Paul Bowles

11/19/1999 9:00AM

It was around 10 o’clock by the time I got in last night. I was just getting back from a Moroccan cooking class, feeling full from several consecutive hours of North African feasting.

The feverish flu that hounded me all day long was chased away by the distraction of food. Perhaps the cinnamon and cayenne kicked the flu out of me? I thought to myself as I got out of my car. A brief, ephemeral cloud of a thought that was quickly blown off shore by a more serious thought-front moving through; one that called into question my future as a writer. I played my key-choice-as-omen-of-writing-future game whereby I stand on my front porch and arbitrarily pick a key from my key chain and if said key unlocks my front door, I interpret it as an indication that I should continue to apply pen to paper with due diligence. Had it not fit, I’d still be writing this morning, albeit with an even thicker, more ominous cloud of self-doubt than the one that never fails to deny the muses to shine down on me unfiltered. Needless to say, the key fit and I once again basked in the hope that inspiration stood waiting around just the next corner.

After filling my wife in on the evening’s exotic dishes, we went to bed. I remember turning off the light and standing over my side of the bed, my hands fumbling around the nightstand, hunting among the precarious stonehenge of picture frames for my earplugs (sharing a bedroom with our boxer Emily, who clearly suffers from a bizarre manifestation of canine sleep apnea is like trying to sleep in a factory).

At this exact moment my wife informed me that Paul Bowles was dead. Huh, I said. Not the huh with an implied question mark that indicates disbelief, but the huh of finality that denotes the audible period of a sentence begun at some unremembered point in the past and is only now winding its way around to some sort of terminus.

As a wave of neurochems washed through my brain, cultivating a response to this news, my wife pointed out the irony of my attendance at the aforementioned Moroccan gastronomy exploration on the same day of Bowles’ death. I was several steps behind her on this one, as I usually am several leapthoughts behind her anyway. I further confess that I was at the moment still trying to uncover whether or not I had any idea that Bowles was still living when I learned of his death.

All of which points to the strange relationship between authors and the readers of their books. I stood over my bed, earplugs warming, compressing in my hands. I had the unmistakable feeling that a friend of mine had just died, a friend who’s existence I was never that sure of to begin with.

I am at my very core a pathetically lazy reader. I can’t honestly recall more than a couple of books that I’ve read by Bowles. Only two books, specifically Sheltering Sky and some longish essay on modern Morocco, are distilled from my recollection. Still, my life is fundamentally different because he lived and wrote and I read what he wrote.

At least once a week, Bowles’ telling of the three sisters and their pursuit of tea in the Sahara finds a way to imbue some event in my life with meaning that would be lost had I not read Sheltering Sky. I can’t count the number of times my grasping for some experience removed from the pedestrian has been either instigated or squelched by recounting the fictional lives of Port and Kit.

Knowing that Bowles spent some part of his life traveling through Africa in search of indigenous music that transcended the commonplace, and consequently inspired the listener to transcend, etc., it is impossible to avoid reading Port’s life as a parallel to Bowles’ own life. When Port says, ” Everyone makes the life he wants,” it is near impossible to imagine Bowles disagreeing with his character’s take on fortune and fate. As such, finding myself in a convergence of events that simultaneously seems out of my control and calls the meaning of my life in to question, I am urged optimistically forward by Bowles’ creepy but knowing voice to decide how I would wish my life to be instead of leaving it to chance and blaming outside forces later.

I have, at least in my own private thoughts and recollections, so thoroughly confused Port and Bowles that the former seems more real than fictional creation I know him to be and the latter seems too knowing to be anything but the creation of a masterful novelist. 

No doubt, Bowles’ appearance at the end of Bertolucci’s beautiful (but full of shortcomings) cinematic interpretation of Sheltering Sky contributes to my uncontrollable intermingling of the character and his creator.

In the last minutes of Sheltering Sky, Bowles makes an appearance to recite a passage that is spoken by Port about 2/3rds of the way through the novel. In the book, the passage reads:

As I slipped into bed my wife said, ” He won’t get to see the moon rise again.” I put my earplugs in and lay in a dark room made intermittently light by the moon, hoping, pleading that my friend got to see the full moon float across the black, North African sky one last time. And that as he watched it, he knew with certainty that it would be the last time, cheating life’s uncertainty and not taking a moment of it for granted.