Friday, December 29, 2017

Borges: Is History Repeating Itself?

Robert J. Clements

BUENOS AIRES “A dictatorship is good for writers. Censorship challenges them to make their points with ever greater care and subtlety.”

When Jorge Luis Borges voiced this aphorism to student questioners at New York University a few years ago, the students, aware of his misfortunes under Juan and Eva Perón, thought it was black humor. They didn't realize it was precisely the acceptance of this challenge that had enabled him to survive and had honed his ironical wit.

Borges's words return to me as I walk from San Martin Square to the National Library. The harbingers of Perón's return are ever present. No wall stands without Perlin posted seriatim. Posters of Perón (as civilian and as lieutenant general), posters of Perón and Isabel (“the formula of the people”), ditto with Isabelita's face scratched away, and posters of Eva Perón rediviva (“Evita lives”). Everyone remembers how Perón, before his flight in 1955, removed Borges from his directorship of the National Library and designated him a poultry inspector. Now we are apparently to see a confrontation between the 77‐year‐old demagogue and his 73‐year‐old scourge.

The National Library at 11 A. M. is chilly inside. Shortly Borges appears on the scene, leaning on an aide's arm. He looks older now, and his eyes no longer focus on you. Yet the keen wit, the graciousness and the quiet dignity have not changed. Borges explains in a whisper the holdings in the main reading hall. “We must not disturb the readers.” He is proud of the 800,000 volumes. “Good for a South American library, although not to compare with the two or three millions in small American universities.” Borges refuses my gambit of Spanish, clinging to his precise English. A heritage, he explains, from his father, whose yellowing English dictionary he proudly exhibits on his bare desk.

I voice my approval of the Spanish custom of appointing the nation's most distinguished literary figure to head its national library, recalling the case of Menéndez y Pelayo.

“No, no. He was a great man.”

It is appropriate to talk literature for a while before getting to the topic on both our minds. I propose that his best story is still “Averroese's Quest,” that ironic version of the great Arabic scholar at work on his translation of the “Poetics” of Aristotle. In Borges's recreation Averroese (Ibn Rushd) is familiar with all the literary terms in Aristotle except “comedy” and “tragedy.” I mention that I tell this story often to classes. Borges agrees that it may be his own favorite.

At length we arrive at the topic of Perón's return to power.

“Is history going to repeat itself, Borges?”

“History may well repeat itself.” He is referring to his own dilemma as well as that of his country. He speaks at length and with frankness about the character of Perón and of the cynicism of the Peronists. “If you call Perón a rascal, they do not mind. They mind only if you call him a fool.”

He talks of the deteriorating intellectual climate in Argentina, already anticipating as inevitable a new Perónism. Of the new political appointments at the University, a scandalous dilution of prestige.

“The only liberal element left is the P.E.N. Club.”

He then explains how the “great funk” already involves him as an individual and a writer. “Editors who have invited me to do an article for their journal now write back to suggest that I hold off. Friends who have asked me to give a lecture now suggest that it is not the proper time.” As elections approach, a universal mutism takes over. In a matter-of‐fact voice he concludes, “I am the only one who speaks out.”

Naturally Watergate comes up, with the inevitable comparison of Nixon's and Perón's techniques of centralizing power. Borges feels that the United States cannot succumb to a corrupt autarchy. “You are protected by your own Protestant background. Here, the ingrained Catholic love of form and ritual attracts people to the hierarchical.”

Friends try to rationalize that Borges could not again fall victim to Perón. Has not Borges been twice a nominee for the Nobel Prize? Has not Perón now stated that Argentina needs all talented men of whatever party? Borges does not share this optimism. Would Borges accept something like the Norton Lectureship he held at Harvard, a foundation grant—or a post as writer‐in‐residence? Just in case the cycle of history did start to revolve.

“I should not only accept it, but be grateful for it.” Yet, he qualifies, he could not at this moment leave his 97‐year‐old mother, who has served so long as his reader and secretary and who is ill. “Then, too, an offer to come to the States would have to provide for an assistant because of my sight problem.”

After a pause, he adds, as if debating it within himself, “If my mother passed away, I think I might leave this city, which has so many memories for me.”

Eventually he walks me out the door to the broad stone stair, waiting courteously, cane in hand, until I reach the first floor. His farewell, or perhaps it was a goodbye, leaves me sad. I am told that a recent poem in the Nación touches upon his own death.

Later that day the distinguished writer Susan Bombal asks me to come to tea with Borges at her home. I am very tempted, but decline, reluctant to intrude further into his labyrinth. What can be done for Argentina's greatest writer, past or present? One solution might be for the Swedish Academy, instead of making an accessit of Borges once again, to award him the deserved laurel which has harassed and embarrassed despots through the choice of laureates: Hitler through Jensen, Stalin through Sillanpää, Bulganin and Khrushchev through Pasternak, Franco through Juan Ramón Jiménez, Brezhnev through Solzhenitsyn.

It might be the very mechanism to save Borges from Perón.

Credits: This article originally appeared in 1973 in The New York Times.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Madness of Queen Jane

Negar Azimi

The Hotel de las Palmas, in Jane Bowles’s conspicuously strange novel “Two Serious Ladies,” is a gnatty pension where pimps and winos lie about. It is here, in a rundown Panamanian port town called Colon, a place “full of nothing but half breeds and monkeys,” that Frieda Copperfield, a fine lady of early middle age and of respectable provenance, decides to jettison her handsome but square husband to find warmth and gin-soaked comfort in the arms of a teen-age prostitute named Pacifica. Lying in leonine Pacifica’s tiny bed, her cheek resting on the girl’s breast, Mrs. Copperfield feels that she has finally found the sort of love that she has always looked for. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else for the world,” she says, a little later, about the inn that will soon become her adopted home.

The passionate pursuit of elusive happiness is the major preoccupation and drama for the heroines of “Two Serious Ladies,” Bowles’s only novel, born of many years of writing and many more of worrying over her inability to do so. Few people have had more legendary writers block—Bowles spent decades agonizing over works she would never complete—which is, at least in part, why “Two Serious Ladies” is required reading when it comes to understanding the writer’s enigmatic and crooked world. The recent reissue of the novel by HarperCollins, the second since Bowles’s collected works were released in 1967, provides an occasion to revisit the underknown half of a famous couple—she was married to the considerably more prolific and ultimately more celebrated Paul Bowles. Hard drinking, hard living, and neurotic, the outlines of Jane’s exhaustingly dramatic persona very often overshadowed her art. At forty, while living in Tangier, she suffered a debilitating stroke that would send her into premature convalescence. She died sixteen years later, alone, in a Spanish convent. And yet her literary output, small but perfect, puts her on a stylistic planet all her own.

As “Two Serious Ladies” opens, we meet Cristina Goering, an acquaintance of Frieda Copperfield’s, whom we are told is the daughter of a powerful American industrialist. From here, Bowles relates each woman’s separate story, until the two, who are friendly but not intimate, cross paths at the book’s unforgettable end. Both women—they are referred to as Miss and Mrs., like the good librarian types they appear to be—are of bourgeois bearing. Both, too, astonish, perplex, and offend just about everyone they meet, willfully straying from the straight path set before them and descending into debaucherous excess. Dipsomaniacal uptown girls—one is never far from a drink in this tale—these serious ladies find pleasure downtown, in the company of lunatics, clowns, and misfits.

