer Aaron Copland before moving to Tangier, Morocco. A devastatingly imaginative observer of the West's encounter with the East, he is the author of four highly acclaimed novels: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House, and Up Above the World. In addition to being one of the most powerful postwar American novelists, Bowles was an acclaimed composer, a travel writer, a poet, a translator, and a short story writer. He died in Morocco in 1999.

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