The Biographer of Paul Bowles & Other American Expatriates Talks about Writing the Outsider’s Story.

An Interview with Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno,

by Rob Couteau





Published in:
The Bloomsbury Review,

March 1991. (
CO: Denver)

CHristopher Sawyer-Lauçanno’s recent biography, Paul Bowles, An Invisible Spectator (1989; Ecco, 1990), was the first in-depth study of the writer’s life: one that will set the standard for all subsequent Bowles biographies.

Sawyer-Lauçanno was educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and at Brandeis University. He currently lectures in MIT’s Foreign Language and Literature departments. His translations from the Spanish, French, and ancient Mayan have appeared in numerous publications, including the City Lights edition of The Destruction of the Jaguar: Poems from the Books of Chilam Balam (1987).

While visiting Paris and researching his next book, American Writers in Paris (Grove Weidenfeld, forthcoming), a “group biography” of expatriate writers in Paris from 1945-1960, he spoke about his encounter with Paul Bowles in Tangier and his progress in portraying the history of post-World-War-II American writers.

This interview was conducted in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, with its splendid view overlooking the Seine and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

Couteau: How were you introduced to Bowles’s writing, and what about it led to your fascination with him?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: I was in Tokyo and met an expatriate American writer and his wife, James and Nancy Sullivan, who were Paul Bowles fanatics. In 1980, the Sullivans, my wife Patricia Pruitt, and I formed a group that we dubbed “The Victims of Literature,” in which we shared our own and other people’s writings. James gave me the Collected Stories of Paul Bowles. I was absolutely mesmerized by his control, by the horror, by the kind of dark-night-of-the-soul writing that he does so exquisitely: particularly, I think, in the stories. I’d never read anybody quite like Bowles.

Couteau: What was it about his approach to the “dark night of the soul” that led you to embark on this project?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: Part of what’s so unnerving about reading Bowles is that he writes in this absolutely precise terminology. The language in Bowles is not obscure; it’s not difficult. To me, it’s like cut crystal: every word is exactly the right word. It’s a very conventional writing style, yet with the most unconventional things happening. For example, there’s “The Delicate Prey,” written with a totally detached yet almost lyrical voice, about a camel that is massacred, and a young boy who ends up getting his penis cut off and stuck into his stomach and sodomized. It’s all described in these rather dispassionate words. He never conjures up horror by using sensational language. I felt I was in the presence of a master craftsman. He’s not a hallucinatory writer. Céline, for instance, is a hallucinatory writer of tremendous power who also has a very detached, almost ironic, wry style. Bowles is not like Céline, and yet I think they share a rather dark vision of mankind.

Couteau: Céline is almost more of a disillusioned Romantic, whereas Bowles is more of a photographer.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: Yes, I think that’s a good point. What Céline does is: he really gets inside his characters, and you understand their motivation. Whereas Bowles’s work almost always springs from not understanding his characters. Their motivations are usually as murky to the characters themselves as they are to the reader.

In terms of literary style, I think that came about because, early on, he was influenced by Gide and then by Sartre and Camus. He’s been regarded as the first, and maybe the only, American existentialist. When the New York Times Literary Review reviewed Invisible Spectator, the headline read: “The Man who Discovered Alienation.’” I thought it was totally ludicrous, but, nonetheless, there is something to it. He was one of the first American writers to really zero in on man alienated from himself. Therefore, man retreats into a landscape. Where Bowles is really best is in dealing with man and landscape. The Sheltering Sky has four major characters: Port, Kit, Tunner, and the desert. He always says the desert is the protagonist of that novel: maybe the major protagonist. It’s certainly the only one that comes out, in the end, as a winner.

Couteau: It seems as if it were his task to write about coming face-to-face with the horror vacui: about his relationship to a sense of emptiness in the cosmos rather than, as many writers choose to record, about human relationships.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: Yes, I think so. I don’t know that he would say that. From what I know, at least, I don’t think he ever planned it out that way or ever thought about it in those terms.

