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A mellower Bowles has his say

Paul Bowles A Life Virginia Spencer Carr Scribner: 432 pp., $35

June 05, 2005|Millicent Dillon | Millicent Dillon is a novelist and biographer whose books include "You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles" and "A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles."

When Virginia Spencer Carr wrote to Paul Bowles in 1991 explaining her desire to be his biographer, the novelist granted Carr permission but added that he was sure there would be "no malevolence" in her effort. By return mail, she writes in her biography's introduction, she assured him, "I was a straight arrow when it came to the truth, and that I had not a malevolent bone in my body."

A less assertive biographer might have considered the possibility that every biographer needs at least one malevolent bone in her body (just as a critic needs at least two). But undeterred, Carr plunged ahead with her project.

By 1994, things had so come about, Carr tells us, that she had persuaded Bowles to come to Atlanta, where she lived, for surgery and to stay as her houseguest during the three months he was recuperating. Talk about success as a straight arrow. Think of the biographer -- any biographer -- struggling for accessibility, desperate to grasp not just the life but the soul of the subject. And then consider Carr: her subject at hand in her very own house. One can only imagine how much better Boswell could have done with Johnson if he had him walled up inside his house instead of wasting time trailing after him in coffeehouses.

After this auspicious beginning, Carr sets out on an earnest narrative of fact. She progresses from Bowles' birth in 1910 and childhood in Jamaica, N.Y., to his freshman year at the University of Virginia and his sudden decision to take off for Paris, from which point he was in continual motion, going to the French Riviera, New York, the University of Virginia, Berlin, Morocco, Mexico and elsewhere. Sometimes he was with others, as with Aaron Copland, with whom he studied composition; sometimes he was alone, but wherever he was, he met important people in the art world and charmed them with his wit and wonderful looks. Carr mentions his affairs, both homosexual and heterosexual. She notes his marriage to the writer Jane Auer in 1938. (It was to be a lifelong marriage, sexual for only the first year -- he preferred men; she preferred women.)

The narrative rushes on -- there is so much to be told -- through his years as a composer and as a writer of short stories. He returned to Morocco in 1947, where he wrote the novel "The Sheltering Sky," and made Tangier his home base, even as his travels continued apace. Carr notes the publication of his other novels, tells of Jane Bowles' stroke and subsequent illness and goes into a compendium of facts, commented upon at times by Bowles. She ends with his death in 1999 and the service at his gravesite, at which, Carr tells us, she read his poem "Nights."

Naturally, one anticipates a new slant on Bowles as a result of her remarkable coup of closeness. In fact, in the course of reading Carr's book, I kept being reminded of a scene from a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho is being embraced by an overly eager blond who keeps urging him, "Hold me closer, hold me closer." "If I hold you any closer," he quips, "I'll be on the other side of you."

Indeed, in Carr's work, the Paul Bowles who emerges is different from the Paul Bowles of other biographies, his own autobiography, his letters and innumerable interviews. Here, in Carr's rendering, is the other side of Bowles: the novelist as pussycat.

Absent from Carr's book, rubbed out, as if he'd never been, is the Bowles of history and legend: the charismatic escape artist -- witty, enchanting and seductive one moment, elusive the next. Sharp in his thinking, a gifted mimic, Bowles was reserved but wary, an expert at telling without revealing. He was a man who readily admitted being selfish, who refused to feel guilty, who didn't believe in excuses or regrets, who refused judgment -- someone who believed that life itself was judgment enough on any human being.

But Carr's Bowles: Ah, does he regret, is he a softie, especially when looking back on events in his life? Take, for example, an episode when Bowles smacked his wife. Yes, he admitted to an earlier biographer, he smacked her, these were the circumstances, this is what happened. Period. But Carr's telling ends with a different comment by Bowles: He is so sorry, he is really sorry that he did this.

Or take Bowles' attitude to Helvetia Perkins, Jane Bowles' longtime lover. In his earlier recountings, he often said that he tried over the years to get Jane to leave Helvetia. She's bad for you, he would say to Jane, though she never listened to him. To Carr, Bowles said, "We [Helvetia, Jane and Paul] were not a bad threesome, and I became rather fond of Helvetia. Although she had a selfish streak, I always thought she had Jane's best interests at heart."

Or take the time early in their marriage when the Bowleses were living in a French village, and he was invited to dinner by the local hostess. Jane wasn't invited, so he went without her, though she was furious. According to Carr, Bowles commented on this episode: "It was stupid and inconsiderate of me."

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