"Thus open the gates of paradise."

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Paul Bowles

06 Apr 2002

Thursday, 18 November 1999

Photo of Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles

I found out that Paul Bowles had died the afternoon before leaving on a trip to New York City. I had known it'd be coming; he had not been in good health these last few years.

For the next few days, I asked people at work if they knew who Paul Bowles was. Nothing. "He wrote The Sheltering Sky," I prompted. Nothing. "Let It Come Down"? Still nothing. "A Canadian writer?" asked my lawyer when I mentioned I was reading one of his books. "No. American, though he has lived in Tangiers for years. A contemporary of William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Gore Vidal." At least that's what I think I said, though from this look on his face, I might of been speaking Comanche.

But this is what you need to know: He has written some stunningly good books which you can probably find in a decent public library. If you're lucky, you might find one of them in your local big barn book store. If you're lucky. I checked mine this morning, and they had nothing. Not even The Sheltering Sky, which is his most famous work. Bernardo Betrollucci made a film of it about 10 years ago, which was very pretty, but didn't really capture the book. In the documentary film "Let It Come Down," you can see Bowles and Burroughs lamenting the film, saying that it never should have been made because all of the action goes on in peoples' heads. How are you supposed to film that? (The documentary is fabulous, by the way. If you get a chance to see it in its original form, or its butchered TV version, do give it a look.)

Back to my lawyer. I mention that I'm currently reading Let It Come Down. "What's it about?" he asks, a perfectly reasonable question. And I'm stumped. How do I answer this? "It's about an American who goes to Tangiers in the 1950s and ... hangs out." What an empty answer. The book is about observing, and being without planning, and lust and living. I'm no better prepared to answer that question than something like, "What's your friend Dave about?" How do you sum up a person in a few short sentences? What's the point in trying?

My favourite passage from The Sheltering Sky is one where someone looks up at the night sky and sees a full moon. They ponder the shortness of life by estimating the number of full moons that they are likely to see in the rest of the their lives -- it's surprisingly few. This image has stuck with me for 10 years, and will probably stay for many moons to come. But I wanted to to give you something from that book, so here's a bit from the near the end:

She gave up, and was lifted again to a sitting position, where she remained, her head thrown far backward. The sudden road or the plane's motor behind her smashed the walls of the chamber where she lay. Before her eyes was the violent blue sky -- nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.

Related Sites

BBC New Obituary
My review of the documentary "Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles"