“The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles

“The Scorpion”

by

Paul Bowles


An old woman lived in a cave which her sons had hollowed out of a clay cliff near a spring before they went away to the town where many people live. She was neither happy nor unhappy to be there, because she knew that the end of life was near and that her sons would not be likely to return no matter what the season. In the town there are always many things to do, and they would be doing them, not caring to remember the time when they had lived in the hills looking after the old woman.

At the entrance to the cave at certain times of the year there was a curtain of water-drops through which the old woman had to pass to get inside. The water rolled down the bank from the plants above and dripped onto the clay below. So the old woman accustomed herself to sitting crouched in the cave for long periods of time in order to keep as dry as possible. Outside through the moving beads of water she saw the bare earth lighted by the gray sky, and sometimes large dry leaves went past, pushed by the wind that came from higher parts of the land. Inside where she was the light was pleasant and of a pink color from the clay all around.

A few people used to pass from time to time along the path not far away, and because there was a spring nearby, those travelers who knew that it existed but not just where it was would sometimes come near to the cave before they discovered that the spring was not there. The old woman would never call to them. She would merely watch them as they came near and suddenly saw her. Then she would go on watching as they turned back and went in other directions looking for the water to drink.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. Continue reading ““The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles”

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I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn (Paul Bowles)

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself.

From Paul Bowles’s short story “Unwelcome Words.”

Tell me, would you please, about Jane Bowles

INTERVIEWER

Tell me, would you please, about Jane Bowles.

BOWLES

That’s an all-inclusive command! What can I possibly tell you about her that isn’t implicit in her writing?

INTERVIEWER

She obviously had an extraordinary imagination. She was always coherent, but one had the feeling that she could go off the edge at any time. Almost every page of Two Serious Ladies, for example, evoked a sense of madness although it all flowed together very naturally.

BOWLES

I feel that it flows naturally, yes. But I don’t find any sense of madness. Unlikely turns of thought, lack of predictability in the characters’ behavior, but no suggestion of “madness.” I love Two Serious Ladies. The action is often like the unfolding of a dream, and the background, with its realistic details, somehow emphasizes the sensation of dreaming.

INTERVIEWER

Does this dreamlike quality reflect her personality?

BOWLES

I don’t think anyone ever thought of Jane as a “dreamy” person; she was far too lively and articulate for that. She did have a way of making herself absent suddenly, when one could see that she was a thousand miles away. If you addressed her sharply, she returned with a start. And if you asked her about it, she would simply say: “I don’t know. I was somewhere else.”

INTERVIEWER

Can you read her books and see Jane Bowles in them?

BOWLES

Not at all; not the Jane Bowles that I knew. Her work contained no reports on her outside life. Two Serious Ladies was wholly nonautobiographical. The same goes for her stories.

INTERVIEWER

She wasn’t by any means a prolific writer, was she?

BOWLES

No, very unprolific. She wrote very slowly. It cost her blood to write. Everything had to be transmuted into fiction before she could accept it. Sometimes it took her a week to write a page. This exaggerated slowness seemed to me a terrible waste of time, but any mention of it to her was likely to make her stop writing entirely for several days or even weeks. She would say: “All right. It’s easy for you, but it’s hell for me, and you know it. I’m not you. I know you wish I were, but I’m not. So stop it.”

INTERVIEWER

The relationships between her women characters are fascinating. They read like psychological portraits, reminiscent of Djuna Barnes.

BOWLES

In fact, though, she refused to read Djuna Barnes. She never read Nightwood. She felt great hostility toward American women writers. Usually she refused even to look at their books.

INTERVIEWER

Why was that?

BOWLES

When Two Serious Ladies was first reviewed in 1943, Jane was depressed by the lack of understanding shown in the unfavorable reviews. She paid no attention to the enthusiastic notices. But from then on, she became very much aware of the existence of other women writers whom she’d met and who were receiving laudatory reviews for works which she thought didn’t deserve such high praise: Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Anaïs Nin. There were others I can’t remember now. She didn’t want to see them personally or see their books.

INTERVIEWER

In the introduction that Truman Capote wrote for the collected works, he emphasized how young she’d been when she wrote Two Serious Ladies.

BOWLES

That’s true. She began it when she was twenty-one. We were married the day before her twenty-first birthday.

INTERVIEWER

Was there something symbolic about the date?

BOWLES

No, nothing “symbolic.” Her mother wanted to remarry and she had got it into her head that Jane should marry first, so we chose the day before Jane’s birthday.

INTERVIEWER

Did your careers ever conflict, yours and your wife’s?

