He wrote often, and he wrote in passionate detail about every aspect of the world as seen through the wide-open eyes of a dedicated wanderer. In Travels, we are given the broadest look into his world through thirty-nine collected writings - from articles to essays and even book introductions - that tell, in his own words, of the experiences he had and the ideas he gathered throughout his vibrant traveling life. I was very excited when I was contacted with the opportunity to review this recently-published collection, undoubtedly the most comprehensive and extensive selection of his travel writings ever before available.
In Travels, Paul Bowles's writings - all penned between 1950 and 1993 - actively document his revelations and unique understandings of art, culture and the world through Ceylon, Spain, India, France and beyond, to North Africa, where his writings about Tangier give gleaming evidence to his passion for the place where he spent the rest of his life. He writes at length on the characters that seasoned his experiences, as well as the nature that arrested his consciousness; from the sky of the Sahara, "compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts" (Baptism of Solitude, 1953) to a peasant in Madeira about whom Bowles wrote, "There was a definite difference between this face and the kind of faces I was used to seeing. It was as if this one had been made by hand, the others mass-produced." (Madeira, 1960)
A particular favorite passage of mine can be found in Windows on the Past, written in 1955, wherein Bowles examines the European culture and its relevance to Americans. In it he tells us that, "Europe, if we approach it without preconceived ideas as to what constitutes its 'culture' - simply with a little humility and a little imagination - provides us with that lost childhood...whose evocation can be so instrumental in helping us to locate ourselves in time and space. It is the first step...in the direction of knowing what we are to ourselves and what we are in the world." Those lines were something of a revelation for me; I was completely captivated in not just his exquisite language, but the meaning of his words and the force with which I realized how deeply I related to them.
But when it comes to writing about Tangier, that's where Bowles seems most at home in these pages; about half of the writings in this volume surround the Moroccan city and there's always a certain animation behind his calm narrative when the subject is Tangier. You almost feel the way each other place paled a small bit in comparison to his beloved city, but he's not so biased as to deprive the other locales their due. Each offering he shares with the reader, every insight, bursts with knowledge, wit and a uniquely sardonic wisdom that's all his own. If you're a traveler, it's safe to say you'll find a kindred spirit in Bowles; and if you're not, prepare to be transported.
It also wouldn't be appropriate for me to forego mention of the way Bowles saw Paris, where he had moved to spontaneously and unceremoniously after dropping out of the University of Virginia, so I'll finish things off here with a passage from Paris! City of the Arts, 1953;
"For artists, would-be artists and those numberless people for whom association with art of some sort, and with those who practice it, is a necessity, Paris is much more than a splendid city of boulevards, cafés, shops, bright night spots, parks, museums and historical monuments. It is a complete continent in itself, every region of which must be explored on foot. [...] Infinite variety in a harmonious whole, the certainty of discovering something new and poignant each day – such things give the artist who lives in Paris a sense of satisfaction and spiritual well-being. I think it is they, rather than the more tangible benefits Paris provides, that make it the principal gathering place for artists from every part of the world."
Title: Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993 Author: Paul Bowles Genre: Memoir, travelogue Publisher: HarperCollins Format: Paperback Release date: August 23, 2011 Source: the publisher (C/O) Buy the book: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BetterWorldBooks
Note: I originally published this content on The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower. It has been reproduced here for continuity of review-writing history.