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An Afterword to Let It Come Down
To be published at the back of the Penguin Classics Edition, winter 2009

Let it Come Down is a classic exposition of Paul Bowles’s most insistent literary theme. Time and again, whether it is in his three other completed novels, The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House and Up Above the World, in his unpublished notebooks or in his many published short stories, he is drawn to chronicle the foreign travels of citizens of a rich, highly successful western nation – such as the USA - who due to the remorceless commercial rationality of their homeland, find themselves spiritually and morally adrift. They search abroad for some form of enlightenment, some direction, some learning, some redeeming experience but instead of profiting from their searches, they find themselves physically degraded and their characters disintegrating through terror into madness. In the process of this adventure, the well advertised superiority of their western culture is exposed as so much useless baggage, especially before the ferocity, cunning and belief systems of a so-called primitive culture. This theme was established by Paul Bowles in one of his first short stories, A Distant Episode, which was written in 1946, some five years before Let it Come Down. It tells the story of a French professor of linguistics travelling into the Sahara in order to study the spoken dialect of a group of isolated nomads. All his learning, all those peer reviews, published articles and bibliographic cross-references, are of no earthly use in the desert. Instead, his mean and acquisitive spirit leads him to stumble in the camp of some Reguibat nomads whose guard dogs savage the intruder. He is beaten and bound and, just before dawn, his tongue is cut out. The nomads then bundle their captive into a camel panier and transport him south to the obscure grazing grounds of their homeland. There he is taught to perform as a dancing buffoon to amuse the women and children, and to earn his daily bread from the clan. After a year of this degrading captivity he is sold on to an oasis merchant and further brutalized, before finally making his escape. In the last scene we observe that the professor, instead of running to a French military post for help, hops back off into the desert like some holy fool. Some literary critics trace the origins of this story back to a drug-influenced day-dream (which may well have contributed to Bowles’s powerful evocation of the delirium of the captive) but there is another possibility. It may have been true. For in the late 30s there was a demented westerner, of unknown origins, who was known to cavort amongst the professional entertainers in Marrakech’s Djemma el Fna square. His charitably minded Moroccan neigbours kept him alive with gifts of food and knew of him as the ‘professor.’ Nor is this the only example, in which a strong nugget of factual observation lies at the core of a Paul Bowles’s short story. By chance I once borrowed a house in Tangier for three months, which I later found to have been the subject of a chilling Bowles story. To a casual reader, Bowles’s tale might have seemed yet another piece of orientalist gothic, as much inspired by one of the short stories of Poe or Saki as anything else. However I found that his rendering of the strange misadventures of this house had been depicted with an almost clinical accuracy, and the events once again fitted in with a classic Bowlesian theme, of innocent western strangers being (nearly) destroyed by native rapacity. In the creation of fiction, the balance between imagination and reality, even in Bowles’s extreme vision, is always difficult to quantify.

This is also true of Let it Come Down. It clearly contains strong autobiographical elements. Indeed Bowles was pefectly honest about this. “ I think one is always writing about oneself…writing is, I suppose, a superstitious way of keeping the horror at bay, of keeping the evil inside.” This is a valuable way of understanding the distorted portraits within Let it Come Down – not as an aggressive attack on either himself or his friends, but as a magical propitiation to fend off a feared outcome. Dyar, the central character of the book, an amoral, drifting, bored suburban American-boy who is both dreaming of adventure but incapable of any self-motivation, is based on many of his own experiences and fears. In later life Paul Bowles used to remember how Gertrude Stein had described him (at a similar age to the fictional Dyar) as ‘the most spoiled, insensitive and self indulgent young man she had ever seen’. He recalled how she was appalled by ‘my colossal complacency in rejecting all values’ and how she had concluded her character summary, ‘if you were typical, it would be the end of our civilization…for you are a manufactured savage.’ Dyar is what Bowles could have been, and feared that he might become, though his own life of constant travel and creativity as a poet, composer, writer, publisher, journalist and translator would progressively dispell these charges. Dyar’s correspondence with his vacuous mother back home, full of the tedium of his father’s health concerns, is based on Bowles’s own need to escape the banalities of his parents life – especially his controlling, health-obssessed dentist of a father. And Dyar’s experience as a bored bank clerk follows Paul Bowles’s own youthful experience of a summer job adding up columns of figures for the Bank of Manhattan Company. This job, undertaken in the year between high school and university, also involved occasional duties as a courier, and on one occasion Bowles was responsible for a large sum of money which briefly went missing, one of the cornerstones of the plot of Let it Come Down. Like his fictional Dyar, Bowles escaped from America, though in his case it wasn’t from a dead-end job but from the tedious, uncultured minds of his fellow students in the hallowed halls of the old University of Virginia. In Bowles’s fiction, the young American Dyar meets an extravagant, fragrant and life-enhancing aristocratic personality, La Marquise de Valverde with whom he has an affair. When Bowles ran away from university, he took a cheap passage to Europe in an old Dutch steamer making its last Atlantic crossing in the spring of 1929. Amongst the eight other passengers was Christine, a French countess, sister to the Duke de Saint-Simon and wife of Comte de Guendulaine who lived on an estate in southern Mexico. The shared experience of the boat journey was the start of a lifelong friendship, even though Paul Bowles was just a penniless Yankee student.

In a similar manner his portrait of the Moroccan Beidaoui family, and the schism between the aristocratic brothers is also based on observation. Back in 1931, when he was still an unknown penniless young traveller, Paul Bowles was befriended by Abdullah Drissi, whose family lived in a vast, servant-filled palace in the ancient city of Fez. Bowles returned many times to this hospitable family and these youthful experiences of a noble Moroccan household would later be reinforced by a neighbourly friendship with the hereditary family of governors of Tangier to give texture and credibility to the portrait of the fictional Thami and his elder Beidaoui brothers.

