Joyland

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Nothing is Lost or Found: Desperately Seeking Paul and Jane Bowles

by Lynne Tillman

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

Excerpted from the essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? forthcoming from Red Lemonade books this March. Pre-order it here.

I once read: “All journeys have destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” The beginnings of journeys and narratives can be as surprising as their secret destinations. They can start as mysteriously as they end, they can start before one thinks.

I was living in Amsterdam in 1972 when I was given a Valentine’s Day gift, an anthology entitled Americans Abroad. It had been published in The Hague in 1932, in English, and was an out-of-print and rare book. It included well-known American expatriate writers—Stein, Pound, Eliot—less well-known ones—Harry and Caresse Crosby—and many unknowns. The unknowns dominated, the way they usually do. Immediately, I wanted to edit a new one, to represent American writers now, or then. Some months later, I was introduced to an editor who had a novelty imprint at a large Dutch publishing house. He liked the idea. He also liked enormously obese women and had posters of them, nude, hidden in his office. After he got to know me a little, he showed them to me. I remember this very well and the fact that on signing the contract he paid me an advance of fifteen hundred guilders.

I think 1971 was the year I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies. I knew that Jane Bowles was ill, in a Spanish hospital, unable to speak her name, and I also knew that Paul Bowles was installed in Tangier and had been since the 1940s. To me, he was the preeminent American abroad (the term is aptly dated), and I was determined to have him in the book.

Writing a letter to Paul Bowles was alarming, and I worked on it for a week. After deliberating, in a circuitous and paranoid way, I decided not to reveal that I was female. It was the era of William Burroughs’s vicious or satiric retort to feminism, The Job. Burroughs and Bowles were friends; I considered, in a convoluted way, that even though Paul Bowles was married to Jane Bowles, if he was in any way like some of his friends, or affected by their mean-spiritedness, he might now hate women and not want to be in a book edited by one. This might not be true at all—and if it were, why would I want him in the book? But I was in Amsterdam, smoking hash. I concocted a sexless letter, signed it Lynne Merrill Tillman (Lynne is also a man’s name; Merrill is my mother’s maiden name) and mailed it.

Bowles quickly replied that he’d be happy to be in the anthology. I’d asked for original material; he wrote that he’d send me some, and did. After another letter or two—I’ve kept all of his letters—I received one in which he inquired if I were a man or a woman, and how he should address me—Miss, Mrs. or Mr.? Otherwise he was “obliged to use Dear Lynne Merrill Tillman.” I wrote that I was female, in a letter I hope is lost, and he thanked me in his next letter for setting him straight.

The anthology’s publication date kept being postponed, and everything Bowles had given me appeared elsewhere. Finally he wrote that he had no more new or unpublished work to contribute except some poems he’d written in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and, he said, they weren’t very good. I wrote that they’d be included even if they weren’t very good, because I had to have him in the book. But, I asked, didn’t he have anything else, maybe some letters he’d written?

Bowles sent two letters he wrote his mother when he first went to Europe in 1931 with composer Aaron Copland. One told the hilariously anxious tale of his and Copland’s nearly missing a boat from Spain to Morocco. The other was written from the south of France, where he was visiting Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas for the first time. I was overwhelmed by my good luck.

Encouraged by our friendly, frequent correspondence—it was now 1976 or 1977 and I was in New York—I asked him for some writing from Jane Bowles. Requesting her work was even harder than asking for his. She was dying when I began the project, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking him for her work then or right after she’d died. I didn’t want Paul to feel taken advantage of. I thought her death must have been so painful for him that even mentioning her name would upset him. I hesitated a long time. I didn’t appreciate then that people usually don’t want the people they love to be forgotten. Jane Bowles is often and usually forgotten.

I wanted her desperately. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, was a revelation—a work of genius, unique, subversive. These terms are overused, and usually misused, but are true of this audacious, brilliantly written novel, this masquerade, comedy, tragedy, with its anarchic, singular views of sexuality, marriage, femininity, masculinity, American culture, exoticism. Jane Bowles ignored the worn lines between conscious and unconscious life; she beggared the realist novel with writing indifferent to prosaic notions of reality. Her dialogue is the most particular and idiosyncratic in American literature, as peculiar and condensed as speech in jokes and dreams. I loved and respected Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, “He of the Assembly,” and “Pages from Cold Point.” But Jane Bowles’s novel shifted the ground for me—she made the world of writing move. Move over and sigh.