BOWLES

No, there was no conflict of any kind. We never thought of ourselves as having careers. The only career I ever had was as a composer, and I destroyed that when I left the States. It’s hard to build up a career again. Work is something else, but a career is a living thing and when you break it, that’s it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you and Jane Bowles ever collaborate?

BOWLES

On a few songs. Words and music. Any other sort of collaboration would have been unthinkable. Collaborative works of fiction are rare, and they’re generally parlor tricks, like Karezza of George Sand and who was it: Alfred de Musset?

INTERVIEWER

How did she feel about herself as an artist—about her work?

BOWLES

She liked it. She enjoyed it. She used to read it and laugh shamefacedly. But she’d never change a word in order to make it more easily understood. She was very, very stubborn about phrasing things the way she wanted them phrased. Sometimes understanding would really be difficult and I’d suggest a change to make it simpler. She’d say, “No. It can’t be done that way.” She wouldn’t budge an inch from saying something the way she felt the character would say it.

INTERVIEWER

What was her objective in writing?

BOWLES

Well, she was always trying to get at people’s hidden motivations. She was interested in people, not in the writing. I don’t think she was at all conscious of trying to create any particular style. She was only interested in the things she was writing about: the complicated juxtapositions of motivations in neurotic people’s heads. That was what fascinated her.

INTERVIEWER

Was she “neurotic”?

BOWLES

Oh, probably. If one’s interested in neuroses, generally one has some sympathetic vibration.

INTERVIEWER

Was she self-destructive?

BOWLES

I don’t think she meant to be, no. I think she overestimated her physical strength. She was always saying, “I’m as strong as an ox,” or “I’m made of iron.” That sort of thing.

INTERVIEWER

Considering how independently the two of you lived your lives, your marriage couldn’t really be described as being “conventional.” Was this lack of “conventionalism” the result of planning, or did it just work out that way?

BOWLES

We never thought in those terms. We played everything by ear. Each one did what he pleased—went out, came back—although I must say that I tried to get her in early. She liked going out much more than I did, and I never stopped her. She had a perfect right to go to any party she wanted. Sometimes we had recriminations when she drank too much, but the idea of sitting down and discussing what constitutes a conventional or an unconventional marriage would have been unthinkable.

INTERVIEWER

She has been quoted as saying, “From the first day, Morocco seemed more dreamlike than real. I felt cut off from what I knew. In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I’ve written two short stories and nothing else. It’s good for Paul, but not for me.” All things considered, do you think that’s an accurate representation of her feelings?

BOWLES

But you speak of feelings as though they were monolithic, as though they never shifted and altered through the years. I know Jane expressed the idea frequently toward the end of her life, when she was bedridden and regretted not being within reach of her friends. Most of them lived in New York, of course. But for the first decade she loved Morocco as much as I did.

INTERVIEWER

Did you live with her here in this apartment?

BOWLES

No. Her initial stroke was in 1957, while I was in Kenya. When I got back to Morocco about two months later, I heard about it in Casablanca. I came here and found her quite well. We took two apartments in this building. From then on, she was very ill, and we spent our time rushing from one hospital to another, in London and New York. During the early sixties she was somewhat better, but then she began to suffer from nervous depression. She spent most of the last seven years of her life in hospitals. But she was an invalid for sixteen years.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a long time to be an invalid.

BOWLES

Yes. It was terrible.

From Paul Bowles’s 1981 Paris Review interview.

“The Hyena,” an ecstatic abject fable by Paul Bowles

“The Hyena”

by
Paul Bowles


 

A stork was passing over desert country on his way north. He was thirsty, and he began to look for water. When he came to the mountains of Khang el Ghar, he saw a pool at the bottom of a ravine. He flew down between the rocks and lighted at the edge of the water. Then he walked in and drank.

At that moment a hyena limped up and, seeing the stork standing in the water, said: “Have you come a long way?” The stork had never seen a hyena before. “So this is what a hyena is like,” he thought. And he stood looking at the hyena because he had been told that if the hyena can put a little of his urine on someone, that one will have to walk after the hyena to whatever place the hyena wants him to go.

“It will be summer soon,” said the stork. “I am on my way north.” At the same time, he walked further out into the pool, so as not to be so near the hyena. The water here was deeper, and he almost lost his balance and had to flap his wings to keep upright. The hyena walked to the other side of the pool and looked at him from there.

