The short fiction of American literary cult figure Paul Bowles is marked by a unique, delicately spare style, and a dark, rich, exotic mood, by turns chilling, ironic, and wrypossessing a symmetry between beauty and terror that is haunting and ultimately moral. In "Pastor Dowe at Tecaté," a Protestant missionary is sent to a faraway place where his God has no power. In "Call at Corazón," an American husband abandons his alcoholic wife on their honeymoon in a South American jungle. In "Allal," a boy's drug-induced metamorphosis into a deadly serpent leads to his violent death. Here also are some of Bowles's most famous works, including "The Delicate Prey," a grimly satisfying tale of vengeance, and "A Distant Episode," which Tennessee Williams proclaimed "a masterpiece."
How do you tell a great writer from the also-rans? Vladimir Nabokov claimed it was easy. A "master artist" always has a profoundly distinctive vision, with the power to annex and transform one's own. Read a Jane Austen novel, and life becomes a sharp-edged comedy of mismatched domestic fancies. Immerse yourself in Henry James, and experience transforms itself into a shimmering web of fugitive impressions. With Paul Bowles, the effect may be even stronger, as this first complete collection of his stories makes clear. You only need to read a passage or two from one of his best pieces to feel thrust at breakneck speed into Bowles' universe. It is a realm of shocking cruelty and cold detachment, andto the revulsion of some readers and the illicit thrill of othersit proves powerfully seductive. Bowles' stories are full of pits and voids and gorges, and as you read, it becomes hard not to feel as if he were pulling you implacably toward the abyss. You lift your head from his pages with the unnerving sense that you have been sucked willy-nilly into Bowles' brain and now look out on the world with his Olympian eye for suffering and violence.
In fact, that experience closely matches the events Bowles' stories obsessively recount. Bowles loved disorientation, whether it came from travel or disease or drugs. And he seems to have enjoyed inflicting it on his characters as much as on his readers. In his paradigmatic tale, a diffident American or European tourist arrives in a harsh and exotic landscapeusually Morocco, but sometimes Sri Lanka or the coastal lowlands of Colombiathere to be confronted by primitive locals he or she regards with mingled fascination anddread. The journeys teach Bowles' protagonists variations on a single lesson: The veneer of bourgeois civilization is tissue-thin; beneath its facade, the truth of life and its beauty is barbarous and cruel. Almost always, the lesson destroys them. Like the protagonist of "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté," Bowles' heroes find themselves cast "outside God's jurisdiction ... passed over into the other land."
To summarize Bowles' stories in this schematic way, however, does little to convey their extraordinary power, which owes more to the artistry of his narrative and the adamantine quality of his prose than to their more evident themes. In truth, those themes, along with a number of Bowles' motifs, were hardly new. As the many gorges and abysses might suggest, what his fiction did at its most basic was refurbish the Gothic tradition that had descended from Edgar Allan Poe. Grafting the genre's outworn conventions onto Joseph Conrad's literature of imperial decline, Bowles preserved the Gothic obsession with the dark underside of the middle-class psyche. But he divorced it from the hulking manses and labyrinthine tunnels that had traditionally provided the genre's setting, and he jettisoned its typically feverish diction. In classically restrained prose that any modernist might envy, Bowles projected this sensibility in new directions, both outwardonto impenetrable jungle forests and the blinding emptiness of the desertand inward, into the meanderings of his protagonists' minds. In the process, he created a Gothic literature for the jaded, late-twentieth-century palateone so subtly handled that it managed not to seem Gothic at all, but rather a kind of dispassionate reportage. As Bowles himself explained, for the visitor to places like the Moroccan desert, who fell among the superstitions of its nomadic tribes, life could seem to bend suddenly to a dark and potent magic.
Indeed, it's only by taking his stories as a complete oeuvre that one begins to grasp the nature of Bowles' innovation, and the deftness with which he achieved it. In the best examples (the notorious "A Distant Episode" and "The Delicate Prey," and less-celebrated but equally impressive masterworks like "Pages From Cold Point," "The Hours After Noon" and "The Frozen Fields"), Bowles' eerily neutral tone and his acute eye for psychological nuance lend his stories devastating power.
Unfortunately, reading the whole collection of his tales also shows the stature of his best work by comparison. Nearly all Bowles' great stories, along with his novels, came during a decade-long burst of creative activity that began in the late '40s, and while Bowles continued to write and translate prodigiously nearly until his death in 1999, little that he produced would match the strength of his early work. ("The Time of Friendship"a surprisingly gentle story about a Swiss woman whose love affair with the people of the Sahara is ended by nationalist anticolonialismis a brilliant exception.) An earlier version of his collected stories, published in 1980, had already included some experimental longeurs. This new edition adds twenty-four entries, and while they will be of interest to scholars and enthusiasts, they can do little to burnish Bowles' reputation as an artist.
Even at their most impressive, though, Bowles' stories may be best taken in small doses. Read in the stark isolation Bowles favored, they impose themselves on the reader with the sense of dark fatefulness that traps his characters. Their grasp feels cold and sinisterand utterly compelling.