Tuesday, March 30, 2010
My daughter used to beg to stay home rather than face the humiliation of a solitary sitting after she and her best friend had a tiff. Humiliation wasn't in play for me today, and aside from the whiff of melancholy about the way the company has peeled away my work friends, I enjoyed the solitude—especially since I was armed with a really great egg-salad wrap and a free People magazine (I'm a sucker for hard-luck stories about Elizabeth Edwards). And then there was this delightful mention in a review of "The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag," by Alan Bradley: "Bradley, who made his debut as a novelist at 73, plans four more Flavia adventures. The first two are utterly beguiling." Hell, I've got a whole lifetime of achievement ahead of me!
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
My notes from July 21, 1980
Bowles liked my story, said it was the best thing of mine he’d read so far—that’s the kind of compliment that’s so relative it’s difficult to decipher. Some gems from our discussion: “A complicated sentence often isn’t read completely because one goes on to escape it. Important things should not be put in complicated sentences therefore.” “Everything in a story should be justified on two points. Otherwise it shouldn’t be there. It’s important for things to have a definite reason for being included. No detail can be arbitrary.”
After he had gone over our stories and pointed out our typographical errors to us—he seems to have a moral principle against trying to influence us to do anything more substantive than use a dictionary—he told us stories about the past. He told us about his maid Sherifa who is reputed to have poisoned Jane. Jane had never had a health problem until she ran into Sherifa who gave her potions that induced a series of strokes. Bowles said her intention was to gain control of the Bowleses’ money so that she could help her sister who has 11 children. She thought of the Bowleses’ money and home as wasted because they were childless. Sherifa ended up talking Jane out of the house. Bowles showed us a picture of Sherifa—shrouded in black with a black veil and dark sunglasses, very sinister looking. But he told us that under her burnoose she wore Levis and she carried a switchblade in her pocket. When she worked for them she put a curse in the soil of their potted philodendron so that through the plant she could have power over them even when she wasn’t around. Bowles finally discovered the curse—a little bundle of hair, fingernails and blood wrapped up in a piece of cloth. He showed us an album of pictures of Jane, looking ripe and sexy early on, then later wearing a wig, emaciated, gripping her stomach.
For Bowles fans, more Bowlesiana from my 30-year-old journal (these are verbatim, warts and all):
My notes from July 18, 1980
Class with Bowles yesterday: He said he loves birds and until last year has always had at least one parrot. The last one was called Hitler by his maid because it ran after people squawking and nipping their ankles. He told a story about crossing the Sahara in winter. He was the only person in his train car and snow drifted in the windows. Finally another car, filled with Moroccans, was attached. The Moroccans were bitterly cold, so naturally they built a fire on the wood floor of the train car—causing the whole car to go up in flames.
Bowles says that the reason Moroccans are so cold to foreigners is that they see non-Muslims as being insignificant because we have no souls. We have a nice life on earth but they have paradise for all eternity. To be curious about us would be as pointless as being curious about a fly.
Bowles is a delightful man. He has great anecdotes and tells them well. He understands Moroccans and has a boundless humorous appreciation of them but no desire to be one of them. He’s like an anthropologist, very professional about maintaining his distance and objectivity. I asked him if he were ever tempted to convert to Islam and he recoiled at the idea, said he was an atheist and it would be false to subscribe to any god. The only religion he finds attractive is Buddhism because it doesn’t postulate a deity.
He has long skinny legs and looks very athletic and young when he leaps up and bounds into the kitchen to make tea for us. He has a maid, but apparently he does all his own cooking because he has a morbid fear of being poisoned. Also boils every drop of water because he has had typhoid three times. Won’t fly in planes. Can’t drive a car. He’s a very sensible person. These phobias don’t fit in with other things I know of him.
He really is dependent on drugs and started at an early age. His mother used to take him, when he was a boy, to a bar in Harlem where the shoeshine boys sold reefers the size of cigars for 25 cents apiece. Smoking pot had no stigma then, he says. Now he cannot write unless he’s stoned. His apartment is thoroughly saturated with the ancient fumes of joints past—almost unpleasantly musty.
A list of odds and ends Bowles said about Morocco yesterday:
1. The Koran is the law of the land. Local police are autonomous and basically write their own justice. Many are sadistic. Beatings are common, as well as hangings of various sorts and mutilations. Described the practice of beating the soles of the feet until they crack open. Twenty years after receiving such a beating, people cannot walk comfortably.
2. Slavery still exists in the Moroccan deep south. Even though it has been officially outlawed there is no one to enforce it so it continues. Slaves, for the most part, like being slaves. They have cushy jobs—usually as guards—and have all their needs attended to. Sounds like Morocco has some really wild, ungoverned areas.
3. Moroccans have no respect for privacy. They cannot fathom why anyone would want to read or write and can only deduce that when someone is engaged in one of these activities he is desperately bored and should, in all kindness, be diverted. [TW, my Islamic history teacher, elaborated on this. He said when he was working on his dissertation he very badly needed time to himself to work on his notes, etc. Whenever his hosts saw him withdrawing to do this, they assumed that their hospitality had been inadequate and that he was bored, so they would go out and bring in he neighbors to keep him entertained.]
