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Reviewed by:
Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno. An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles. New York: Weidenfeld, 1989. 503 pp. $24.95.

"There never was a good biography of a good novelist. . . . He is too many people if he's any good." An Invisible Spectator, despite all its digging and research, could help confirm Scott Fitzgerald's assertion. Bowles himself has insisted that SawyerLauçanno print as disclaimer: "P. B. found it so difficult to write the autobiography [Without Stopping] that he was unable to face getting involved in the same material, and thus asked to be excused from all participation in the project." Nonetheless he accommodatingly sat for numerous interviews with Sawyer-Lauçanno, which, together with citations from Without Stopping, provide this book's structure.

Even while writing his autobiography in 1972, Bowles observed: "I'm not sure whether I'm remembering stories or experiences." After more than 1,000 revisions to the galleys, that book still pleased few. "The recurrent complaint . . . is, of course, that the book affords no glimpse of what the author is like," Bowles wrote me at the time; "it seems to me that one can see on every page just what sort of man he is. I assume that no one who hasn't read my fiction would be reading the autobiography in any case; the latter should explain the fiction and nothing more."

Heretofore, Bowles has held fast to sexual privacy, agreeing with Alice Toklas's tart dismissal: "Let the public make what it will; what's important is in the work itself—the rest is mere speculation." Is it the obsession of our time that has compelled Sawyer-Lauçanno to gossip about Bowles's various relationships (attachments which, according to Virgil Thomson, Bowles called "sentimental")? Presumably these could be relevant to Bowles's literary accomplishments, but Sawyer-Lauçanno never explains how.

Indeed, it is the significance of experience that remains a mystery in this biography, detailing as it does the happenings of the body more than the contrivances of the mind. Sawyer-Lauçanno scarcely acknowledges the growing corpus of Bowles scholarship, although he has certainly depended upon the research of Millicent Dillon, and he has found in the archives of Bruce Morrissette (whose friendship with Bowles dates from student days at the University of Virginia) a source that may help future scholars.

In this biography, Bowles remains not only the invisible spectator but also an only partially visible subject: as he once noted, "here [in Tangier] very little happens save inside one's head. Life in the streets, although full of patterns, is scarcely something which is happening." Now in his eightieth year, Bowles has mastered his role as reciter-of-biographical-facts. Fitzgerald said that he himself could "never remember the times when I wrote anything. . . . Lived in story." Unfortunately, such life of, and in, the mind of Paul Bowles is not revealed here: the scrim still conceals the writer who has found his life-support in standing next to nothing. As Bowles remarked nearly twenty years ago, "Since the regulating [End Page 243] force in my mind is generally an unconscious one, reasons for procedure can be found only through circumstancial [sic] evidence, and are not necessarily conclusive."

Lawrence D. Stewart
California State University, Northridge


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pp. 243-244
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