Bowled Over

by Lisa Cohen

You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles
by Millicent Dillon University of California Press 338 pp $27.50 April

In Paul Bowles's ferociously brilliant story "You Are Not I," a woman wanders out of a mental institution, is mistakenly returned to the home of the sister who committed her, and then wills herself to change places with her sister. "'This is the turning point,' I thought," the narrator says. "I shut my eyes very hard. When I opened them everything was different and I knew I had won." Millicent Dillon takes this story and its destabilizing treatment of identity as a touchstone for her new book on Bowles.

Dillon's reputation rests mainly on her 1981 biography of Jane Bowles, A Little Original Sin, which, though often crudely psychologizing, helped raise this extraordinary writer's public profile. In the early 1990s, finding herself haunted by her "fluctuating image" of Jane's husband, who had been the primary source for that book, Dillon made her way back to his home in Tangier. The result is an attempt to portray Paul Bowles while avoiding the constraints and implied objectivity of a conventional biography. As she writes in her introduction: "My own subjectivity is admitted." Despite its subtitle--and despite the curious advent of the passive voice at the moment she admits her own subjectivity--this book is unabashedly a portrait not just of Bowles but of Dillon's encounters with him.

At once easily accessible and implacably remote, Bowles might seem to lend himself to precisely this kind of study. Long the center of the expatriate community of Tangier, where he has lived since the publication of his cult classic The Sheltering Sky in 1949, he has become a Boho celebrity of the highest order in recent years. Despite his professed reclusiveness, he receives a steady stream of visitors to his telephone-less apartment. "Scarcely an afternoon passes without a visit from someone I never saw before and probably shall never see again," he writes in Days: Tangier Journal, 1987--1989. Dillon ably conveys how he endures and even enjoys these intrusions. But while granting access to admirers and interviewers, Bowles is famously uncomfortable about being portrayed by them. Nor is he eager to write about his personal life, although he is fascinated by obsessional intimacies in his fiction. He has even said that he only wrote his memoir, Without Stopping, because he needed the money to pay for Jane's medical expenses.

Dillon first met Paul Bowles during two long visits to Tangier in 1977, when she interviewed him for A Little Original Sin. At the time, she reassured him that she would safeguard his privacy and steer clear of his relationships with male lovers. Here she makes no such promise. But if she no longer protects Bowles's secrets, neither does she withhold her own. In fact, she exposes herself in ways that suggest she finds herself as intrinsically fascinating as Bowles. Some of this material is provocative. Meditating on the biographer's insatiable appetite for information, she recalls being consumed by every detail of Jane Bowles's life. Of the temptation to identify with one's subject, she says the lure was intensified in her case by her "supposed physical resemblance" to Jane. Preparing to return to Tangier in 1992, she worries that her new project may unsettle what she learned from that first book (although she does not shy away from recycling portions of that material here). Throughout, she evokes the biographer's dream and delusion of special access--the "need to feel oneself a 'secret sharer'"--as well as the paranoias this real or imagined intimacy engenders. When a "second woman biographer" of Paul Bowles shows up in Tangier, Dillon reports that she was pleased to tell this woman that she couldn't help her contact certain of her original informants, because they were now dead.

This behind-the-scenes description of the biographer's predicament is potentially fertile territory, but Dillon is not equal to it. Her earnest prose also suggests that she thinks she has discovered these concerns for the first time. In fact, there is already a sophisticated body of literature on the vagaries of biography and fandom, from Wayne Koestenbaum's dilations on Maria Callas in The Queen's Throat, to Nicholson Baker's chronicle of his relationship to John Updike's work in U and I, to Hilton Als's elegantly introspective portraits in The Women. Each of these writers blurs the genre in order to reflect on language, history, and the nature of obsession and love in ways that conventional biographies don't allow. Without this analytical savvy and a rhetorical style to match, all that remains is vanity. In the end, and for all her effusiveness, it's hard to tell why Dillon is drawn to Bowles, apart from finding him alluring and feeling a vaguely maternal "desire to protect him."

Where Bowles's short story evokes an unsettling psychic blurring ("now she thinks she has become me, and so she does everything I used to do," the narrator confides at the end), Dillon presents her experience with Bowles as a frustrating contest of wills. He throws up "obstacles," she complains, as she jealously observes him greeting the faithful who come to Tangier seeking his oracular utterances. Dillon seems not to notice that her methods may be the problem. A visitor offers a throat lozenge, and she thanks him: "'I need one,'" she says. "'I talk more than he does.' 'Yes,' Paul said." As she incessantly confronts him with her readings of his life and his work, presses him about the links between his music and his prose, and volunteers her interpretations of his relationship with Jane, he adopts the path of least resistance, replying with noncommittal disagreement or vague assent. One day she reads aloud a passage from his story, "Unwelcome Words." Is that, she asks, "just what came into your mind at that moment?"

"Well, yes; I was writing a story."
"So story is inseparable from whatever goes on in your mind and from fact as well?"
"So there's no way that 'story' ever stops. In other words, whatever is going on in your mind, story is always going on in some way or other, even when you think about fact or reality. Would that be a correct thing to say?"
"You mean that whatever is happening at any moment can always be incorporated into a story. You can always see it from that point of view -- in the frame. Yes," he adds. "Yes. Sure."

More than once, reading these sorts of scenes, I found myself wondering whether he was agreeing only in order to get it over with. I also wondered what, exactly, Dillon was looking for from him, why she needed him to bear witness to and validate her analysis--particularly since she also constantly points out to the reader how his own understanding failed to meet her "offering[s]."

Occasionally, Dillon elicits something new from Bowles, as when he admits that he found it impossible to become involved with men when he lived in the United States because the risks seemed too great. More often, though, she sounds like a wide-eyed acolyte, belaboring the obvious. "His memory," she writes, "seems to contain many fragments, and from it now this fragment is selected, now that. And yet how smooth his stories are in the writing, seamless, really. No hint of a fragment anywhere." Whose memory is not a fragmentary mess? Who doesn't hope to produce something more seamless in writing? At other times, Dillon's observations resemble the case notes of a patronizing child psychologist: "I notice in Paul a special openness today."

Dillon flatters herself by comparing what she calls "my situation with Paul" to a Bowles story. But there is nothing so disquieting or eerily intimate here. The book is more reminiscent of one of Henry James's fictions about the fraught relationships between writers and their readers. In stories like "The Middle Years" and "The Death of a Lion," the consequences of too close an encounter--or of an entirely missed connection--are invariably devastating. As James understood, most of us are better off not meeting the writers we admire.

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