Paul Bowles sent two fragments from a notebook of hers, just a few paragraphs. I was thrilled. With the Bowleses’ contributions, I thought, the anthology had a reason to exist. But it was abandoned by its first publisher (the novelty imprint was dissolved) and then again, in about 1980, by its second, a friend who was a small press publisher. One of Jane Bowles’s paragraphs was later quoted in Millicent Dillon’s excellent biography of her, A Little Original Sin, but the other—about getting married and loneliness—has still not been published. Of it Paul Bowles wrote, “I find it a complete mystery, myself.”

Our correspondence continued. We wrote about domestic life—collapsing roofs—and dreams we had. He typed his letters on white, crinkly airmail paper. His signature, in black pen, was neat and without any flourishes. I have a couple of letters on green airmail paper written entirely in his legible hand. In one he wrote: “Place seems to have become unimportant.”

The anthology receded from consciousness, and I threw myself into writing and co-directing an independent feature film called Committed. It was released in 1984, and I was, too, to finish writing Haunted Houses, my first novel, which was published in 1987. On its back cover was a quote from the late Kathy Acker that began: “Lynne Tillman, daughter of Jane Bowles.” Jane Bowles never had any children, and it didn’t occur to me that when the book came out people would think Jane Bowles was my mother. But an acquaintance stopped me on St. Marks Place and said, “I thought your mother was in Florida.” One reviewer wrote that “the author mentioned her mother, Jane Bowles,” in the novel, and it was a problem. Acker plagiarized texts, wrote characters who invented multiple identities, invoked “her” mother and father, and no one knew what was fact or fiction. It was ironically appropriate that she inadvertently bestowed a legend upon me, a fictitious literary genealogy. On bad days I imagined it was the best thing about me.

I sent my novel to Paul Bowles, hoping he wouldn’t be bothered by the quotation about Jane Bowles and me. He read the book, which was very generous of him, more generous than I recognized then. He even liked it. He said it reminded him of a Russian novel, because he confused the protagonists. He didn’t mention the quote, and this lack—and the existence of the quote itself—became another layer in the strange and stealthy background of my journey to him. Even his allusion to a Russian novel seemed part of the confusion of character and characters that preceded me and ensued when I finally arrived in Tangier in August 1987.

I wanted to talk with Bowles in person, because I hoped to make a film of Two Serious Ladies. It would be my homage to Jane Bowles, and maybe it would bring attention to her work. I could picture the book as a film, its bizarre scenes happily haunted by the ghost of director Preston Sturges, its eccentric dialogue delivered by actors like Lily Tomlin (she’d play Miss Goering, one of the two serious ladies). Bowles thought the film rights had been sold years ago, but he couldn’t remember to whom. I found the person I was told was Jane Bowles’s agent, who would presumably know. And so starts a terrible story, one I can tell in expurgated form only, to protect others and also myself from further misunderstanding and even the law.

The agent knew nothing about the rights and actually didn’t have them, yet involved me in discussions over four months about my buying them. In my first visit I explained that it would be a very low-budget film, and in the last the agent announced: I’ve taken a look at the story, and it is a little longer than I thought it was. Actually, it’s longer than her other stories. So I’ll have to ask you for one hundred thousand dollars. Crushed, I left the office.

I was informed by my agent, after she studied the novel’s copyright notice, that the book might be in the public domain. I asked the Library of Congress to do a copyright check, in fact three, and each time the book turned up in the public domain. Still unconvinced, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to that great house of copyrights, where I was brought to a room the size of a football field and shown the file cabinet that held the card for Jane Bowles’s only novel. The copyright had not been renewed by her publisher in 1973—the year she died. They’d forgotten. The book was like Shakespeare, the library told me.

I wrote the script and, with the Library’s authorization, received two grants to make the movie. I was slowly moving forward when one day I received a call from a lawyer who told me his client owned the rights, that the book was not in the public domain in Europe, and that they would stop me from showing the film. Confused, I hired a lawyer, and the sorry story continued.

