- Reviewed by
Although Paul Bowles continues to be a writer of demonstrable quality, attention from literary critics has been notably sparse. Richard Patteson's A World Outside is, therefore, particularly welcome. It is a refreshing study that focuses on Bowles's themes and motifs and makes a persuasive application of structural analysis. Seeing architectural images as fundamental ("Bowles' work is delicately poised between the unacceptable chaos of experience and the unbelievable order of artifice"), Patteson examines the extensive range of Bowles's productions and discovers special merit in The Spider's House, that unjustifiably neglected novel.
Patteson traces a basic image—that of a window—to Bowles's earliest recollection of his father, a man with such antipathy toward his son that he tried to kill the six-week old baby by placing him, naked, in an open window during a blizzard. Bowles's difficulties with his father are, of course, part of the novelist's legend. Patteson observes that Without Stopping, Bowles's autobiography, may be most profitably regarded as "a book that purports to be a factual account of his life." ("Total recall, with subtle variations," Bowles's old friend Bruce Morrissette has labeled the process.) Patteson's controlled skepticism helps his literary argument, for even autobiography is the product of a shaping imagination. "Bowles' sense of exile and his conviction that 'security is a false concept' have a much deeper explanatory source than the mere fact of living abroad."
Because Bowles's work has so often been thought of in terms of its locale (North Africa and Latin America), the few stories set in North America have received little attention. Consider "How Many Midnights," for instance, which Patteson does consider—and profitably. Bowles thinks this story a failure because "I never think of it." But Patteson believes that those interested in Bowles's predominant themes should think of it. Written "in a little cottage up on the mountain in Tangier in the autumn of '47" while the author was at work on The Sheltering Sky, that story may have been, as Bowles once said to me, "sort of a vacation [End Page 249] from the desert." But it was not a vacation from his obsessive concerns: the loss of identity through absorption by another and the impossibility of meaningful relationships. Patteson's emphasis on the dichotomy of inside/outside and of the particular significance of windows in Bowles's work can certainly be defended by remarks that Bowles once made to me about this story. "The man [Van] is just a figment in a way. . . . You don't see him because he doesn't exist—even for her [June]; in a sense he's a part of her. We feel that she's invented him. (She's in the act of eating him, as it were. And he's not interested in being eaten.)" The inside/outside dichotomy was evidently in Bowles's mind as he worked on the story: "And suddenly . . . [Van] disappears. That's his way of behavior, as exemplified by what he does in the bookshop. He lets the man steal the books and then catches him, rather than going in while he's stealing them. He watches from outside. So he's been watching her from outside." Patteson's repeated references to this story in his analysis of inside/outside should finally bring attention to "How Many Midnights" and prove, incidentally, that geography is not the only road into Bowles's world.
Inevitably a few interpretations here and there in Patteson's book may perplex Bowles's readers. It is correct to parallel "the collapse of first Port's, then Kit's, sanity"? Undoubtedly Kit does go insane. But are not Port's final perceptions mystical rather than mad? Is it not fudging the evidence to say that "As Port lies dying, Kit wanders off on foot and is eventually...