The one story that always seems to stick in my mind and encapsulate the fiction of Paul Bowles is “A Distant Episode,” the last story in his first collection, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. It is the story of an unnamed European
or western Professor who is visiting a fictional Moroccan town and is tricked into the clutches of a band of native thugs who torture and dehumanize him. The exotic setting is typical Bowles, but it is not the idealized exoticism of romance. It is a setting and a story that is filled with threat and menace almost from its very opening lines. It is a story that illustrates very clearly what is often considered the major theme of Bowles’ work, the clash of cultures and in this case, the ineffectuality of so-called representatives of civilization when faced with savage and brutal violence.
“A Distant Episode” and fifty one other Bowles stories are available in The Library of America’s Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings, the companion volume to their annotated edition of his three novels: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, and The Spider’s House. Together the two volumes, edited by Daniel Halpern, provide as definitive a view of Bowles’ fiction as any reader could want.
The Sheltering Sky, his critically acclaimed first novel, was published in 1949. Poet William Carlos Williams placed it at the top of his list of the best books he had read that year, according to Bowles’ biographer Virginia Spencer Carr. Bowles had already published shorter pieces in a variety of periodicals, and was well known as a composer, but it was this novel that made his literary reputation. The story of an American couple and a friend traveling through North Africa some time after the end of World War II, it is a much more extensive treatment of the theme of cultures colliding. It is a horrifying journey that ends in death and madness.
His second novel and the second novel in the volume, Let It Come Down, is a panoramic picture of life in the expatriate community of Tangier focused on a newly arrived middle aged American seeking after a new life. If in the nineteenth century, Henry James was noted for his portrayal of the cultural conflicts between Americans and Europeans, Bowles takes as his theme the conflict between Western culture and that of the Islamic East. If in The Sheltering Sky, that culture was seen as a threat, in this second novel, its alien values seem to unleash Westerners from their conventional values. Now it is those from the West who are the threat: one expatriate is worse than the last.
The Western characters in both these novels seem to be looking for something to make their lives meaningful. The Moresbys of The Sheltering Sky are completely unable to communicate with each other. Not half way into the novel they are betraying one another. But whatever spiritual renewal they may be after they cannot find it in the dirt and poverty of North Africa. The expatriates in Let It Come Down look for romance and escape, only to get caught up in corruption and depravity. It chronicles the fall of a man free from the restraints of his cultural norms.
The Spider’s House is a more political take on the cultural confrontation dealing with colonialism and nationalism as it plays out at the end of the French rule in Morocco. The story alternates between an American novelist and a young Arab boy from an orthodox family whose lives become intertwined as the novel progresses. Stenham, the novelist, is devoted to the old Moslem ways and finds neither the French nor the Arab nationalists an acceptable alternative. In many respects, this book unlike the others reads more like a political thriller. Its early treatment of the theme of Islamic nationalism by a man who spent a good part of his life living among Moslems is certainly of great moment in this day and age.
Library of America volumes can be daunting with their embarrassment of riches. On the other hand, three important novels complete in one edition at a quite reasonable price — how can one complain? Not only that, but the volume comes with a lengthy chronology of the author’s life, a glossary which can be a big help in understanding much of the foreign terminology to the uninitiated, and notes to translate some of the many non-English interpolations. Of course, the notes and glossary come at the end of the book, so they are not as useful as they would be were they included as footnotes. Still, better at the end than not there at all.