I met Buffie Johnson, a painter friend of the Bowleses, and visited her in her apartment in SoHo. She offered to introduce me to Paul in Tangier, where she summered. Though I didn’t need an introduction—everyone drops in on him in the afternoon and we’d been corresponding for years—I accepted her offer gratefully, eagerly. Buffie had had an affair with Jane Bowles in the 1940s. Jane dropped her, she said, because Jane liked older women, and she and Jane were the same age. Buffie told me that in those days homosexuals married each other and that Jewish people, like Jane, kept their religion quiet. After I commented that Mrs. Copperfield, in Two Serious Ladies, could have been code for Mrs. Goldberg, Buffie continued, in a lower register, that before the war everyone was a little anti-Semitic.

A disturbing event happened just weeks before I left for Tangier. I received a copy of a letter Jane Bowles’s agent had sent Paul Bowles. It warned of my imminent arrival, that I was trying to steal Jane Bowles’s work, that I was, in short, a thoroughly bad character. The letter was meant to deter me, I suppose. But how did the agent know I was going to Tangier? What network was I in, who had betrayed me? All along I’d been writing to Bowles about my dealings with the agent and the Library of Congress, detailing my mostly futile attempts at getting to the bottom of things, where truth supposedly resides. I felt I had nothing to hide. Obviously, I was naive. If I make any money from the film, I wrote him, I’d be happy to give you half. He had not profited from the recent sale of the rights, and the idea that I was in this for the money was grotesquely amusing.

The situation had become Byzantine. Everything connected closely to Paul Bowles, I would discover, was and wouldn’t be a surprise to him. He knew much worse characters, perhaps, than I could ever be or aspire to—Cherifa, for instance, Jane’s Moroccan lover. She was rumored to have poisoned Jane. I didn’t believe this and hoped Paul Bowles didn’t, either, just as I hoped he wouldn’t believe I was the mercenary, flawed character the agent described. David Hofstra, a musician and the man I live with, accompanied me to Tangier. We took a room in the famous—now defunct— Hotel Ville de France. Matisse had stayed there and painted the view out of his hotel window. David and I went immediately to see Buffie. She was waiting for us in the apartment Jane Bowles had lived in years before, just above Paul’s. (The Bowleses kept separate apartments.) Then, like a security guard, Buffie escorted us to Paul’s apartment, and walking down the stairs, my breathing became stuck in me or suspended. My life was about to change or stay shockingly the same.

We knocked, the door opened, we entered and were introduced to Bowles. He was, he said, about to go to the beach. Would we come back tomorrow afternoon? I handed him the script, we left and I breathed. I didn’t know what he was wearing or even what he looked like. If I had an image of him, it wasn’t contested by the reality of seeing him. I hadn’t seen him. He might be running away from me, I thought, but when he was there the next day, I decided he wasn’t. Maybe just stalling for time. (Later I was told that days before, another writer had rushed from London to Tangier, to advise him not to sell the rights. But did he have them to sell?)

He liked the script, Bowles told me; it was faithful to the book. But, he said firmly, I can’t help you. My lawyer had asked the other lawyer for evidence, a document authenticating ownership of the rights. None was ever produced. My lawyer believed Paul Bowles could exercise his rights as the inheritor of Jane Bowles’s estate, if he wanted. Yet what Bowles had once written me spun another cautionary literary tale. A publisher had gone to Spain to see Jane in the hospital. The publisher asked Paul to leave the hospital room, so he could be alone with her, and when the publisher emerged, he held a piece of paper in his hand. The publisher had gotten Jane to sign something, when she didn’t know what she was signing. On this scrap of paper, the film rights to the book rested. That was the story. Bowles never contested the publisher’s claim. He lived in Tangier, it was explained to me, precisely because he didn’t want to become involved in ordinary and tawdry matters like fights over rights.

Now, a little numb or stunned, with the film out of the way, or dead, I could try to have a good time. There I was, sitting with Paul Bowles in his darkened living room, drinking tea served by the taciturn Mohammed Mrabet, Bowles’s companion. I’d read Mrabet’s stories, which Bowles had taped and written down. They were published in Mrabet’s name, but bore the mark of Bowles’s spare, elegant style. Mrabet, I found out later, had once asserted that Bowles was merely his typist.