Couteau: Describe your initial meeting with Bowles. How did he react to your desire to write the biography?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: I wrote him what was essentially a fan letter. And almost by return mail, I received a letter from him, inviting me to Tangier.

I arrived in Tangier and, of course, I had no idea what to expect. I’d read these stories, and I thought he’d be living out in the middle of the Sahara and that he’d be totally menacing, dark, depraved, and depressed. In fact, he was this wonderfully charming elderly gentleman, impeccably dressed, with excellent manners, who laughed easily and enjoyed the company–or at least, seemed to–of those people who were in the house. It was something of a shock. I couldn’t put it together with the man who’d written the books. Later on, I figured out what was going on, but, at the time, that was the initial impression.

I think when I got to know him better, I realized that it was a far more complex matter. He’s very ambivalent about people. Those who think they’re very close to him find out they aren’t, inexplicably; and people who think he could care less about them discover that he cares deeply about them.

I think Bowles has practiced being the old gentleman in Tangier for a long time. Underneath that facade, though, is a person who’s really rather nihilistic, like the work. I wouldn’t by any means say death obsessed. But death aware. I don’t know how often, after I’d say, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he’d say, “Well, if I’m still here,” or “Inch’ Allah,” which means, “God willing.”

There’s a definite morbidity. There’s even, to some extent (and I think this comes from being detached a lot from New York or from his publishers or whatever), a certain irrationality connected with what he perceives as an exploitation of him by the publishers. It may be true. It may not be true. But he feels that, being in Tangier, he’s always a victim. He’s a victim of the Moroccans; he’s a victim of the businessmen; he’s a victim of the bankers, of his accountant, or of the IRS. Yet I think it’s almost something that he enjoys. As opposed to being really upset by it, it gives him almost a sort of relationship with these far-flung institutions that he wouldn’t have had normally.

When I returned to Boston, I became serious about the idea of a biography. When I wrote to him then, his initial reaction was, “I don’t want a biography written in my lifetime.” We continued to exchange letters over the next few months, and every letter would end, “Well, why don’t you come to Tangier, and we can discuss it.” So, I took the hint and revisited him.

I explained my intentions, but his response was, “I really don’t want a biography written. A lot of people have come to me who want to do it. I realize that you’re not out to defame me. But the truth of the matter is, I find my life really too painful, and I really don’t want to relive it.” He added that if I were willing to write a book without his active cooperation, then I could go ahead and do it, and he’d give me permission to quote from anything he’d ever written, published or unpublished: that I was free to talk to anybody I wanted to, but that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the project.

All of that I found curious but also understandable. His autobiography has been criticized by certain people as being sanitized and not at all self-insightful. For instance, William Burroughs calls it “Without Telling.” I think it was simply that there were certain incidents in his life that he would just as soon have forgotten.

On those terms, I felt I could go ahead and do the book. For the next six months I visited him every day, and, over a two-year period, I went back to Tangier three times. He was always willing to talk: to help me out with this or that. If I asked a question he didn’t want to answer, he’d just say, “I’m not going to answer that. We’re not going to talk about that.”

Couteau: It sounds like a peculiar agreement. He wasn’t going to participate, yet he invited you there every day. I don’t quite understand.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: I don’t either. I have never quite understood it. His old friends tried to explain to me what it was all about. Part of it was that Bowles was absolutely interested in what I was going to do. At the same time he dreaded it, but he probably felt that it was better that I hung around and learned as much as I could, rather than have only a remote idea from those who have known him. Perhaps I had the best of both worlds, because I didn’t write an authorized biography, yet I didn’t write an unauthorized one either.

Couteau: How did the atmosphere impress itself upon your writing?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: I began to understand much more the reality of Bowles’s writing. When you’re in Morocco as an outsider, you’re an outsider in a way that you are in very few countries. You’re never sure what kind of footing you’re really on. One of the things that Bowles does so chillingly is: he continually reminds the reader that, when you’re an interloper in someone else’s culture, there may be consequences. One is always aware of that in Morocco.