As a young person, Miss Goering was disliked by other children. Out of touch and out of fashion, she was marked by the “look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.” As an adult, she sent people running with her eccentrically too-red cheeks, dark heavy clothing, and verbal non sequiturs. Once, trying to engage in a friendly conversation with another woman on a train, she is told by the conductor to stop molesting the passengers. Heroically unaware of her strangeness, or indifferent to its effects, Miss Goering seems to do everything she can to reject the life that is expected of her. Accompanied by a female companion and a male hanger-on, she abandons her stately Victorian home outside of New York City and relocates to a gloomy little house on an island (we can presume it is Staten Island). After squeezing all she can out of that strange milieu, she travels to a neighboring town; there, she halfheartedly has an affair with a sulky hobo who, in spite of the hospitable weather, keeps his blinds drawn at all times. After eight days, she leaves him for a burly, steak-eating gangster lothario who mostly speaks in single syllables and mistakes her for a prostitute. She loves him more for his mistake and, in fact, it marks the beginning of their “relationship.”

“In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place,” Miss Goering says. Later, when she gives herself over to the gangster, she speaks of a “sickening compulsion” to do so, as if resisting the airless cage of convention and comfort has a kind of moral character of its own. Bowles very often marks these spiritual journeys with water. Miss Goering, after all, has relocated to an island. Her far more timid companion, Miss Gamelon, announces that she fears “crossing large bodies of water.”

Mrs. Copperfield is also immersed in baptismal water. Her affair with (aquatic) Pacifica begins in Panama. In one of the book’s most tender scenes, the teen-age prostitute teaches Mrs. Copperfield how to swim. Floating, finally, precariously, “Mrs. Copperfield felt happy and sick at once.” Afterward, trembling and exhausted, the reader senses that she has undergone an intense sexual experience. Here and elsewhere in Jane Bowles’s universe, sex—itself understood as a lascivious transgression—appears to be crucial for inching toward some as yet undefined and utterly necessary salvation. (Did Georges Bataille ever read young Jane?)

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

But the early reviews seem to confirm what ardent fans of Jane Bowles have known all along: she is a neglected genius. Like most readers, I read Paul before Jane. His spooky short stories, set in North Africa and full of madness and magic and sex, thrilled me. Much later, I encountered “Two Serious Ladies” through a friend who had claimed Jane as a distinguished literary lesbian—thankfully, she has not yet been reduced to that caricature—and realized that Paul had somehow, through no fault of his own, sucked up all the air between them. Jane’s gift, perhaps above all, was her uncommon ear for dialogue. Her speech was as eccentric and abrupt as dada, but it was also painfully real. Here is Miss Goering: “I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.” She continues, matter of factly: “I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.” Not entirely unlike the more disturbed members of J. D. Salinger’s Glass family, Jane’s characters are out of place, born at the wrong time, wearing the wrong dress, sexually unusual.

For those who actually knew her, the work may have been even more compelling because the line between her characters and Jane the person seemed so paper-thin. Born into an affluent Long Island Jewish family, Jane Auer was stained by difference from the beginning. Millicent Dillon, the author of an essential biography on the writer, notes that some local mothers referred to young Jane as a “terrible kid.” At least once, she and a friend went on a frenzied vandalism streak, defacing dozens of parked cars. Another time, she tried to swipe a sleeping woman’s wig (but was caught). A horse-riding accident at the age of fifteen, followed by a bout of tuberculosis, left her with a permanently bad leg. While being treated at a Swiss sanitarium, she became intimate with the works of André Gide, Marcel Proust, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In her early twenties—she was petite, with cropped hair and feline features—Jane was known to run around Greenwich Village salons with a cigar or a drink in hand, playfully referring to herself as Crippie, the Kike Dyke. (She harbored dramatic crushes on women. She was also very, very funny.) The composer Virgil Thomson said of her during this time, “People loved her. But what she cared about no one knew.” Like Mrs. Copperfield, who was scared stiff of elevators and of drowning, Jane suffered from phobias and indecision. As early as 1936, at the age of nineteen, she wrote to a friend, “The incapability of mine to ‘act’ is spreading. I stare at my corset for hours now before I put it on.”

And Jane, like both Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, was consumed by the idea of sin. “There is nothing original about me except a little original sin,” she wrote to a friend, in 1929. It is no wonder, perhaps, that she was so taken by the ascetic Simone Weil, another writer who had a terribly vexed relationship with the world, and who also suffered from a tragic sense of sin. Dillon, the biographer, writes that, for a period of her youth, Jane would read Weil’s “Waiting for God” each night before falling asleep.

In 1937, Jane met Paul Bowles, a slight, handsome, waspish composer from New York. He was seven years older than she was and already gaining a reputation for his hypnotic musical compositions for the theatre. They married, and lived both together and separately in the Chelsea Hotel, on West Thirteenth Street, and in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that they shared with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and others. They travelled, too—to Panama, Mexico, and Paris. In Paris, they visited Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude was very fond of Paul in particular; Alice later said of Jane that she was “not surprisingly like her novel”), Jane frequented a lesbian bar called the Monocle, and Henry Miller tried to go home with her. Jane, famously charming, was a flirt with both men and women, and in spite of her marriage to Paul—they were exceptionally devoted to each other until the end—she had affairs with women, many of them older, most of them inappropriate or somehow puzzlingly unattractive. In Mexico, Jane met Helvetia Perkins, a forty-four-year-old divorcée with whom she would live on and off for years (“Two Serious Ladies,” published in 1943, was dedicated to Paul, Mother, and Helvetia). Years later, in a letter to Paul, Jane writes, “Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.” Paul, in the meantime, had his own affairs, with men.

In 1947, upon Gertrude Stein’s suggestion, Paul settled in Tangier, a seedy port city where artists, pirates, picaros, philistines, homosexuals, lapsed aristocrats,real aristocrats, and paupers posing as kings had found refuge for centuries. Jane, true to her character, was wracked with indecision about whether to join him. She wrote this in a letter around the time of Paul’s move: “I’m sure Arab nightlife would interest me not the slightest. As you know I don’t consider those races voluptuous or exciting in any way.” And yet she went ahead, and stayed for the next two and a half decades. In Tangier, she and Paul presided over an enviable literary and artistic milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Brion Gysin, Mohamed Mrabet, and others. Grumpy Susan Sontag came over and hated Tangier. Djuna Barnes typed up “Nightwood” there. Jane made a reputation out of being a sort of resident literary muse; Tennessee Williams, who visited a number of times, hailed her as “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” Capote referred to her as “that genius imp, that laughing, hilarious, tortured elf.” Gore Vidal said of both the Bowles, “They were famous among those who were famous.”

Although initially skeptical, Jane embraced her new life in North Africa. Unlike the kind of pathetic travelers who, as Mrs. Copperfield writes in her journal, are “so impressed with the importance and immutability of their own manner of living that they are capable of traveling through the most fantastic places without experiencing anything more than a visual reaction,” Jane was bent on penetrating the inaccessible world of Tangier. This desire manifested itself most vividly in the person of Cherifa, a gorgonish, hirsute grain seller with whom Jane fell madly in love. Dillon, in her biography, writes of the fantastic hold that Cherifa—“this wild creature, this illiterate but powerful peasant girl nineteen or twenty years old, a descendant of the patron saint of Tangier”—had over Jane. Their relationship was odd. Barely sexual, it was mostly built around mutual need: Jane’s for Cherifa’s acceptance and Cherifa for Jane’s cash. Jane strained to learn the difficult, guttural Moroccan dialect of Arabic, Derija, so that she might understand Cherifa better. In her collected letters, one gets a view of a woman desperate to gain entry to Cherifa’s world, desperate to be accepted by a culture that was so far removed from her own. In a photograph taken at the gates of the city’s medina, Jane, tanned, quite possibly wearing a wig, dressed in a stiff white dress and with a slightly stoned air about her, stands next to Cherifa, who is in turn dressed in a black niqab and wearing dark sunglasses. It is a stirring image and yet utterly creepy. “Perhaps I shall be perpetually on the edge of this civilization of theirs,” Jane wrote to Paul as early as 1948.