“I know what is in your head,” said the hyena. “You believe the story about me. You think I have that power? Perhaps long ago hyenas were like that. But now they are the same as everyone else. I could wet you from here with my urine if I wanted to. But what for? If you want to be unfriendly, go to the middle of the pool and stay there.”

The stork looked around at the pool and saw that there was no spot in it where he could stand and be out of reach of the hyena.

“I have finished drinking,” said the stork. He spread his wings and flapped out of the pool. At the edge he ran quickly ahead and rose into the air. He circled above the pool, looking down at the hyena.

“So you are the one they call the ogre,” he said. “The world is full of strange things.” Continue reading ““The Hyena,” an ecstatic abject fable by Paul Bowles”

Some books I’ll try to read in 2017 (Presented by The Good Intentions Paving Company)

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I’m in the middle of Paul Bowles’s stories right now, and loving the weird sinister menace of it all. I’ll probably take a crack at some of his novels this year too (The Sheltering Sky next? I’ll need to pick them up).

Senges’s The Major Refutation is also on deck.

Not pictured, because it’s not out yet, is Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories (forthcoming in the spring from Dorothy); I’m really looking forward to this one. The NYRB is also publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below, which looks really cool. I’ve only read the collection The Oval Lady (and that through samizdat means), so I’m happy to see Carrington’s words in print.

The Expedition of Dr. Ramsbottom, Leonora Carrington, 1961
The Expedition of Dr. Ramsbottom, Leonora Carrington, 1961

Also not pictured because its forthcoming (from Two Lines Press) is Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll (translated by Adam Morris). I’m anxious to read more from Noll after digging his novella Quiet Creature on the Corner.

Also not pictured: I’d like to reread Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I read it when I was 19 or 20. I don’t own it.

Back to the stack in the picture: I loved Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and The Freelance Pallbearers (which strikes me as a really under-remarked upon novel), and I plan on getting to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down at some point this year.

I’ve had a few false starts with Arno Schmidt’s The Egghead Republic, but maybe I can knock it out in a weekend.

I’ve taken multiple cracks at the novels by Gray, Murdoch, and Hawkes in the stack…so we’ll see.

I read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden in a blur; I’d like to reread it and the other Forrest novel I picked up last month, Two Wings to Veil My Face.

I’ve read enough Pynchon now to make a better effort with Vineland…but again, we’ll see (I’m actually kind of jonesing to reread Against the Day).

(And oh I didn’t make a list like this in 2016, but I was 4 for 8 in the one I did in 2015).

Good intentions.

Paul Bowles describes a Moroccan trance dance of self-mutilation

The mind is a thing absolutely apart (Paul Bowles)

The only way to do anything is to have it so well rehearsed in one’s imagination that when the moment comes one does it automatically, as though for the hundredth time. Then it is all natural, and there is little likelihood of a slip-up. And there was no slip-up anywhere along the way. It was a heavy day, but not too hot because of the rain, which fell quietly as I walked down the road to the station. On the train I was not in the slightest degree perturbed: I knew there was no chance of any trouble. I kept marveling at the peculiar pleasure afforded by the knowledge that one has planned a thing so perfectly there can be no room for the possibility of failure, all the while being conscious that both the pleasure and the idea itself were completely childish, and that my conviction of success was, at the very least, ill-founded. But certain situations call forth certain emotions, and the mind is a thing entirely apart. I have cakes of soap that I bought twenty-five years ago, still in their wrappers, and I am saving them in the perfect confidence that the right day will come to unwrap each one and use it. And there are probably a hundred books downstairs in the library that I am eager to read, have been eager to read for years, yet refuse to read until the day comes, the day that says to me: This is the morning to start Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, or George Borrow, or Psichari, or someone else. Now, in my logical mind, I know quite well that these promised days are not likely ever to arrive: I shall never use those old cakes of soap that are stored in the linen closet, and I am reasonably sure of never reading Romany Rye, because it doesn’t interest me. But there is that other person, the ideal one that I ought to be, whom it does interest, and it comforts me to think that those things are there waiting for him. Certainly, the mind is a thing absolutely apart.

From Paul Bowles’s 1954 story “If I Should Open My Mouth.”

“Doña Faustina” — Paul Bowles

“Doña Faustina”

by

Paul Bowles


NO ONE COULD UNDERSTAND why Doña Faustina had bought the inn. It stood on one of the hairpin curves in the old highway leading up from the river valley to the

town, but the route had been made useless by the building of the new paved road. Now it was impossible to reach the inn except by climbing up a stony path over the embankment and walking several hundred feet down the old road which, no longer kept in repair, already was being washed away by the rains and strangled by the shiny vegetation of that lowland region.