Drugs are very much a way of life in Tangier; it’s a very natural thing. If you read Bowles, particularly his later stories, all of his characters are always smoking kif. This wasn’t just Bowles’s “take” on things; that’s the way it is. One also senses the love Moroccans have for storytelling and the love they have for their own traditions, which are now dying quickly. Because of his translations, Bowles has helped to preserve that. In the old days, you went into a cafe and all the old men would sit around telling stories. Now you go in, and they’re watching television.

Couteau: In every biography, the influence of childhood plays its part. In reading of Bowles’s life, one is left with a sense that the emotionally brutal parental environment operates as an enduring specter throughout. Even the title of your book refers to this, in some way.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: His childhood was psychologically brutal. Like many artists, he retreated from the life he had at home–which was one of a totally repressive, almost maniacally despotic father–to the world of literature, and to drawing and to writing. And he invented his own universe by the time he was six.

There’s a story of his called “The Frozen Fields.” It’s very autobiographical: about a young boy who has a brutal experience with his father. He has a fantasy where he believes that a wolf will come and devour his father. In a sense, I think that, for Bowles, writing was a way to devour his father. And yet the writing was a kind of salvation; it turned him inward.

He’s very superstitious about evil, and he thinks that, by writing about it, he keeps it at bay. But I think that maybe it keeps the violent reactions that he would have had toward his father at bay. It keeps him from hating his father now. And he claims not to hate his father. But the writing is clearly about coming to terms with the fact that there’s a certain amount of evil in the world, and it’s irrational.

Who knows how these things work? I’m not a psychologist, but I would say that, obviously, there were some lessons learned in childhood that never really left him. One was that it was very hard to trust people. He learned, very early on, that he could trust himself and that, in a certain sense, he could create the sort of world he wanted, but that others who would come into that world may or may not appreciate it.

Before he moved to Tangier, he was thinking of coming to France. He felt that, in France, one didn’t have to apologize for being an artist. This is something that he was keenly aware of in the United States: that an artist has no status in society. And yet, rather than coming to France, where there’s some recognition of art or artists, he ended up going to Morocco, where there’s almost no recognition of even Paul himself as a human being.

He took himself out of the entire arena so that he would always be able to live in a somewhat superficial way in relation to the Moroccan culture. He would never be part of the culture unless he converted to Islam. I think that appealed to him. The idea of being able to wear the mask, of being taken just as a kind of superficial Nazarene, was a perfectly good way for him to live.

Couteau: The other day we were discussing how, with certain writers such as Céline or Henry Miller, there’s an unmistakable sense of musical rhythm and harmony. You recently wrote a piece about The Sheltering Sky viewed as an orchestral ensemble. To what degree, and in what manner, did the musician in Bowles affect the process of writing?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: Bowles’s first career was as a composer. The first few decades of his life were basically devoted to music. He wrote quite a lot, particularly for Broadway plays. In the late 1930s and 1940s, he was known as the man to write the music. Because Bowles was acutely aware of literature, the music for the plays had a resonance that the music of a lot of other composers didn’t have. For instance, there’s his music for The Glass Menagerie, which is totally unobtrusive, yet it perfectly echoes the sensitivity that Williams constructed. He had an astounding ability to realize music that could reflect a text. He knows exactly how to extend a vowel; he knows exactly how to collapse a consonant. He understands diction.

Bowles’s art songs are the best things that have ever been done by an American, with the possible exception of Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. It comes from having that extraordinary understanding of language that can be transposed into musical terms. He was also extremely fond of found elements. In some of the Latin American pieces, he takes folk songs, marimba, pieces from Mexican son, which is a kind of dance, and turns these into exquisite pieces on the piano that sound like a whole marimba band–and it’s just a piano. So, there was a sense of knowing how to translate one medium into another. The leap–going from music to writing–was paved by the work that he’d done as a composer.