Janet Malcolm once wrote, “Writing is a fraught activity for everyone, of course, male or female, but women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements, than men do to activate their imaginations.”* She might have especially been channelling Jane Bowles. Following the publication of “Two Serious Ladies,” Jane’s writing sputtered. When a play, “In the Summer House,” débuted in New York, in 1953, and closed only three weeks later, she was quoted in Vogue as saying, “There’s no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends.” No matter what encouragement she received from Paul and from others, she flailed. As if she were fulfilling the cliché that being well adjusted was somehow incompatible with an artistic temperament, every word she put to paper seemed to be torture. Jane, uncommonly dedicated to producing art that was unique, was her own harshest critic. Speaking about her process, Paul told Millicent Dillon that Jane couldn’t bring herself to “use the hammer and the nails that were there. She had to manufacture her own hammer and all the nails.” Somewhere along the way, her standards got in the way. So did booze. And so did Arabia.

“It was good for Paul, but not good for me,” Jane wrote of Tangier near the end of her life. Since having moved to Morocco, she had written a handful of short stories, a play, and many more unfinished sketches. With Paul’s midwifing, some of the material from “Two Serious Ladies”—for originally there were to be three serious ladies—was excised and reconfigured into the short stories “The Guatemalan Idyll” and “A Day in the Open.” In 1949, she published what might be her most magisterial short story, “Camp Cataract,” a tale of grotesquely dysfunctional sisters gone awry, in which Sadie, an overbearing spinster, meets an eerie end while trying to rescue Harriet, who has a nervous condition (she “practice[s] imagination” every morning), from the summer camp that she visits each summer. But by the nineteen-sixties, Paul’s rising literary star had dramatically eclipsed his wife’s. His first novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” which he later said he was inspired to write after the experience of helping Jane edit her “Ladies,” was widely praised and thought to be a classic. (Some years later, it would be made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci.) And yet, little attention has been paid to how Jane’s work and, perhaps, “Two Serious Ladies” in particular, set into motion a lifelong obsession and even an existential mode that came to mark not only Jane’s writing but also Paul’s for decades to come. “Two Serious Ladies,” published six years before “The Sheltering Sky,” appears to be cut from the same cloth. Both books take up travel and the situation of the foreigner in foreign lands. While Paul, in this work as well as in his short stories, captured how the East can break down men’s souls until they regress into a crazed primordial state, Jane saw in that same act of travel—uncomfortable, perilous, occasionally terrifying—her salvation. The Jane-like character in “The Sheltering Sky,” Kit, wanders deeper and deeper into the desert after her husband succumbs to typhoid, is repeatedly raped, and, finally, becomes the fourth wife and concubine of a Bedouin. Far from any trace of the civilized world and divested of reason, Kit goes completely mad.

Jane, too, eventually went mad. In 1957, at the age of forty, she suffered a massive stroke that left her vision impaired, making it painful to read or write. She depended wholly on Paul and assorted friends for care and supervision. The simplest decisions—what to wear, what to eat—would inspire hours of semi-theatrical vacillation. Although she was prohibited from mixing alcohol with her medicines, she very often drank herself into an incomprehensible stupor. A second stroke, frequent epileptic fits, and depression followed. When things got out of hand, Jane was treated in medical centers in the U.K., the United States, and Spain. By the end of her life, Jane, who had always been paranoid about money, was not only handing it out to American hippies and Moroccans in the bars of Tangier but also distributing her belongings to whoever would take them. Paul and others speculated that Cherifa might have cast a spell on her, a belief fuelled by the appearance of packets of pubic hair, finger nails, and menstrual blood that Cherifa had planted in the apartment that the two shared. In 1973, while staying at a Spanish convent in Malaga, Jane, who was never a practicing Jew, declared, as her childhood hero Simone Weil once did before her, that her last wish was to convert to Catholicism. She died not long after she was said to have danced “too wildly” at a birthday party for one of the other residents. She was fifty-six.

In the final scene of “Two Serious Ladies,” a slightly haggard Mrs. Copperfield, her sweet Pacifica in tow, joins Miss Goering at a New York City bar. Mrs. Copperfield, turning to her friend, says, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.” Jane, too, had gone to pieces. She lived as she loved and drank: ravenously. But, if her sense of sin spelled her end, it was also what made her astounding art possible in the first place.

Today, little is left of the loose and louche Tangier that Jane left behind. Guitta’s, the bar where she drank every night and was known to have at least once stripped naked, is now a French bank. The labyrinthine medina in which she liked to wander at night has been transformed into a maze of posh Club Med-style bed-and-breakfasts for French tourists. Even the building in which she lived her last years—Paul lived upstairs—is run-down. To get there, Moroccan taxi drivers respond to the sound “pa-bo pa-bo.” Downstairs, a stone engraving reads, in both English and Arabic, “Paul Bowles, American writer and composer, lived here from 1960 to 1999.“ There is no trace of Jane.

Correction: In a previous version of this post, this quotation was misattributed to Elizabeth Hardwick.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2014 in The New Yorker

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco

Adam Schatz

In 1931, a twenty-one-year-old American composer in Paris named Paul Bowles visited Morocco at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. His travel companion was his composition teacher, Aaron Copland. They rented a home in Tangier, where Bowles, a composer of svelte, jazzy music in the Poulenc mould, wrote one of his first scores, an impressionistic piano piece called “Tamamar,” after a village in the Atlas mountains. Copland was unsettled by the clamor of drums during wedding season, and thought Tangier a “madhouse,” but Bowles was enraptured. He collected 78s of local music, just as he had collected old blues recordings back home, and sent copies to Béla Bartók. “When I first heard Arabic music on records,” he recalled later, “I determined to go and live where I could be surrounded by sounds like those, because there seemed to be very little else one could ask for in life.”

By the time Bowles finally moved to Tangier, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1947, he had refashioned himself as a novelist, and was busy writing The Sheltering Sky, the tale of American expatriates in Morocco that remains his best-known work. Yet it was in large part the music of Morocco that led him to make his life there. A decade later, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco, recording traditional music of a startling variety—Berber, Arabic, Andalusian, and Jewish—for the Library of Congress. For years known mostly to specialists, the recordings from that remarkable project have now been re-edited and re-released in a meticulously prepared box set by Dust to Digital, Music of Morocco.

Morocco was rich in hypnotic sounds, and in his novels Bowles described them with a composer’s precision. In Let It Come Down (1952), he recreated a scene he had witnessed at a concert in Chefchaouen, where a man went into a trance, slashing his arms with a long knife and covering himself in blood, as he danced in “perfect rhythm with the increasing hysteria of the drums and the low cracked voice of the flute.” John Stenham, the hero of The Spider’s House (1955), imagines that he can find his way blindfolded through the old city of Fez merely by listening to the sounds of footsteps and water: taut, metallic reverberations…shuddered between the walls like musical pistol shots. There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single, and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would disclose its own design.

As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence. In his 1981 preface to The Spider’s House, Bowles explained that he had naively “imagined that after Independence the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to being more or less what it had been before the French presence.” To his horror, the Moroccan government embarked on modernization “with even greater speed” than the French. The Music of Morocco, a double LP featuring twenty-two selections of his recordings, was his attempt to preserve Morocco’s heritage before its inevitable dissolution: “a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts,” as he wrote in his grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation.

To listen to Music of Morocco is to experience the shock of the old: a ritualistic art that casts a spell through repeated, cyclical patterns, rather than the harmonic development typical of Western music. The first track—a Berber dance piece known as an ahmeilou, performed by Maallem Ahmed and his ensemble—immediately throws the listener into a world where music is supremely social. Five of the thirteen men are playing small drums that sound somewhat dry because they were heated before the performance; the other men are clapping. The tempo gradually quickens, the poly-rhythms assuming an insistent force as some of the men cry with pleasure. Music of Morocco features a range of singing styles—ululation, ecstatic wailing, drone-like riffs, even a kind of Arabic sprechstimme—as well as an array of indigenous instruments, including the gnbri, an Arabic lute; the kamenja, a violin played in the manner of a viola da gamba; and the rhaita, a reed whose sonorous, almost chewy tonality is somewhere between an oboe and a bagpipe. But the foundation of the music here is percussion. It can be a highly intricate affair, performed by virtuosic drummers, but it can also be as homespun as a brass tea tray being struck by two teaspoons.