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Here’s a description from July 1 of my first class in Morocco: [Bowles] is a tiny frail-looking man who wears darkest-dark sunglasses and seems utterly helpless. He turns 70 this year but looks more fragile than that number of years could account for. Actually he looks a lot like William Boroughs, just a little gentler. But just as dissipated--extremely pale blue eyes when he removes his glasses, looks like he's been stoned forever ... Bowles seemed to expect the class to conduct itself ... Finally, after numerous agonizingly embarrassing silences he said that he was in terrible need of a cigarette. Someone handed him one, which he placed in a cigarette holder. Shortly after lighting it, he dropped an ash into his pocket, which proceeded to ignite his jacket. B [one of my fellow students], who was sitting next to him, noticed it first and started slapping at it. As she said, a dozen thoughts raced through her mind, including: "Oh my god! It's cashmere!," "I'm touching Paul Bowles, my idol!," "He's so fragile," and "I hope I'm not hurting him." Bowles survived the incident but seemed visibly weakened and left shortly thereafter."
And this from July 2: The second Bowles workshop yesterday was as agonizing as the first. He is known by some of the Americans here as "Bowels," by the way ... He doesn't have a hell of a lot to say [about our short stories], although toward the end of yesterday's class he waxed a little catty. He said Truman Capote would never take you to a party unless he knew beforehand that he could introduce you to somebody famous. "It's pretty sad when someone feels the need to surround himself with celebrities." Of Tennessee Williams, he said, "His autobiography sounds like it was tape recorded and that he never read it after it was transcribed—and that's giving him the benefit of the doubt. It's too bad because in general he's pretty good." Then he said he didn't particularly like Gore Vidal's introduction to the Collected Stories: "He wrote about me, not about the stories." He "softened" that a bit by adding that Vidal was a "good critic but a lousy fiction writer." He also said that politically Vidal "doesn't like anyone but himself." This class may not be teaching me anything about fiction writing, but maybe I can learn to be a gossip columnist.
After that second meeting, Bowles arranged to meet with us in smaller groups at his apartment. My notes from July 8: Had our first smaller meeting with Bowles yesterday. He is such a dear old man. I think this new method will work out well. The only problem, I realized with a pang last night, is that since we are breaking down into three groups, each group is going to meet with him only once a week, instead of going in a larger group three times a week. This means we have only four more sessions with the master. Yesterday B, C, R and I walked to his house for the class. He lives only a few blocks from the school in a hideous gray cinderblock building with faded green shutters. His apartment is on the fourth and top floor. It's small and shabby and dark and, since he kept the windows closed while we were there, unbearably stuffy. It's furnished entirely with hassocks and mattresses and low tables. Nothing rises more than six inches off the floor. Outside his living room is a porch but that room receives no light because the porch is choked with what look like giant philodendrons. He invited us all to be comfortable and then went to prepare us tea, listing about ten varieties and offering us lemon. After he joined us he went over each of our stories individually with us, correcting only what he calls solecisms. My pride was somewhat ruffled when he pointed out two bad ones on mine that were quite embarrassing. I had used the word prone to mean supine and beckoned instead of beckoned to. After painstakingly pointing out each of our grammatical errors in the kindest fashion, he concluded the class. B asked him if he ever intended to give us more general kinds of response and he said that it would take him a long time to get to know us and our writing well enough to feel qualified to make general statements. He said that often something that seems weak or crude in one piece of work will emerge in the larger body of work as a writer's greatest strength. He also pointed out that, for example, Henry Miller has never written a single great book, yet the whole of his work is brilliant. Then his boyfriend, Mohammed Mrabet arrived with a box of cakes and some funny cigarettes for us. We all indulged and sat around listening to Mrabet tell stories ... Mrabet has smutty eyes and a wheezing ingratiating laugh and his tales of his exploits portray him as a petty scoundrel. I can kind of see why Bowles loves him. He is utterly fascinating in his repulsiveness ... He's much younger than Bowles and B pointed out that for Bowles, who is childless, Mrabet must be like a son. Part of Mrabet's stomach was removed to arrest a duodenal ulcer. Bowles said with great tenderness that the ulcerated part of the stomach looked just like a volcano crater. Mrabet claims that they brought it home from the hospital with them and fried it up with potatoes to eat. I feel pretty sure Mrabet is Pumpkin in that sleazeball novel Tangier, and Bowles is the hopelessly whupped painter who endures Pumpkin's sadism.
There's more, lots more, similar stuff, but perhaps, dear reader, you're tired—or are you feeling a touch of nausea?
Saturday, March 6, 2010
I am a happily unmarried monogamous slut: I’ve lived in sin for 38 years with the same man. We’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart. For nearly four decades we’ve complemented each other’s vagaries. He’s a neatnik, I’m a slattern. He cooks, I eat. He’s smart, I’ve got chemo brain (had it forever, even before I had chemo). Mostly our partnership works out. He gets to be right, I get to be wrong with the comfort of knowing I’ve got backup. But there are times when he goes off—to visit his mother, say, at her Florida nursing home—and I am left to my own vices, er, devices, and I feel a huge sense of slob’s relief. I wallow in every wanton impulse. I leave unwashed dishes on the counter—overnight! I forget to put my clothes away—for days on end! I do the laundry—but leave it unfolded! I don’t answer phone messages—ever! And there’s nobody to criticize or complain. Of course, I’m stuck with a diet of fairly unappetizing leftovers (tonight’s menu was burnt pizza and cold, week-old boiled cabbage), and I have to manage the catbox entirely on my own or picking the litter out from between my toes becomes a full-time job. But that’s a small price to pay for five days of complete freedom from perfection.