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A Room of His Own

YOU ARE NOT I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles.\o7 By Millicent Dillon (University of California Press: 342 pp., $27.50)\f7

June 21, 1998|EDMUND WHITE | Edmund White recently completed a short biography of Marcel Proust. His most recent novel is "The Farewell Symphony."

I have a theory that the easiest way for a minor talent to become famous is to be the only celebrity in a city that everyone wants to visit. Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria and Paul Bowles in Tangier. . . .

In reading "You Are Not I," Millicent Dillon's frustrating attempts to spend some time alone with Bowles, I recalled my own single effort in the late 1980s when I went to interview him for Vogue. I recognized the same dirty little apartment in the ugly modern building, the dusty plants everywhere, the eternal smell of kif, the noisy histrionics of Bowles' lover-friend Mohammed Mrabet who, when I asked him if he was going to dictate to Bowles a sequel to his memoirs (Mrabet is illiterate), said, unsmilingly, "No, I don't like to write. I make more money from my sheep." The comings and goings (that day it was Patricia Highsmith and her girlfriend), the stoned jokes and silences, the rehashing of old hash anecdotes, Bowles' impeccable, dandified appearance in the midst of the squalor--oh, it all came flooding back, and I didn't envy Dillon her assignment one bit.

In 1981, Dillon published an excellent biography of Bowles' brilliant but unhappy wife, Jane, called "A Little Original Sin." It was based in part on conversations between Dillon and Bowles that took place in Tangier in 1977. At that point, Jane Bowles had been dead only four years and her husband had had a lot to get off his chest. In the intervening years, Dillon has published "The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles" and "Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970."

Now she has written a maddening, exhilarating, category-defying "portrait" of Paul. She dispenses with the biographical summary of his life and achievements in the first few pages and moves on to something altogether different: a record of her usually hapless efforts to pry something out of Bowles, whether it be an insight into his own works, acknowledgment of his feelings or just a simple recognition of Dillon's existence (in all their years together, the only personal question he ever asked her was how long she'd been living in San Francisco).

I kept reading it as a study in contrasts: between a sophisticated but relatively sheltered heterosexual woman and a thoroughly disabused homosexual man; between a biographer with a Jamesian sensitivity in search of spiritual drama and her subject, a man intent on letting everything--his past, his writings, his present, his loves and hates--wash over him as though he were a particularly stolid and impervious boulder at the foot of a waterfall. It is also the story of a woman who has devoted her life to studying Jane and Paul and who now, at 67, wants to discover how she and her story figure into the carpet she's been so patiently weaving for two decades. Finally, there's the story of a biographer who hopes her subject will finally say something profound or insightful--Bowles at 81 is truly old, tired, bored, and finds Dillon's probing vaguely irritating, although he's obviously extremely fond of her--and the sleepwalking novelist who has a superstitious fear of knowing too much about either his formal strategies or the paraphrasable meaning of his content, lest when he wakes up to write, he will have dissipated his dreams in mere talk.

One of Bowles' current friends said to me recently, "Paul is as passive as some of his characters," an observation that gains credibility when one reads that Bowles refused to encourage or discourage a woman who was courting him after Jane's death. "I never said anything," Dillon quotes Bowles as saying. "Well, I never do. I don't know why you have to say something. You just have to go on living. People can guess for themselves whether it's yes or no." Elsewhere, when Dillon asks him if his feelings were hurt when one of his Moroccan lovers left him for a rich woman, Bowles says in his best Zen or extraterrestrial manner, "I don't know. I don't know what it feels like to have your feelings hurt." It is a lack of passion that his readers may recognize in his most troubling short story, "Pages From Cold Point," in which the father who has just slept with his son says, "Destiny, when one perceives it clearly from very near, has no qualities at all."

When Dillon first began to research the life of Jane, many of the novelist's old friends gasped at her resemblance to Jane. The photographer Karl Kissinger said to her, "You know, you could be her more serious sistJer." Going into biographer overdrive, Dillon adds her own reasons for identifying with Jane: "[H]er mother's name was the same as my mother's; her grandfather's name was the same as my grandfather's. She lived in Woodmere, Long Island, at the same time I did. At 13, after her father's death, Jane and her mother moved to Manhattan, to the very building where my family lived when I was born. Jane broke her right leg in 1931; I broke mine the same year."

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