In “Hadouk Khail,” a stunning example of the haouziya genre, we hear a group of singers—three women and one man—for nearly thirteen minutes, often in call and response, accompanied by the drone of two kamenjas and a variety of small percussion instruments. The singers repeat their lamentation—the haouziya was famous for expressing despair—but because no drum is struck twice in succession, the performance has an entrancing stop-start quality, a feeling of eternal return, until the final moments, when the drumming accelerates and the singers cry in unison. Bowles wrote in his field notes that “ecstatic expressions” appeared on “the faces of those singing and playing it,” adding that “the performers seemed finally able to reach some unnamable state which the music strives to induce in the group-psyche of those performing it.”

When the Library of Congress released Bowles’s recordings in 1972, only a few hundred copies were printed. One of its early admirers was an aspiring young ethnomusicologist, Philip D. Schuyler, who struck up a friendship with Bowles in Tangier. When Bowles was contacted in the mid-1990s by Bill Nowlin, a co-founder of Rounder Records, about reissuing Music of Morocco, he encouraged Nowlin to talk to Schuyler. As Schuyler immersed himself in the sixty hours of recordings, he decided that Bowles had chosen the best-recorded examples from the sessions, but that in his effort to be encyclopedic he had made misleading cuts, prising excerpts he fancied from longer performances. Schuyler proposed to restore those pieces to their original form, and to include eight additional tracks, roughly doubling the length of the album. In June 1999, he flew to Tangier with a mock-up of the re-release and played his cassettes for Bowles. “He was very frail and nearly blind,” Schuyler told me, but “he was gracious to the end.” A few weeks later he faxed his approval. Bowles died in November of that year, at eighty-eight.

It took another seventeen years for Schuyler to complete the project. As Schuyler told me: “I was having trouble satisfying all the people I thought should be given a fair hearing in the notes—Bowles and the Bowlesians, my colleagues in academia, and Moroccan musicians.” It was worth the wait. Music of Morocco includes not only four hours of arresting music, but a revelatory 120-page booklet, which features a preface by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Schuyler’s erudite overview. Each of the thirty tracks is annotated by three “streams” of text—Bowles’s original liner notes; additional writings by Bowles about his trip; and Schuyler’s commentaries. Throughout the booklet, Schuyler provides a tactful, often witty corrective to Bowles’s assumptions about “primitive” music (a word he used as a term of praise), and to Bowles’s own account of how he made his recordings. Yet Schuyler also defends Bowles against those who have dismissed him as a condescending expatriate, or Orientalist parasite.

Bowles set off on his first recording expedition in mid-July 1959 in a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to a Canadian expatriate friend, Christopher Wanklyn. He was forty-eight years old, and was making his living as a travel writer, having recently published The Spider’s House, which turned out to be his last novel set in Morocco. His two companions were Wanklyn and a Moroccan assistant, Mohamed Larbi Djilali. Over the next five months, they took four separate trips—covering a distance Bowles estimated at 25,000 miles—returning to Tangier for a few days after each journey so that Bowles could check in on his wife, who was ill. Bowles recorded 250 pieces of music, in twenty-two separate locations, with an unwieldy twenty-eight-pound Ampex 601 tape recorder. “He did it as a marathon,” Schuyler told me. “Bowles like to project this lackadaisical manner but he really worked hard, and he had to have this finished by December 31, under the terms of his grant.”

The logistical difficulties were not small. He spoke French and passable Arabic but no other indigenous languages. Bowles often had to transport musicians to towns along the main road where there was electricity—in one case to a military base. He arrived in the town of Aït Ourir, east of Marrakech, with thirty-two loaves of sugar—one for each of the musicians, an arrangement he had made with the caïd, the local notable who organized the recording—only to discover that a dozen musicians had been added to the ensemble. (The caïd solved the problem by taking all the sugar for himself and dividing it later.) While traveling through the Anti-Atlas mountains, Bowles and his companions were caught in a sandstorm that disabled their car for several days. Then there was the journey through the Rif mountains, along the eastern border with Algeria, where nationalist rebels were fighting the French army. Bowles wrote in his diary: “I don’t relish being ambushed by dissident troops in the Rif or along the Algerian frontier.”

Bowles, however, did not lack for courage—or ruthlessness. “A certain amount of music I hope to be able to get by installing myself in strategic spots and capturing it without the knowledge of the people making it,” he wrote in his Rockefeller proposal. In fact, as Schuyler notes, “his attempts to record by stealth usually ended in apparent technical disaster.” He was forced, instead, to organize recording sessions as any producer would. But to do so he needed the cooperation of the Moroccan authorities, who were not keen on his project. For one thing, he was not well liked in Morocco, particularly among its elites, who accused him of casting an unflattering light on their country. He was rumored to have been stingy, an exploiter of vulnerable Moroccans, and, worst of all, a practitioner of “moral turpitude,” an allusion to Bowles’s well-known liaisons with young Moroccan men.

But it was Bowles’s passion for traditional music, more than his disregard for traditional sexual mores, that raised the suspicions of Moroccan authorities. In a 1993 documentary, he remembered being told by one official, “If you record music in that village, it’s going to sound like savages.” In post-independence Morocco, traditional music was a somewhat embarrassing reminder of a disdained rural past. Much of the music Bowles proposed to record, moreover, was by Berbers, not Arabs. Their culture was later promoted by the government (and tourism industry) as part of Morocco’s heritage, but at the time Morocco was intent on brandishing its Arab credentials, and expressions of Berber identity were frowned on. (In the middle of his third expedition, Bowles received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by a warning from the Ministry of the Interior, that he ought to desist with his recordings immediately. He ignored both.)

Bowles believed that the Berbers in the High Atlas Mountains represented the “true spirit of North Africa,” and devoted the first LP, “The Highlands,” to their music. That urban Moroccans found Berber drumming to be a bore was an indication to him that they had lost touch with their roots. Instead they had succumbed to “the influent strain”—music influenced by Arab (especially Egyptian) styles that that he considered “schizophrenic music, an ethnical monstrosity.” Yet Bowles himself did not hesitate to introduce his own aesthetic preferences as a producer. The supposedly pure music we hear in Music of Morocco was reshaped—contaminated, as Bowles might have said—at the recording sessions, sometimes in ways that would have lasting effects in Moroccan music.

One of Bowles’s dreams, for example, had been to make a solo recording of the qsbah, a reed flute. Unfortunately, the qsbah was traditionally accompanied by singing and the bendir, a frame drum whose fuzzy overtones obscured the flute’s delicate sound. When Boujemaa Ben Mimoun, a renowned qsbah player in the foothills of the Rif, refused on principle to record solo, Bowles pressured the caïd: “The American government wished it,” he said. Boujemaa relented. Bowles recorded him performing two versions of the same piece, but omitted the one with the bendir, “an instrument I can do without.” In a travel essay, Bowles imagined a “lone camel driver” listening to the qsbah beside a fire, in a “landscape of immensity and desolation.” But to achieve that illusion, Bowles had to record Boujemma in a noisy little town, surrounded by a crew, local officials, and crowds who gathered to watch. Schuyler writes: “Bowles had recorded the music the way he wanted it to sound, conjuring an image of a place that didn’t quite exist.” (Schuyler hoped to include the bendir version but found the recording “as unlistenable as Bowles thought it was.”)