I greedily listened to Bowles’s stories about Jane and himself. In 1943, during the war, when Jane was living in New England with her lover, Helvetia, he told us, he was in Mexico. He was still writing music and needed one of his instruments—a drum. But he couldn’t remember where it was. He wrote Jane and asked if it was in Staten Island, or with her in New England, or in their apartment in New York? There was some urgency to his request, and Jane Bowles sent a telegram in return: Drum not in basement, not on Staten Island, not in New York. Drum can’t be found. The day after, the doorbell rang at Jane’s residence. It was the FBI.

FBI: Your husband was in Morocco in the spring of 1942? Jane: Yes.
FBI: And in South America in the fall of that year?
Jane: Yes.

FBI: He’s in Mexico now?
Jane: Yes.
FBI: Why does he travel so much? Jane: I guess he’s restless.

By now Helvetia, at Jane’s request, was burning some of their papers in the fireplace, though it was the summer. But after questioning her a little longer, the FBI was mollified. It turned out that there was a colonel in the army named Drum, and her telegram had been intercepted—all telegrams were read during the war. The FBI thought they might have uncovered an underground group plotting to assassinate Colonel Drum.

In Bowles’s darkened living room, above the couch, was a single bookshelf. On it were all of Jane Bowles’s books, all the editions, in all the languages into which they’d been translated. The shelf was a shrine to her, and I felt her presence in his life and in the room through her books. I plucked up the courage to question him about her novel. Why had Jane Bowles named one of the serious ladies Miss Goering? Bowles looked amused and said: That was Jane’s little joke.

I remember saying, tentatively: I think I’ve got an idea for another novel. Bowles nonchalantly said, I haven’t had an idea in twenty years.

We intended to take him to dinner but didn’t. We visited him three times and met him on the street once. We took photographs of him alone, with Buffie, and of Buffie alone. David took some of me and them. Bowles didn’t like being photographed and turned wooden. I made him laugh in one and that shot came out blurred. It was too bad. He looked very handsome laughing.

Paul Bowles never mentioned Kathy Acker’s quote. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Some years before I’d mailed him a story in which I’d quoted a line from his autobiography, Without Stopping. He wrote a long letter about it and questioned me on an interesting point of grammar. He never mentioned my tribute to him. His reserve, discretion or secretiveness was impressive, intimidating,or disturbing.

It’s unsettling and strange rendering this account and calling up faulty memory to describe my pilgrimage, if that’s what it was, to him and the spirit of Jane Bowles. I was as close to her as I’d ever be. Her presence was almost palpable—I wanted her to be there—and always evanescent, like life itself. Even stranger was the sensation I had when I was with Paul. Sometimes I felt I was his daughter, as if that quote had created a symbolic link between us, even a blood tie, in an extraordinary demonstration of the power of fiction. It was a feeling, too, that I got, after my father died, around older men I liked who were difficult to know, the way my father was. I admired Bowles’s writing, its inscrutability, lack of apology and explanation, its dark humor, reserve, mystery. He had all of this, too. I didn’t know him, I liked him, I didn’t know what he thought of me. We laughed together, and I can like or feel familiar around anyone who’s funny.

I gave up the film, returned one of the grants, was allowed to keep the other and use it toward writing the novel I’d mentioned to Bowles. It was called Motion Sickness, which now seems an appropriate title for the experience of writing this weird history of failure and desire. Two Serious Ladies has still not been made into a film.

After visiting Bowles, I began my letters “Dear Paul B.” I sent him and Buffie copies of the photographs we’d taken, and he wrote a postcard thanking me. It ended, “Your visit to Tangier was very short, unfortunately. Another time, perhaps?” I haven’t returned, but I did fly to Atlanta in 1995 to visit him when he came to the States for an operation. It was his first visit since 1968. I also saw him briefly at Lincoln Center for a concert of his music. These last years he’s been ill and doesn’t answer most letters. I treasure the ones I have.

Paul Bowles died on November 18, 1999, at the age of 88. This essay was first published in Tin House issue 3, 1999.