As for his writing: you take any odd paragraph almost, and the first thing you’re aware of is that this is writing written for the ear. There’s a definite rhythm. He’s incredibly aware of long sentences: long, multisyllabic words with, say, two or three very short words. Not necessarily nouns but adjectives. He’s very spare with his adjectives. He rarely uses “remarkable” or “extraordinary”; he uses “blue,” for instance.

Paul has acknowledged that he conceived of The Sheltering Sky as a symphonic structure with three separate movements. The first section could be marked allegro; things are happening. And then, suddenly, you get to the middle section, where Port is dying. The action slows down to largo. You have a lot of counterpoints throughout. You have Port and Kit almost alternating as a counterpoint harmony; you have the desert as another outside player. All sorts of these things are going on in the novel. This wasn’t necessarily something he was consciously doing; he told me this was the way he heard language.

Couteau: You’re here in Paris, doing research for your book on expatriate writers in Paris from 1945 to 1960. Who are the major writers you’ll be discussing?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: The book begins with the Liberation on August 25, 1944. The reason I chose the Liberation is that it really begins the new era. It also provided me with a vehicle to introduce a number of characters. Hemingway comes in at the Liberation. Gertrude Stein is here, at her country house at Belley. Irwin Shaw comes in, assigned to a signal unit. He’s a great Francophile; he’s in love with Paris for the first time, and he’s as ecstatic with Paris as he is with Paris being liberated. He’s supposed to be going around writing scripts, and, in fact, he’s just going around with his mouth open, looking at the Arc de Triomphe or Notre-Dame. William Saroyan comes through, and he and Hemingway get into fisticuffs.

Couteau: Many of the other expatriates had been forced to leave and to return home during the war.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: That’s right. The Lost Generation had pretty much gotten out. And you also have a lot of young people. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a young naval officer who lands at Normandy, slightly after the invasion, and discovers Jacques Prévert in the process. A young sergeant named J. D. Salinger comes and hands Hemingway a bunch of stories he’s written, and Hemingway says, “Good going, kid; keep it up.” And then they write each other in Germany, where Salinger is sent on. He sends Hemingway some more writing, and Hemingway responds to it. Later, that becomes Nine Stories. The exchange of letters between them is quite interesting. Apparently, Salinger had a mental breakdown in Germany. In fact, he was in a mental hospital.

So, it opens with that great panorama of Liberation and then moves forward, into what conditions were like in France.

Then you had Janet Flanner, who was part of the Lost Generation, coming back to France and reporting on the conditions. And Virgil Thomson returning. You still had some of the old generation; at the beginning, you get this mix. The old generation, particularly the ones who came back, were very eager to introduce the young Americans to the French.

You also had the great advent of the G.I. Bill. And so you get, for instance, Ferlinghetti coming over to study for his doctorate at the Sorbonne. Louis Simpson, Terry Southern, and Kenneth Koch are all studying at the Sorbonne at the same time, on the G.I. Bill. You have Richard Wright arriving, as an already-celebrated artist, invited by Stein. He sets up housekeeping in Paris and stays until his death in 1960. You have James Baldwin, who had originally gotten a grant through Richard Wright’s auspices; he comes to Paris to see Wright and to be in Paris. So you’ve got this incredible influx of very talented and mostly very young Americans, and a lot of them men, because of the G.I. Bill.

Then the Paris Review crowd arrives: Peter Matthiessen, William Styron, and George Plimpton. I’m also going to be dealing with John Ashbery and Harry Mathews.

What I’m interested in looking at in this book is a sort of panorama. How do you live in a city after it’s been devastated by war? Because many of them were in that war: they were soldiers. How do a people recover from a war? How does a literature recover from a war? And what was important for them in Paris? Why Paris? There were many reasons they were in Paris, but they were different reasons from those that sent the Lost Generation over here.

It was a tremendously interesting time, because the writers who were here were as much interested in what was going on in France as in what was going on with each other. My impression of the Lost Generation was that they liked to talk to each other, but with the exception of, say, Pound, or with a few of the really multilingual members of the group, they weren’t particularly interested in talking to the French or reading the French.