Bowles made a similar—and even more fateful—request of the singer Si Mohammed Bel Hassan Soudani, a master of the gnbri, an ancient African lute. Soudani, a member of the Gnawa, a spiritual group who trace their origins to sub-Saharan Africa, attached a small vibrator called a soursal to the neck of his gnbri. A small and flexible tin with perforated sides, the soursal creates a buzzing sound when the strings of the gnbri are plucked. That “sizzle” is a reminder of the Gnawa’s West African ancestry, and makes the gnbri “a ritual instrument,” Schuyler says. Bowles, however, disliked the “loud rattle” of the soursal, for much the same reason that he disliked the bendir, and asked him to remove it. They recorded two versions of the same song, a work of stark and expressive lyricism; once again Bowles retained only the “purified” one. The soursal version, which Schuyler has restored, is nearly twice as long, more explicitly African, and riveting, almost orchestral, in its tintinnabulation. It is also the trace of a tradition that Bowles helped bury.

According to Schuyler, gnibri performers have increasingly removed the soursal, in order to appeal to Western listeners. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Bowles was simply tampering with Moroccan music, or that his manipulations resulted in inferior, or “diluted,” forms of expression. As Schuyler argues, Bowles was often right “from a purely auditory standpoint.” It is true that he disregarded the musical roots he praised if they clashed with the sound he wanted; yet, precisely because of this, he helped to open new routes for Moroccan musicians. Bowles ended up taking part in the history of Moroccan music, and not merely chronicling it. Music of Morocco is not so much an archive as the document of an artist’s encounter with foreign traditions.

Sometimes that encounter would test Bowles’s own aesthetic assumptions. In Meknes, for example, he found “a gold mine”: a spellbinding secular Sephardic song, performed by a group of men led by a twenty-year-old hazan, or cantor. The men sing in Hebrew, but the haunting melody is a Muslim malhun, an Andalusian poem. Isaac Ouanounou, the hazan, explained to Bowles that Morocco’s Jews took their music “a little bit from everywhere” because they lacked their own melodic repertoire. There is nothing “pure” about this hybrid of Hebrew poetry and malhun, yet Bowles could not fail to recognize its beauty.

For all his talk about a “fight against time” to document traditions at risk of disappearance, Bowles was at heart an aesthete, not a preservationist. His commitment to the beauty of what he was recording was genuine, even if his understanding of Highland “authenticity” was something of a colonial fantasy. Morocco was for Bowles an old-new world that he experienced as a kind of salvation, at once cultural and erotic. Sometimes the sounds he encountered transported him back to the Harlem clubs he frequented in the 1920s and 1930s: “the Moroccan’s idea of what makes good dance music is the same as our idea of what makes good jazz, and they use the same word to describe it: skhoun (Hot).” And on Music of Morocco he presented a world of sound as evocative and intransigent as Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, which enthralled Bob Dylan with its vision of an “old, weird America.”

Notable for its expressive diversity, Bowles’s Moroccan anthology placed unmistakable emphasis on what he called the “deceptive repetition” of ritual music, the infectious, mesmerizing groove that later enchanted such musicians as Ornette Coleman, who collaborated with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It was “befuddlement music,” “music that makes you play games inside your head”—especially if you listened to it while smoking kif. Bowles, who smoked kif every day, was hypnotized by it.

Interestingly, Bowles’s own music was all but unscathed by his encounter with Moroccan music: “the musics are far too different—there’s no possible way of combining them,” he insisted. Musical pilgrims to Morocco, such as Coleman, the trumpeter Don Cherry, and the Kronos Quartet, would show otherwise. The glory of such cross-pollination would receive a related demonstration from the composer Steve Reich, who drew on another, equally hypnotic tradition of non-Western percussion after reading A.M. Jones’s two-volume Studies in African Music, published in 1959—the same year Bowles embarked on his field recordings. Yet Bowles’s repudiation of métissage was less an aesthetic stance than a typically possessive expression of respect for Morocco’s traditions, which he took himself to be shielding from the cruel forces of change.

As Bowles knew, there was no way of preventing Morocco’s modernization; he could hear it everyday on the increasingly noisy streets of Tangier. The encroachments of the machine civilization he loathed can be heard, to richly poetic effect, in the last track of the new Music of Morocco. A recording of the early morning call to prayer in Tangier, it is one of the few performances Bowles managed to capture by stealth. Ten years after Bowles’s death, Schuyler added this piece of musique concrète to Music of Morocco as an homage, a “distillation of his aesthetic.” “El Fjer (Tangier)” is the one piece for which he did not secure Bowles’s approval. It lasts only a minute and thirty-seven seconds, but it describes as well as any the world that Bowles made his own. A rooster crows, someone turns on the engine of a car, then drives away. The muezzin is faint yet indomitable, an integral instrument in the symphony of daily life. From the first second to the last, we hear the chirping of crickets, like a gentle, hypnotic blanket of rhythm.

Credits:  This article was originally published in The New York Review of Books

Monday, December 18, 2017

Ten Thousand Notes

Kathryn A. Kopple 

Two sisters lived in the house across from the old mill. The mill had been long abandoned when the parents bought the house in a place that was woodsy, the trees trading in their sumptuous greens for sedate browns depending on the season. 

Three years separated the girls. The elder sister was beautiful and so was she. But, the elder sister had long, agile fingers—all the better to play Beethoven with.

She could scarcely hold a crayon. When she moved on to pencils, she still hadn’t managed to write the way the elder sister could—in her exquisite sister’s cursive. She wrote up and down. A single word required tremendous effort, descending letter by letter, down, down, down—or the reverse, writing in an upward climb that went from the bottom of the page to the top. Down-up writing was a real challenge. Far easier it was to write down the page than to push the pencil up, up, up—the girl’s tiny arm being dragged along by her hard-working hand.

Her elder sister had no difficulties when it came to writing. She mastered her signature with the ease of a pro—in all its curlicue glory, and glorious was the name that could be rendered in such fine script.

The two sisters were becoming so different; the opposite of twins. She had heard stories about children kidnapped by fairies. The fairies would take a perfectly adorable, healthy infant and leave in its place a changeling. She could very well be a changeling.

She learned about changelings the way children do, via some magical force: dolls, magazine covers, FM radios, movies, marbles, hopscotch, and grandmothers. Her grandmother told her stories about changelings. They were feared and despised. To protect human babies from these parasitic-winged monsters, parents placed hot irons about the cradle. Other preventative measures included mixing boiled eggshells in with their gruel. She didn’t like eggs even without the shells, especially scrambled eggs—which reminded her of cottage cheese but yellow and slimier. Her bedframe was made of iron and she had the bruised shins to prove it. And then there was her sister, adored by both parents, and whom she resembled about as much as an armadillo resembles a flamingo.

The elder sister grew more beautiful with each passing day while the younger sister became more convinced of her hideous origins. She was barely able get through school without weeping. The time came when—about fourth grade—the guidance counselor called her mother. Her mother spoke to her father. Her father sat her down and broke the news: she was left-handed. He explained that only 10% of the population was lefties or “antipodals,” a minority group together with ambidextries. For left-handed people, the world was full of objects that worked fine for others but not for them. From scissors to spiral notebooks, baseball gloves to ballpoint pens, measuring cups to seatbelts, toilet-paper hangers to right-handed doors—the list went on.

“Who would have thought?”

“There you go again.”

“Go again?

“Yes, again.”

“I was only going to say…”

“Best not to.”

“Of course not. What was I thinking?”

“Your feelings are hurt.”

“I can’t help what I feel.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just admiring your eyes.”

“You like them?”


“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of that color.”


“Oh yes, that color.”

“Come here. Let me help.”

She wasn’t a changeling after all; she was left-handed. And that made her just as human as anyone—even more human, more unique, according to her father. Her life wouldn’t be one iota easier, but she would sleep better at night. She wouldn’t lie awake, chewing on her hair, worrying if she belonged to her parents. She did. All parents loved their children, and so it was a foregone conclusion that they loved her—and never mind that her sister had grown more beautiful and brainier than ever.

