Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Most To Be Dreaded

‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles

Not all of the ravages caused by our merciless age are tangible ones. The subtler forms of destruction, those involving only the human spirit, are the most to be dreaded.
                                                                                                                                                Paul Bowles 

Sometime just after graduate school in New York, I (like thousands of other young men of my background and temperament) found myself bewitched by the life and work of Paul Bowles. So lost, so aimless, so claustrophobic did I feel in that city, did I feel in my skin, that I all but inhaled his keenly wrought stories of American alienation, psychic disintegration, and exotic (sometimes erotic) encounters with the foreign, the cryptic, the strange. I smoked, I read avidly, I wandered the lonely streets of New York some days, praying for a vision, a sign, some encounter that would open up the world to me, that would force me to commit myself to something significant at last. If that sounds a bit melodramatic it is, I was. ‘Who am I? What am I to the world?’ I wondered daily, a question to which Bowles (at least his fiction) was quick to reply: ‘Not much.’ 

It was the humbling I’d needed. After all I was broke; I wrote poorly, pretentiously; I had no real prospects at all—at least none that beckoned me. At the time I was working fifty-one weeks a year as an assistant editor at a local publishing house. My title, so it turned out, was meaningless: my job had nothing to do with editing, nothing to do with books. I was a factotum, plain and simple, so that most of my days were spent trying to look busy, filing papers, managing correspondence, and paginating by hand the many manuscripts submitted to us by authors who hadn’t bothered to number their pages. Still a change was in the offing; I could feel it. I grew restless, more determined than ever to get out of the country for a while, to test myself, to travel. That was when I met Annie, my wife-to-be, an aspiring printmaker and painter. We became inseparable, when one day she asked me to travel with her to Japan.
There in Japan that summer I read Bowles’ novels, The Sheltering Sky and Let It Come Down, and suddenly my future was plain: I would travel and write. Indeed over the following nine summers, with the money we earned as teachers, we travelled widely—to India (twice), South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Mexico (multiple times), France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Venezuela, China, Hong Kong, Bali, Ladakh, Nepal, and Thailand, where—more in love than ever—we got married in a civil ceremony in Bangkok, passing the hot summer night with Thai friends aboard one of the popular dinner cruises there, laughing, drinking Thai whiskey, and admiring the ancient temples along the busy Chao Phraya River. 

It was upon our return from that summer in Japan that I resolved to write to Bowles himself. Why not? What did I have to lose? At once I crafted a letter to him and sent it off to his publisher, praising his work and taking the opportunity (in all my youthful presumption) to tell him about a novel of my own, a distinctly Bowlesesque tale involving a disaffected young American couple adrift in Japan, which I’d entitled The Shadow Eaters, after an essay on Buddhism by Lafcadio Hearn. I’d thought he might like it very much.

Many months passed with no reply, so that I soon forgot about the letter. Then one day I received a surprise:

While I had no faith that The Shadow Eaters would ever appear in print, he—Paul Bowles—had written me back! What’s more he had referred to me as a fellow writer. No one had ever called me that. For the first time in my life I felt an urgency, a connection to some greater human project, that compelled me to read and write with an intensity and purpose I had never felt before.

In the ensuing months I read every story of his I could find, only to work my way, with insight and pleasure, while taking copious notes, through his autobiography, his essays, his poems, as well as his translations of the work the Moroccans Mohamed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet. To top it off I read the singular fiction and letters of his brilliant and ailing wife, Jane Bowles—an adventure, an experience, I would recommend to everyone.

It was Bowles’ short story ‘A Distant Episode’ that really shook me to the core. Recognized widely as his ‘ur-tale’, that work that speaks most directly to his vision of life, it is a chilling story about a European linguist who travels to Morocco in search of new dialects only to be captured by some villagers who—in an act as symbolic as it is brutal—cut out his tongue. “It certainly takes its place,” writes James Lasdun, “as one of our civilizations’ more disturbing premonitions of its own breakdown.” Be sure to brace yourself for this one.

Peter Adam Nash

1 comment:

  1. Peter, thank you so much for this. As a reader, discovering The Sheltering Sky was a formative experience for me too - although in the decidedly less exotic locale of Kerrville, Texas, where the underused public library was glad to order it for me through interlibrary loan. As melodramatic as I was at that age, this book found a home with me. It's never really left. I'm so glad to read about his other work - thank you for opening my eyes.