On Sundays the people used to walk out from the town, the women carrying parasols and the men guitars (for this was before the days of the radio, when almost everyone knew how to make a little music); they would get as far as the great breadfruit tree and look up the road at the faded façade of the building, more than half hidden by young bamboo and banana plants, stare a few seconds, and turn around to go back. “Why does she leave the sign up?” they would say. “Does she think anyone would ever spend the night there now?” And they were quite right: no one went near the inn anymore. Only the people of the town knew that it existed, and they had no need of it.

There remained the mystery of why she had bought it. As usual when there is something townspeople cannot understand, they invented a whole series of unpleasant explanations for Doña Faustina’s behavior. The earliest and most common one, which was that she had decided to transform the place into a house of ill-repute, soon fell to pieces, for there was absolutely nothing to substantiate such a theory. No one had been seen to go near the inn for weeks, except Doña Faustina’s younger sister Carlota who arrived from Jalapa, and the old servants José and Elena, who went to market each morning and minded their business strictly enough to satisfy even the most vicious gossips. As for Carlota, she appeared occasionally at Mass, dressed in black. It was said that she had taken their father’s death very much to heart, and would probably not remove the mourning, ever.

The other suppositions evolved by the people of the town in their effort to bring light to the mystery proved as unlikely as the first. It was rumored that Doña Faustina was giving asylum to Chato Morales, a bandit whom the police of the region had been trying for months to capture, but he was caught soon afterward in a distant part of the province. Then it was said that the inn was a depository for a drug ring; this also proved to be false. The leaders of the ring, having been arrested, divulged their secrets, and the cache proved to be in a room above the Farmácia Ideal. There were darker hints to the effect that Carlota might be luring lone voyagers to the inn, where they met the fate that traditionally befalls such solitary visitors to lonely inns. But people did not take such suggestions seriously. The opinion grew that Doña Faustina had merely gone a little mad, and that her madness, having taken an antisocial turn, had induced her to retire to the outskirts of town where she could live without ever seeing anyone. To be sure, this theory was contested by certain younger members of the community who claimed that she was no more crazy than they, that on the contrary she was extremely crafty. They said that having a great deal of money she had bought the inn because of the ample lands which surrounded it, and that there in the privacy of the plant-smothered gardens and orchards she had devised all kinds of clever ways of hiding her riches. The older citizens of the town took no stock in this, however, since they clearly remembered both her husband and her father, neither of whom had evinced any unusual prowess in collecting money. And she had bought the inn for practically nothing. “Where would she have got the pesos?” they said sceptically. “Out of the trees, perhaps?” Continue reading ““Doña Faustina” — Paul Bowles”

Read “In the Red Room” by Paul Bowles

“In the Red Room”

by

Paul Bowles


When I had a house in Sri Lanka, my parents came out one winter to see me. Originally I had felt some qualms about encouraging their visit. Any one of several things–the constant heat, the unaccustomed food and drinking water, even the presence of a leprosy clinic a quarter of a mile from the house might easily have an adverse effect on them in one way or another. But I had underestimated their resilience; they made a greater show of adaptability than I had thought possible, and seemed entirely content with everything. They claimed not to mind the lack of running water in the bathrooms, and regularly praised the curries prepared by Appuhamy, the resident cook. Both of them being in their seventies, they were not tempted by the more distant or inaccessible points of interest. It was enough for them to stay around the house reading, sleeping, taking twilight dips in the ocean, and going on short trips along the coast by hired car. If the driver stopped unexpectedly at a shrine to sacrifice a coconut, they were delighted, and if they came upon a group of elephants lumbering along the road, the car had to be parked some distance up ahead, so that they could watch them approach and file past. They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.

Colombo, where all the people I knew lives, was less than a hundred miles away. Several times we went up for weekends, which I arranged with friends by telephone beforehand. There we had tea on the wide verandas of certain houses in Cinnamon Gardens, and sat at dinners with professors from the university, Protestant ministers, and assorted members of the government. (Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.) These weekends in the city were hot and exhausting, and they were always happy to get back to the house, where they could change into comfortable clothing.

One Sunday not long before they were due to return to America, we decided to take in the horse races at Gintota, where there are also some botanical gardens that Hannah wanted to see. I engaged rooms at the New Oriental in Galle and we had lunch there before setting out.

As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.

But we were going to the botanical gardens, Hannan reminded him. I’d like to have just a peek at them. Continue reading “Read “In the Red Room” by Paul Bowles”

“Technologies of Heartbreak” — Josephine Demme

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Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)