“It’s been a long time.”

“Has it?”

“To me it has.”

“I suppose it’s my fault.”

“I wasn’t blaming you.”

“No, you are too good for blame. You would never point a finger, raise your voice, or speak an unkind word.”

“You’re right. It never crosses my mind.”

“And don’t I know it. Only nectar slides off your tongue.”

“As you wish.”

“A wish? Easy enough. I’d like a bath.”

“I’d say that is perfectly manageable.”

“A long soak in a buttercup filled with dew.”

“And you will be as good as new.”

Soon after she turned thirteen, her father came home with an electric typewriter. He set it on the kitchen table. Sturdy exterior, key-strike precision timed, impressive paper roller, bright red tab button. A perfect assemblage of form and function. He then handed her Typing for Beginners, a manual that promised to make a first-rate typist of her in twelve easy lessons.

The elder sister came round to have a look. If the elder sister could play Beethoven, she could certainly type. Hands laid expertly on the keys, her sister typed out: A is for Alice. She could work with that. She leaned over, her shoulder touching her elder sister’s and, with a good deal of hunting and pecking, managed: B is for Betty. The two of them went back and forth, matching letter to name, arriving at “J” before the elder sister lost interest.










The younger sister applied herself to the typewriter. The machine had been moved from the kitchen to the basement because the clattering of the keys distracted the elder sister’s piano practice. She dreaded the place: a dark cellar, full of stinks and crawlies, and no good light. But, down she went. Peering into the semi-darkness, the keys springing into action under her fingertips, she typed away. And then, an idea: with just the right strokes, typing could be so much more. She could make music from her typewriter. With just the right this or that, she could type with the identical grace, force, and majesty she heard when her elder sister played the piano. It became her life’s ambition to transform her electric typewriter, a mere machine, into an instrument.

“Do you hear that?”

“I do.”

“She’s playing with genius now.”

“It is wonderful to hear her.”


“There’s no effort.”

“The third movement could use a little work.”

“You’re so critical.”

“But it is very good.”

“Will it ever be good enough?”

“It’s everything.”

“Honestly, I forget how much it means to you.”

“Not just to me, to us.”

“But to you more.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”


“Because when we talk about it, you start to doubt.”

“Any person would.”

“No, that’s where you are wrong.”

“Then what?”

“You need to trust.”

“It’s going to be okay, is that it?”

For the most part, her plan was going well. She had memorized the keyboard and could type with her eyes closed. But, she hadn’t managed to get music from the typewriter. It would come in time, she told herself, with practice and patience. Her sister practiced diligently. She had to pay her due diligence. “It will come,” she told herself, day in and day out, and stare at her hands in frustration.

One of those days, her hands came to rest on the keyboard. Her sister must have finished practicing because she heard no music. She smelled her mother’s cooking. Most likely, a mash-up of meat, starch, vegetables. Dinner would soon be on the table. Her stomach felt as if it needed something in it. Lunch was long gone. Besides, lunch was the cruelest meal, concocted of stale bread and slabs of ham. She couldn’t expect much tastier food from dinner. Still, the slapped-together dinners came warm from the stove and had not yet fossilized.

She tugged the plastic cover over the typewriter. She climbed the cellar stairs, reached for the doorknob, and found it frozen in place. She drew back her hand, her breathing staccato. It hadn’t occurred to her that the door had a lock—that she could be locked in, out, down. Again, she tested the knob; it wouldn’t budge. She beat against the door. She yelled, pounded, yelled. Her voice grew weak but she kept banging. Her pounding fist sounded to her the same as a typewriter when the hammer meets the page before it retreats to allow for another, and another, and another.

Her hands ached. She had beaten them to pulp. She would have stuffed the mush that had been her fingers into her mouth but what was there left to stuff?

From then on, she spent her free-time in the woods around the house. Often, she swept her misshapen hands over the delicate mandalas that covered the windows of the old mill, and soon a gossamer glove appeared on each hand, as if they had been made for her and no one else. With her shimmery hands, she returned to her typing, always amazed at how pretty her fingers looked as they moved silently across the keyboard.

“Have you ever thought what it might have been like?”

“No, I don’t dwell.”

“Not your style.”


“I thought it would get easier.”

“It’s no good making yourself ill over it.”

“You have no idea.”

“Do you hear that?”

“She’s playing.”

“There is no sacrifice too great.”

“Why must there always be a sacrifice?”

“Can you imagine what it would have been like if we’d done differently?”

“Every day I wonder.”

“Listen, just listen.”

“It is gorgeous.”

“Who wouldn’t want to listen to ten thousand notes than a single letter of the alphabet?”

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Spy who Liked to Stay Out in the Cold

Patrick Marnham

Semi-Invisible Man is a biography by someone who dislikes biography about someone who disliked exposure,' declares Julian Evans in his preface, adding that he wrote this book only to stop anyone else doing so.

From such an unpromising start, he has nonetheless written an excellent literary biography about one of the truly outstanding writers of our time — a man described frequently as a travel writer but who defies categorisation.

Norman Lewis's 14 novels have been likened to those by Graham Greene and his non-fiction shows him to have been a great reporter and a contemporary historian.

Evans was Lewis's friend and publisher, and he has diligently gathered a wealth of material from family papers and interviews with Lewis's childhood sweetheart, his third wife, his six children and many others.

Born in 1908, Lewis was clever, though badly bullied at school. At one point, he was sent away to live with his Welsh aunts, an episode he describes vividly in his memoir, Jackdaw Cake.

His parents were eccentric almost to the doors of the asylum. After losing three of her four young sons, his mother turned to spiritualism. His father — a gloomy Welsh alcoholic — considered their home in Enfield, Middlesex, a foreign country.

Gwen Nicholls, who grew up with Norman Lewis and who stoutly resisted his persistent attempts on her virtue, remembers 'the Arab of Enfield', a 14-year-old boy who was determined to set himself apart.

Lewis was outraged when Gwen decided to marry someone else and, though uninvited, he attended her wedding so that he could interrupt the service at the appropriate moment. Gwen admitted to finding this 'incredibly flattering'.

To teach Gwen a lesson, Lewis married Ernestina Corvaja, an enigmatic Sicilian beauty whose father, banished from Mussolini's Italy after committing a serious crime, became an admired figure in Norman's life for 'his implacable loyalty and sense of fatalistic irony'.

Lewis was attracted to the Corvaja family because of their openness of mind, and lack of religious belief, class consciousness and national pride.

All this was contrasted strongly with Enfield and an England that was beginning to give him asthma. Lewis started out as a small businessman with a specialist camera shop in Holborn, central London.

The business did well and he raced his own Bugattis — but he was bored and he started to travel with Ernestina. Once he stepped abroad, the asthma disappeared.

The embarrassment of Norman Lewis's childhood shaped a personality that was extremely wary. He once said that he was the only person he knew who could enter a room, sum up the situation and leave it without anyone knowing he had been there — a helpful attribute for someone who worked as a part-time British spy.

In the modern world of literary festivals and me-and-myfamous-life promotions, Lewis would have been a publisher's nightmare. In fact, he was pretty much a publisher's nightmare anyway, twice abandoning his career as a novelist, refusing to be categorised as a travel writer and capable of passing an entire business lunch in silence.

There was nothing to be done with Norman except publish him — and insist on the exceptional quality of his work.

Despite early critical acclaim, this was not the way forward and in the Seventies Lewis said he had given up going into bookshops because he became so depressed when he saw that his titles were never in stock.

He turned to journalism and wrote a famous article in The Sunday Times Magazine about the genocide of the Brazilian Indians. This piece led to the creation of Survival International.

Working with Colin Jones and Don McCullin, he contributed a celebrated series of foreign reports from around the world, frequently battling American foreign policy.

