by Perry Meisel
You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles. By Millicent Dillon. Illustrated. 340 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. $27.50.
Paul Bowles is the bridge between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation, even though his work exceeds Beat fiction in technical interest and even though he, as Norman Mailer was among the first to point out, was quick to foresee the craftiness inherent in any unvarnished stance. Now 87 years old, Bowles has lived in Morocco for more than 50 years. Like his wife, the novelist Jane Bowles (who suffered a stroke in Morocco in 1957 and died at a sanitarium in Spain in 1973), Paul Bowles emerged out of the New York art and social scene of the 1930's; he gained his own earliest reputation as a composer before rewarding himself with expatriation in the 1940's.
Millicent Dillon's biography of Bowles, You Are Not I (the title comes from one of Bowles's short stories), is not an attempt to narrate the events of Bowles's life or the histories of his influence; that has already been done in two earlier biographies and a documentary film. Dillon, the author of a life of Jane Bowles, is also a novelist and believes in evocation, not reduction. With implications well beyond what she intends, her new book is a strange and uncanny success. Using the atmosphere of Tangier to advantage, Dillon lights the chilly Bowles from a number of angles; she eschews even portraiture in favor of a dramatic strategy based on her many conversations with him in his Tangier apartment beginning in 1977. Bowles's sadness and the sense of opportunities lost suffuse Dillon's narrative and weigh it with emotion.
Beneath the tea and sympathy, however, beats a deeper purpose. Despite her impressionism, Dillon wishes to find a classical way to understand both Bowles's work and his relation to others. As Jane Bowles's biographer, she is particularly fascinated by the dialectic of the Bowleses' marriage and work. Why the contrast between the contempt and humiliation served up to opposite-sex characters in their novels and their love and respect for each other in real life? (Dillon is understandably preoccupied with the absurd rape sequences in Bowles's 1949 best seller, ''The Sheltering Sky,'' although she fails to press him about them.) How did these two homosexuals find sexual happiness in each other before Paul twice struck Jane and destroyed their intimacy forever? And why was it not until after Jane had asked Paul to edit the manuscript of her first novel in 1941 that he, too, decided to make prose fiction his primary metier? Was this a heightened dialogue between them or a form of violence and usurpation?
Primal scenes tumble forth from the ordinarily reticent Bowles, who sits, befogged by kif, as he and Dillon explore the relation between art and experience. Bowles's father was a dentist in Jamaica, Queens, who wanted to be a violinist and who regularly hit his son on the back of the legs when the child did not move up the stairs fast enough. Paul was often left home alone at a very young age, too, growing so lonely that he tried to make friends with mosquitoes. He even recalls seeing his father in bed with his aunt while his mother stood alongside laughing.
But the links between Bowles's life and art remain, like all else in Tangier, elusive. You Are Not I makes us reimagine the relation between life and art, and between art and its explanation. The book abounds with new notions if we look and listen, especially when Bowles's friend Mohammed Mrabet appears. He is a Moroccan storyteller whose ''performances,'' as Dillon calls them, force the realization that there is little difference between life and its narratives, no cause in the one for the other; they commingle. Both are performances. Given Bowles's influence on her, it is as if he had, as Dillon realizes, written his own biography. To be sure, Dillon brings insufficient material to the performance from her own life and desires. She has left her side of the dialogue out. Is she letting Jane Bowles do the talking for her? Or is she simply being too modest about finding in Bowles himself an unexpected quality of feeling?
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1998