Paul Bowles is probably best known for his novel The Sheltering Sky, and likely more for the movie made from it rather than his book, but apparently (at least I seem to remember reading that somewhere and I’m too lazy to look it up) he himself considered his stories his superior effort, and it would of course not be the first time that “most popular” does not coincide with “best”. I cannot judge that claim that myself, not having read any of Paul Bowles’ novels (yet – but I hope to remedy that eventually), but I do not regret having made my way through the almost 700 pages (or their Kindle equivalent) of this collection.
I do not think anyone would claim for Bowles the status of a major literary figure – he is rather too firmly entrenched in the comfortable conventions of nineteenth-century realism for most of his career, and by the time he risks to wander outside of this familiar ground into modernist territory, that also has already become thoroughly explored and mapped by more adventurous authors. Bowles is interesting on a thematic level rather than a formal one – which is not to say that he is a bad writer, his stories would not be literature if there was not some kind of interplay between form and content, but from a great author I’d expect an attempt to go beyond the true and trusted, an attempt at transgression, at developing a unique voice. Paul Bowles to me just seems too complacent for that.
Which is a bit weird, as thematically many of the stories in this collection concern themselves with the opposite of complacency. The works of Bowles are often said to be about Westerners (Europeans / Americans) and their encounter as well as the ensuing (often violent) disillusionment with the lure of foreign cultures (mostly North Africa / South America). But while that is true on a surface level it seems to me that there is another layer to this, one where the Europeans are not really blind to what is awaiting them, but seem on some level to actually crave the doom they are walking into. They might not be aware of it, might not consciously want it, but still desire it in some deep, hidden stratum of their personality. Whether one conceives of it in Freudian terms or not, I think most of Paul Bowles’ stories can only be comprehended with some conception of an unconscious.
Even if the stories have someone from an Non-Western culture as their protagonist or take place entirely in a Western context, there is almost always some kind of Other involved, often one that exercises some kind of dangerous, even fatal attraction on the protagonist; that Other can even be located inside the protagonist herself, as is the case with the narrator of “You are not I” (who turns out to be insane). And while Bowles (except for some stories occurring very late in this volume, with their publishing date 1977 and later) never really moves beyond the conventions of realism, reality in his stories is quite often something that cannot quite be trusted.
The protagonists in Bowles’ stories are often strangely passive, offering no resistance to what is done to them, enduring what they are going through with tacit acceptance like it was preordained. It is not just that they are resigned to their fate but as if they could not even conceive of things being any different, and this unquestioning fatalism tinges everything with an eerie, dreamlike quality. And even in the rare cases where someone is acting, it is not with any real agency; instead, they get entangled in circumstances they do not oversee and set into motion events they cannot control (like the boy in “Senor Ong and Senor Ha”) or are outright delusional (like the narrator in “You are not I”). They also quite often have something childlike about them (in fact, they surprisingly often are children or adolescents) in that they sense themselves to be surrounded by a vast conspiracy of grown-ups that they are not being let into and that is always just out of reach of their comprehension.
Therefore, as vivid as Bowles’ evocations of it can at times get, the world his characters move through never seems quite real, it’s texture and density are more akin to a fever dream or a drug-induced hallucination. Mind you, the stories never get explicitely phantastic or outright surreal, but they (at least the best among them) have a slightly off-kilter feel to them, like they were slightly out of focus, or maybe on the contrary too crisp and sharp in the details to be quite real. This can be rather disquieting to the reader, even creepy, and at least in my opinion it is in those moments, when the hold of realist conformity on Bowles’ imagination slips that he is at his most impressive.
In ending, let me add a remark on the edition of this collection: It sucks. It sucks, because it is pretty much non-existent. I am aware that this is not a critical edition, but even so – all the readers gets here is a short and not particularly introduction by Robert Stone and the year of first publication at the end of each story. One would have at the very least some information on when the stories were composed, where they were published and where collected, whether this are the complete stories of Paul Bowles, and if not, on what grounds they were selected – all very basic stuff that even a non-academic reader is likely to be curious about and that might help with placing the stories in a context and all of wich is missing from this edition.