Evans includes a wonderful account of a farcical trip Norman made to Peru in search of the Senderos Luminosos guerillas.

Unfortunately, McCullin had been replaced by Lord Snowdon, who tried to treat Norman as his valet, while insisting on 'No publicity'.

Norman said it was the worst trip he had ever made and opened his account of his misadventures by asking: 'Have you ever heard of a man called Lord Snowdon?' During 1982, Lewis was reinvented by the energetic young publisher John Hatt who reprinted A Dragon Apparent, Lewis's account of Indo-China during France's war with the Viet Minh.

Hatt followed this with four other titles, including Naples '44 — which American writer Martha Gellhorn chose as her best travel book of all time.

Lewis had gathered the material in his wartime capacity as a field intelligence officer. Much of the information came from the office wastepaper basket.

Semi-Invisible Man is a sensitive and perceptive record of a very difficult subject and deserves every success. Evans deals with Lewis's three marriages fairly, and is scrupulous about confessing when he has no information.

Many of Lewis's titles are back in print, but two of the best of his early novels, The Day Of The Fox and The Volcanoes Above Us, currently await a publisher.

Norman Lewis died in 2003 aged 94, cared for by his third wife, Lesley. Shortly before he 'made himself scarce' for the last time, he called out for 'Monty' — the beloved older brother he had lost when he just seven.

Credits:  This article has been published here with slight changes for clarity.  The review originally appeared in Mail Online (June 2008).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

TLY:  Today’s guest is Peter Cowlam, a writer of numerous gifts and author of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? and Across the Rebel Network.

Peter, always a pleasure!  Thank you for talking to us.  You grew up in England.  Would you tell us a bit about your background? 

PETER: My family can trace its roots to Lincolnshire, a county in eastern England that extends along the North Sea coast from the Humber estuary to the Wash. There are still lots of Cowlams there, and variants of that name. Peripheral to family mythology is the ancestor who, thanks to Thomas Edison, was the first person in Lincolnshire to have the electric light, and thanks to someone else had his own silver band. The imagination swims at the combination of that imagery. By the time my grandmother was born, her family fortune had been drunk away, and she, when still very young, was obliged to seek work in service in the West Midlands, which at that time still resounded with the hammer blows and anvil of the Industrial Revolution. Her husband-to-be followed her down from Lincolnshire, and found work as a coach-builder. My father was born in Birmingham, as was my mother. The two of them met in the drawing office – my father an engineer, my mother secretarial – where both of them worked. By the time I was born they had moved to the East Midlands, though I was christened in St Germain’s, Edgbaston, where my father had grown up. But I also spent part of my childhood in Switzerland. My father had work with an American firm whose European HQ was in Zürich, and whose contracts were bound up with German post-war reconstruction after the Marshall Plan. His part in it was in the restoration of industrial production in the German-speaking world, in the design of factory plant. The rest of my childhood was spent in the English Southeast, where my father had work with engineering firms in Frant (not far from Tunbridge Wells) and latterly in Greenwich. As well for me, as the English Midlands, long after its industrial boon, suffers as one of the worst regions for social mobility, while disproportionate opportunity is centered on London and the Southeast, the powerhouse of finance and its related service industries. My time in that part of the world took me into IT, an industry I finished with soon after I was assigned projects working on algorithms, before the internet had really got going, for the global transfer of money, institution to institution.

TLY:  Have you lived in other countries?  Traveled?  Any war stories?

PETER: Apart from Zürich above, and that as a result of parental migration, Sarah and I and our two children lived for six months in New Zealand, in the late 1990s. Good friends of ours had emigrated there, and made us promise to visit before too long. We didn’t think a flying visit to a location halfway round the world was the best plan, so we opted for six months. We lived on the Marua Road, in Ellerslie, which is a town in Auckland famous for its race course, and a short drive along Highway 1 to the city centre. NZ is a country of enormous diversity: volcanoes, limestone caves, glacier lakes, kauri forests, fjords, long sandy beaches, the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, and it retains a strong Maori presence, culturally, architecturally, with meetinghouses everywhere. We travelled the length and breadth of both the North and South Islands, in an ancient Nissan Bluebird, bought at auction on Ellerslie Racecourse. In its thousands of kilometres up and down mountains, along highways and unmade roads, it broke down only once, a blessing, given these were the days before the prevalence of mobile phones. Then one day I read in our local paper in Ellerslie of someone surname Coulam who had just published a book. His was a variant on my own name I had never seen before. There were plenty of Coulans, Cowlands and Coulands – but never a Coulam. The paper’s editorial department gave me his phone number. I congratulated him on his book. He told me his family traced its ancestry to Lincolnshire, though he was not a bit interested, he said, in genealogy. His brother was, and that’s where he’d got his information. I thanked him very much, and made a note. After New Zealand it was two months touring round Australia. As to ‘war stories’, I have thrown away my shield.

TLY:  What genres do you most enjoy as a reader?

PETER: I am not a systematic reader, and I don’t read as much fiction as I used to – picking up whatever takes my fancy. At the moment I am reading essays by Thorstein Veblen, Browning’s The Ring and the Book, and a generously plump volume of essays on physics, astronomy and maths. Whichever one of those it is depends on the time of day (I have three reading slots: morning, evening, night). Veblen was a nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, who has had an influence on non-Marxist critique of capitalism and technological determinism. His jumping-off point in the essays I am reading is the Physiocrats, a school of economists founded in Enlightenment France. Its central idea was that government shouldn’t interfere with natural economic laws, and that the wealth of nations was derived from productive work on the land and the value of its agriculture. That is in contrast to earlier schools, in particular that of Mercantilism, whose focus was on ownership, the owner’s wealth, the accumulation of capital, and trade. You begin to see whose spell we are under now, centuries later.

Browning’s dramatic monologues I have long admired, but The Ring and the Book has been on my shelves for over a decade. I have only now had a chance to open it. The town where I live had four antiquarian and remainder bookshops when I first moved to it (it now has only one), so I spent my first few years here buying more books than I could possibly read.

The Ring and the Book, a long narrative poem written in blank verse, is divided into twelve books. Each of the twelve is a dramatic monologue supposedly delivered by one of the characters in the story. The story is based on an actual murder trial in Rome in 1698, where Pompilia, a young woman, is unhappy in her marriage – an arranged marriage – to the cruel Count Franceschini, an older man, who is titled but insolvent. When she asks a young priest to help her return to her parents, the count discovers the plot and finds them. He has Pompilia sent to a convent, and banishes the priest. Nevertheless Pompilia returns to her parents, whereupon the count arranges for the assassination of both her and her parents. The count is arrested, and a trial commences. Browning came across an account of that trial in the market in Florence, and used it as the basis of his poem—

‘Do you see this square old yellow Book, I toss
I’ the air, and catch again, and twirl about
By the crumpled vellum covers,—pure crude fact
Secreted from man’s life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since?
Examine it yourselves! I found this book,
Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just,
(Mark the predestination!) when a Hand,
Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,
One day still fierce ’mid many a day struck calm,
Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths,
Buzzing and blaze, noontide and market-time,
Toward Baccio’s marble….’

The third on my list of current reading – a cornucopia of physics, astronomy and maths – is aimed at a lay readership, though it cannot help enter into complexities that are vastly beyond my scope. It ranges from the realm of the atom, to time and space, to AI and computers, to science philosophy. One of my good friends once reminded me that the universe is quite indifferent to me. True, but it doesn’t stop me wanting to know about it. I would really like to get it straight, just what it is all of us have got ourselves into. I asked Professor of Physics Jim Al-Khalili if what dark matter really amounts to is tiny particles that undergo stretching as the fabric of the universe expands, to the point that rather like cell division they divide. He was polite in his dismissal, pointing out that (and I paraphrase)—

Expansion of the universe takes place only in the vast gaps between galaxies. At the level of particles, the forces between them, even the very weakest of the four forces, are enough to stop space expanding. Although at the quantum level particles and their antimatter partners do, out of nowhere, pop into existence (cp. my idea of multiplication or cell division) this can only happen if the energy books are kept balanced. There either has to be enough energy in the vacuum to create them in the first place, or they must disappear again very quickly to repay their debt to the universe.

