The Reading Room

Paul Bowles Travel Writing

Review of ‘Travels-Collected Essays’ by Paul Bowles….

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, the public perception is characteristically one of a cigarette smoking, deeply tanned, slim and well-dressed man who wrote one stunning book, The Sheltering Sky as well as a further three novels, countless short stories and musical compositions for among others, Tennessee Williams.

From the moment Bowles first visited Morocco in 1930 he became obsessed with the country, its people and way of life. He immersed himself in their culture, moving to Tangier permanently in 1947 where he became fascinated with the music and literature of the region. The success of The Sheltering Sky would prove hard to follow, he needed resources and worked hard at travel writing, translating and musical scores and was far more productive than his legend might otherwise suggest.

This collection of travel essays covers the period from 1950 to 1993, many for Holiday magazine as well as other notable publications such as The Nation, GQ, London Magazine and Harper’s. It is unquestionably a rich collection of his work, a number of them are unapologetic in the author’s enthusiasm for Morocco’s drug culture and particularly cannabis of which he was a keener smoker than he was a drinker. His love of Tangier and greater Morocco is not biased, his depictions of his city are realistic and considered; ‘Tangier is a city where everyone lives in a greater of lesser degree of discomfort’

His travels are far-reaching and wide-ranging, in Colombo, Sri Lanka he examines the presence of religion; ‘There are Hindus and Moslems in every corner of Ceylon, but neither of these orthodoxies seem fitting for the place. Hinduism is too fanciful and chaotic, Islam too puritanical and austere. Buddhism with its gentle agnosticism and luxuriant sadness, is so right in Ceylon that you feel it could have been born here, could have grown up out of the soil like the forests. Soon, doubtless, it will no longer be a way of life, having become along with the rest of the world’s religions, as socio-political badge’ (Journal 1950) Bowles often revisited this feeling he had for the pace of change and its effects, he was a man who had seen both ends of the social and cultural ladder, fiercely protective of tradition, especially in the music of remote Moroccan villagers whose music he did much to record and preserve.

Bowles was a sublime travel writer, his ability to capture the heartbeat of a place was rarely bettered, he draws the reader into the pages, the heat, the smells, the sights, however tranquil or disturbing are captivating. But it is the sense of time standing still in the blazing sun, the carefree wanderings of a man stripped of Western influence and pressure which permeates throughout his writing. As we live in a 24/7 globally connected world, prisoners to technology, we need Bowles and his world more than ever. He wandered the planet when there were still acres to roam, he had that most precious of commodities; time and if you want or need a reminder of the importance of life and time well spent then look no further. He was the master.




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