The end of the book is the “Beat Hotel.” In 1957, Ginsberg went to a little, two-bit, fleabag hotel on rue Gît-le-Coeur, found it was cheap, had great rooms, and a great location, and told everybody to go live there. So, you had Burroughs finishing Naked Lunch there, and Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, Brion Gysin: a whole group of people hanging out in the Beat Hotel. And that, in itself, created a kind of movement.

I’m interested in dispelling certain notions about the Beat Hotel because, in fact, these were very disciplined artists, for all their craziness.

Couteau: Earlier, you were saying that there’s a notion of Burroughs as a crazy, spaced out, junkie writer, and of Ginsberg as a “yahoo from New Jersey,” and you felt this needed to be rectified.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: I’m interested in dispelling this, because both of them are extremely well read and aware of tradition. Ginsberg is a poet with a tremendous amount of learning, and it shows. You don’t write “Howl” without knowing tradition.

What was beautiful about the Beat Hotel was that you had these people sitting around, night after night, exchanging ideas: talking about what was happening. The real connection they shared was that they were attempting to write out of a different place and to create a new literature.

There was a definite indebtedness on the part of Burroughs to Céline. For Ginsberg and Burroughs, Céline is the great master. I don’t know if this has ever been acknowledged in print, but, in conversations, Burroughs acknowledged this to me, and I intend to write about it.

In a way, Naked Lunch is a fantastic example of a shared endeavor. Burroughs wrote all of it–that I’m sure of–but if it hadn’t been for people who kept reading pieces of it and encouraging him onward, it never would have seen the light of day. They were all very much involved in trying to create a supportive community here, and eager to learn what was going on, and I think that’s something that hasn’t come out much. You don’t write Naked Lunch by being on junk all the time, out of control.

Couteau: You want to impress upon the reader that this was not a break with historical continuity; these were people who were aware of the history of ideas in their field, and they reinterpreted them.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: That’s right, absolutely. I think, to some extent, Naked Lunch is in a Rousselian tradition of word play, of language, of one incredible image laid against another. It is also Lautréamont; it’s Rimbaud; it’s a whole generation of French poets of fifty years earlier. And Burroughs is aware of this. The great myth is that all these works just sprang out of these guys’ heads.

Couteau: Had some of the confusion arisen because of the new personas that many of them, particularly Allen Ginsberg, adopted in the 1960s?

Sawyer-Lauçanno: There was an image that Allen wanted to project of being involved with experience, and it’s true to the extent that he’s a person who tries to live fully. But it you’ve ever looked at bad beat poetry, you can clearly see the difference between “letting it all spew forth” and what Ginsberg was doing. I mean, he knows his Blake; he knows his Whitman.

I don’t think he attempted to erase the fact that he was a voracious reader. But there was a tendency in the Sixties, particularly among the drug culture, to pick up on Ginsberg’s dropping acid, or smoking pot, or sexual liberation, or whatever, as being the real root into poetry. Perhaps, but it’s also because he’d done his homework.

Couteau: And we, the readers, will take what we need from these writers.

Sawyer-Lauçanno: Yes. Everyone reads whatever one wants to read into a poem.

One of the beauties of poetry, and of literature in general, is that I can read certain works at different times in my life and learn something different from them. I remember reading “Howl” as a teenager and feeling it as this irresistibly evocative nightmarish poem about the world I was living in. I read it in a really subjective way; l wasn’t aware of all the stuff that was going on in there.

Reading “Howl” over the years, it’s always a different poem for me. I’ll always have that wonderful feeling I had when I was fourteen or fifteen. But now I also have such awareness of all the other things that went into that poem. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a naive reader. That’s one of the beauties of literature: that you can take from it all kinds of things.


The complete interview is featured in:

Collected Couteau:
Poems, Letters, Essays and Interviews
by Rob Couteau


Updated: 11 June 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: literature | The Beats | Paul Bowles