I am chastened: a little knowledge leads one up a cul-de-sac.

TLY:  What aspect of the writing process do you find most difficult?

PETER: The word count. Anthony Burgess would have wondered what I get up to all day, it is so pathetically low.

TLY:  What inspired you to write Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?

PETER: In my last few years living and working in London I subscribed to various literary journals and assiduously read the review pages in the weekend broadsheets. I began to get uneasy with this when I soon saw it was the same small cluster of writers lavishly attended on and held up as paradigms. This didn’t fit with my experience, when I was reading writers and poets who barely rated a mention, serious artists no less accomplished than the cabal I was under instruction to admire. That raises the prickly matter of assessment. If you are being offered an expert view, and it’s a view you don’t agree with, you are entitled to ask who the experts are, what is their expertise exactly, by what authority do they exercise that expertise, and how has that authority been granted to them (and not to someone else, for example). And what is an expert? I like Niels Bohr’s definition—

‘Many people will tell you that an expert is someone who knows a great deal about his subject. To this I would object that no one can ever know very much about any subject. I would much prefer the following definition: an expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.’

Of course, when we’re being offered paradigms, the person making the offer, and the paradigms themselves, cannot be shown to have, as a raison d’être, the avoidance of mistakes, pottering along, making careful assays, and anxious not to get into too much trouble. We have been taught to expect brilliance, genius even. It’s this brilliance, this genius, that I wished to turn upside down in Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? It’s a novel, a satire that in the spirit of Horace aims to ‘tell the truth with a laugh’, where all characters are inventions, that’s to say not based on actual persons. At its centre is Marshall Zob, a mediocre novelist who nevertheless expects to win all the major prizes. His agent, Cornelius Snell, has no interest in literature, but has a stable of successful authors nevertheless. Alistair Wye, Zob’s newly appointed amanuensis, has stumbled in on this in all innocence, and through the diary he keeps shows us the tarnished coin circulating in the Republic of Letters. And that is it, to its Christmas Day dénouement, bearing Bohr in mind, where I kept the thing at a good safe distance, with 1994 as Alistair Wye’s diary year (though I can’t now remember what great books were being touted at that time).

TLY: Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”  What do you think he meant?

PETER: Nabokov’s almost allergic reaction to novels of social intent is very well documented. Of Thomas Mann he wanted to issue everyone with lump hammers, in order to chip away – bit by bit – at the plinth he perceived that Nobel laureate to have been planted on. Under strain of serious myopia Borges he once dismissed as a ‘trite miniaturist’, though may later have modified that view. Orwell he was scathing of, but couldn’t have read, or had forgotten, the range of Orwell’s essays, their depth of analysis and the clarity of writing. He did not like Constance Garnett’s translations into English of Dostoyevsky. Of Dostoyevsky himself he was less than complimentary. In Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature he begins his summary of The Idiot in good neutral academic tone. But then, just a few paragraphs in, he is powerless to resist that mirthful diktat he was often prone to, to comic effect. Of Nabokov himself as novelist we do not imagine he created a character like Humbert Humbert in order to stimulate public debate on paedophilia. His long list of frauds and shams included Pound and Eliot. It has been suggested (by Brian Boyd, I think) that John Shade’s extended poem ‘Pale Fire’, from the novel of that name, is a smack at them both, in that it consists of four cantos (Pound’s Cantos, Eliot’s Four Quartets). His friend (and later his estranged friend) Edmund Wilson chastised him for not taking an interest in, or showing enough understanding of, politics, though perhaps with Bend Sinister we should take issue with that evaluation. In that book there’s plenty of parody, for parody is among Nabokov’s favourite pastimes. There isn’t much satire, because satire belongs in the realms of social and political instruction, and Nabokov’s is a different order of didacticism. I can sympathise with his position, though I do not approve of debunking other writers. America had taken him in as a Russian émigré, fleeing first the October Revolution, then the rise of fascism in Western Europe. From the 1940s Nabokov was an American novelist, but I wonder how difficult it would have been, as a welcome outsider, to commentate on domestic affairs, both social and political. And anyway, the world is awash with social and political journalism, much of it masquerading as literature. The Vladimir Nabokovs are of a rare species of butterfly, and light up our summers just once in a while.

TLY: Across the Rebel Network came out in 2015.  The novel is set in a “federated Europe in an uncertain, and not-to-distant future.”  What is the rebel network?

PETER: There’s a certain symmetry about it, the book being published in 2015, though its setting is 2051. Much of it was written, however, while I was in New Zealand, in 1998. At that time public use of the internet was still a novelty. Therefore my conception of a dystopian 2051 rested on a prediction as to what that digital infrastructure might become, especially in the hands of governments and media corporations, whose interests are in the dissemination of self-serving propaganda. In Across the Rebel Network governments and media corporations have fused, and might as well be unitary wholes. From our one-third-acre plot in Ellerslie I was not only projecting forward to 2051 (or really 2015), I was looking back to the continent I’d left behind, Europe. Its federal ambitions, its designs after a single flag, a single currency, a standing army, a central bank, a definable border, a judiciary, were issues that had split the major political parties in the UK for decades, though I did not envisage that my own country would be the first to secede from the Union, or that it would ever have a Prime Minister willing to offer a remain-leave referendum (and run a lacklustre campaign on the remain side). In the Rebel Network of 2051 it is the smallest member states that – for social and economic reasons – start to break up the Union, and in so doing spawn well organised digital guerilla groups (today we’d call them hackers) able to infiltrate the federation’s IT infrastructure, for the purpose of disseminating counter-propaganda. It’s a risky business, writing novels that are set in the future. There’s a lot I got wrong, and there is much that has come about, though not in the way I envisaged. See Niels Bohr’s definition of an expert, above.

TLY:  Recently, you published Laurel, a book of poems about love, loss and rivalry.  The poems are spare and telling, and often poignant; one senses they came about through a long evolution despite the brevity of the poems.  Would that be the case?

PETER: ‘Evolution’ probably isn’t quite the word. Most of the poems were written in the 1980s, when I was working for a huge, impersonal IT company, a behemoth. My role was in the writing or reading of voluminous reports, which was excruciating. These little poems started to appear in the margins of those reports, when – rebelling all forms of enslavement – my mind began to wander. I transcribed them all into a notebook at the end of each day, and after a few weeks of this resigned my job, left London, and forgot about them. They resurfaced again this year, and after a retouch are now in print.

TLY:  Are you currently working on any new projects? 

PETER: I began writing a blog novel, on the basis that unlike my other fiction I would not plan it in advance. I’d just see what transpired. But. Unexpectedly, after three chapters, I began to see possibilities, so nothing will now be added until I do have a plan. Instead I’m revising a novel that did have a blueprint, about a poet, of a provenance you’d not normally associate with poetry. He is terminally ill, and the novel records conversations he has with his chosen obituarist.

TLY:  Once more, we’d like to thank you for your time.  We have long been fans of your work, and pleased beyond measure to have had this chance to talk.

PETER: I am very pleased to have been invited. Thank you

About the Author

Peter Cowlam’s brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics, literature and culture. His novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. His latest novels are New King Palmers and Across the Rebel Network, the latter being longlisted for the Guardian 2015 Not the Booker Prize. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems and short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, The Galway Review, Easy StreetValparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others. Further details at

For Purchase

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?

by Hisham Aidi  In the mid-1990s, I used to lead literary walking tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier” for friends or literary pilgrims visitin...