Saturday, May 19, 2007

Eschewal of the Banal

In February, as I was leafing through Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino's collection of essays and criticism, for his negative assessment of John Updike (which I quoted from here), I came across his short essay called "Paul Bowles: The Clash of Cultures". Of course, in my last post I mentioned having read Bowles' fine novel, The Sheltering Sky (I think this was pure coincidence and that I happened to be in the midst of reading it when I saw the essay). I referred to beautiful writing and a diverse array of Arab characters, but didn't say much more. Sorrentino, ostensibly writing about Bowles' short stories, had this to say:
The language of Bowles' fiction is reticent and formal, but often brutal in its flat candor. [...] Over his work there lies a barely visible "haze" of anxiety or terror. His characters, once embarked upon the adventures that he invents for them, carry them through to the end; there is no point in a Bowles story at which one can say, with any certainty, there is where the story takes its turn. His stories do not take "turns," but follow strait and undeviating paths, the beginnings of which are anterior to their first words. We "come in" on them, as it were.

It is as if Bowles has made a compact with his readers, one that assumes that he and they know that people are weak, vacillating, self-serving, envious, and often base, as well as being, more often than not, irrational because of fixed and unexamined beliefs in country, class, religion, culture, and so on. Granting the existence of this compact, the stories may be seen as inevitable, their characters not so much caught in a web of problems as playing out, so to speak, their hands.

[...] For those not familiar with Bowles, it should be said that he is most at home in his work in a North African setting, usually Moroccan, and that most of his stories have to do with Arabs or with Arabs and their dealings with Americans or Europeans. I would say that much of Bowles' power and clarity, his freshness and eschewal of the banal has come about because he uses this material without resorting to condescension, awed delight, or sociological analysis: the specific world of Morocco is there.

Nowhere in Bowles do we find any hint of the exotic. His Arabs don't think of themselves as such, but as people who live the lives that have been given them. The brilliance of Bowles' work is rooted in the fact that his prose takes his non-Western world for granted, and this matter-of-fact attitude is tacitly held in subtle opposition to what might be called the reader's expectations. We bring our great bag of idées fixes to Bowles' Morocco, and he calmly proceeds to empty it in front of us. Furthermore, Bowles' Western characters are often seen to be carrying that same bag in the stories in which they appear: their reward for this cultural error is usually disaster.

[...] [Bowles'] technical ability has grown, as I have suggested, from Bowles' refusal to follow the fictional path of least resistance. He does what the good artist everywhere does: solves the problems he has created for himself with the same tools used to create the problems. He is responsible to his work and not to the dim flickerings of "taste."
On a related note, in an excellent post at The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney discusses the problems of representation of Africa in Western fiction, specifically discussing a short story called "Faraji", by Will Ludwigsen. In passing, Matthew mentions that he prefers Bowles' "tales of whites in Third World countries -- his white characters suffer and often die and don't really learn anything except how ignorant and misguided they are."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought Sheltering Sky was indeed very well written but I felt myself recoiling from what I felt at heart was an ugliness in its feeling for life.