Sunday, March 7, 2010

For AB

My 24-year-old roommate at yoga camp was reading Paul Bowles, and since she seemed interested, after I got home I dug up my journal for 1980, when I took a six-week fiction-writing workshop in Tangiers with Bowles. I started transcribing excerpts of that journal for her.

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?


A said...

Amazing life you live, Mia. What an awesome journal you were keeping 30 years ago. Such rich detail about a famous man. Your yoga roommate was very lucky to share a space with you.

Barbara said...

What an amazing experience, vividly captured in your journal. The furthest afield I ever went for a writing workshop was Cambridge, MA. Morocco sounds utterly exotic. I did relate to one small piece of your experience, though. In a writing workshop, I too mixed up the words prone and supine and was corrected by the person I liked least in the workshop.

Mia said...

Yes, indeed, an amazing experience. Alas, it was 30 years ago, and I have still not launched my fiction-writing career.