Saturday, December 30, 2017

Born Today In 1910: Composer, Author Paul Bowles

by Ulf Andersen / Getty
Paul Bowles was born today, December 30, in 1910. was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. He became associated with Tangier, where he settled in 1947 and lived for 52 years to the end of his life.

Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making several trips to Paris in the 1930s. He studied music with Aaron Copland, and in New York wrote music for theatrical productions, as well as other compositions. He achieved critical and popular success with his first novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), set in what was known as French North Africa, which he had visited in 1931.

In 1947 Bowles settled in Tangier, at that time in the Tangier International Zone, and his wife Jane Bowles followed in 1948. Except for winters spent in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) during the early 1950s, Tangier was Bowles' home for the remainder of his life. He came to symbolize American immigrants in the city.

In Paris, Bowles became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle. On her advice, he made his first visit to Tangier with Aaron Copland in the summer of 1931. They took a house on the Mountain above Tangier Bay. Bowles later made Morocco his full-time home, and it inspired many of his short stories. From there he returned to Berlin, where he met British writers Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood was reportedly so taken with him that he named a character Sally Bowles in his novel after him. The next year, Bowles returned to North Africa, traveling throughout other parts of Morocco, the Sahara, Algeria, and Tunisia.

In 1937, Bowles returned to New York. Over the next decade, he established a solid reputation as a composer, collaborating with Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, and others on music for stage productions, as well as orchestral pieces.

In 1938, he married Jane Auer, an author and playwright. It was an unconventional marriage; each of their intimate relationships were with people of their own sex, but the couple maintained close personal ties with each other. Bowles has frequently been featured in anthologies as a gay writer, but during his life, he always regarded such typecasting as both absurd and irrelevant. 

After a brief sojourn in France, the couple were prominent among the literary figures of New York throughout the 1940s. Paul Bowles also worked under Virgil Thomson, as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune. His light opera The Wind Remains, based on a poem by Federico García Lorca, was performed in 1943 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. His translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's play Huis Clos ("No Exit"), directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critic's Award in 1943.

In 1945, Bowles began writing prose again, beginning with a few short stories including "A Distant Episode". His wife Jane, he said, was the main influence upon his taking up fiction as an adult, when she published her first novel Two Serious Ladies (1943).

In 1947, Paul Bowles received a contract for a novel from Doubleday; with the advance, he moved permanently to Tangier. Jane joined him there the next year.

Bowles traveled alone into the Algerian Sahara to work on the novel. He later said, "I wrote in bed in hotels in the desert." He drew inspiration from personal experience, noting years later that, "Whatever one writes is in a sense autobiographical, of course. Not factually so, but poetically so." He titled the novel The Sheltering Sky, from a song, "Down Among the Sheltering Palms," which he had heard every summer as a child.

The Bowles couple became fixtures of the American and European immigrant scene in Tangier. Visitors included Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso followed in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.

In 1952, Bowles bought the tiny island of Taprobane, off the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There, he wrote much of his novel The Spider's House and returned to Tangier in the warmer months. He returned to Sri Lanka most winters.

Bowles had a cameo appearance at the beginning and end of the film version of The Sheltering Sky (1990), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Bowles' music was overlooked and mostly forgotten for more than a generation, but in the 1990s, a new generation of American musicians and singers became interested in his work again. Art song enthusiasts savor what are described as "charming, witty pieces."

Bowles died of heart failure on November 18, 1999, at the Italian Hospital in Tangier, aged 88. 

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