Paul Bowles’s wife, Jane, is the inspiration behind Eunice, the wealthy and possessive Lesbian, who writes prodigiously without ever completing a book, and who drinks excessively in part because alcohol fuels her addiction to emotional scenes. At the time that Bowles was writing Let it Come Down, Jane had just launched a passionate play for a charismatic, beautiful, acquisitive and illiterate young Moroccan woman, Cherifa, who sold grain in the Tangier corn market.

Although they had bought a house in the old walled city together and were devoted to each other, Jane and Paul preferred to live apart. It was their habit to take up residence in different hotels in Tangier for a month or more but to meet at least once a day, usually for lunch, after which they would scrupulously divide the bill. Although they might have tried to sleep together during their honeymoon, spent travelling through the republics of Central America, they gradually abandoned an attempt to make sex part of their marriage of minds. Indeed the one cardinal difference between Dyar and Paul Bowles is that his fictional creation desired to make ardent love to women. As a young man living in Paris, one of Bowles’s first sexual encounters was with a Hungarian girl called Hemina whilst out on a country walk. Typically, his abiding memories of the event focused on sunburn, nettle rash and ant bites. A few weeks later, his wealthy adopted cousin, Billy Herbert, seduced his nephew as part of a campaign to get Paul Bowles into his confidence and to persuade him to return home to his parents and to university. Once again, it was the incidentals of the event - the gift of a double-breasted tailored suit, a cane and brand new shoes - that Bowles preferred to remember rather than the sensual activity between the bed sheets. Though drawn to the company and friendship of homosexual men all his life, his sex life remained a source of mystery to most of these friends. Some maliciously speculated that he was asexual or impotent, though the truth seems to have been simple enough. He was discrete. Though a handsome and conspicuously elegant man all his life, with blue eyes and a thatch of blonde hair, he preferred to pay male strangers for sex. He also preferred to keep these casual affairs completely separate from his emotional and intellectual friendships, a private matter that was neither material for conversation nor recorded in his memoirs. In a taped conversation with the film director Simon Bischoff, towards the end of his life in the early 1990s he was surprisingly frank and straightforward. ‘All relationships I ever had, from the beginning, had to do with paying. I never had sexual relationships without pay, even when I was much younger. So I took that for granted.” This view is reinforced by a letter to the composer Virgil Thomson, in which he wrote, “how I finally managed to get one of the two who held out for fifty francs…one of the two who came up to us on the quai…I was encouraged by those tactics and used them perfectly elsewhere.” Money matters to all the characters in Let it Come Down, whether it is Eunice using her largesse to attract the love of a young Moroccan girl, whether it is Thami scheming to acquire a motorboat, whether it is the wealthy expatriate scheming to smuggle British pounds into Tangier, or Dyar and his business partner both trying to outwit and defraud one another.

But above and beyond these dark themes, it is also possible to see in Let It Come Down a love letter addressed to Tangier. Bowles writes about the streets, houses, cafés, bars and harbour of the old city with a documentary accuracy born from gratitude and affection. Indeed the city is arguably the only character in the entire book for which one is allowed to feel some affection. Tangier is depicted by Bowles in the last year of her extraordinary period as an International City, which lasted just a generation, from the 1920s to the 1950s. She was an intact city-state with her own hinterland, ruled by a council of foreign consuls and local representatives. She also remained part of the spiritual Kingdom of Morocco, yet was part of the wider world, with different systems of justice for those of different faiths, and an entirely free market for the exchange of goods, money and ideas. As such, she attracted, like Shanghai in the 20s and 30s, a motley and exotic collection of inhabitants, attracted by the liberal attitudes to commerce and morality. There have been dozens and dozens of memoirs and novels written about International Tangier by ex-residents but none of them manages to achieve anything of the accuracy, range, empathy and sensibility of Let It Come Down. This is lucky, for within a year of the novel’s completion, the struggle for Moroccan independence had started, and with it began the slow transformation of Tangier from independent city to provincial backwater.

Morocco, whether he was visiting as a feckless travelling youth or living there as an honoured and respected elderly writer, was always a place of transformation for Paul Bowles, ultimately the only place where he could both feel stimulated and yet work. It was a place where he could fall in love – or as he would have it, fall into an obsession. His friendship with the Moroccan painter, Ahmed Yacoubi, was one of the great adventures of his life. Yacoubi was born into a family of Muslim faith-healers who lived in one of the old quarters of the walled medieval city of Fez. As well as a self-taught genius for painting (a habit which he had to hide during his youth as it was considered impious), he had a curiosity and delight in travelling that was fully equal to Paul Bowles’s own insistent wanderlust. Whilst Bowles wrote the novel Let It Come Down he was infatuated with Yacoubi, with his vast storehouse of stories and traditional practices, as well as his youthful exuberance, enthusiasm and honesty. Yacoubi allowed Bowles unique access to the most intimate beliefs, thoughts, attitudes and habits of a Moroccan man. Some of this experience, particularly their trip into the Rif mountains and into the Rif town of Chechaouen, where Bowles witnessed the bloody spirit dances of a Sufi brotherhood, were poured straight into the penultimate chapters of Let it Come Down. If there is such a thing as the Yacoubi novel however, it is not Let it Come Down so much as its successor, The Spider’s House, which is set in Yacoubi’s Fez and centres around the adventures of a traditionally educated young man drawn towards the two destructive sirens of nationalism and western modernity.

But let us take leave of Paul Bowles with what Tangier meant to him. After his very first visit, in the autumn of 1931 he wrote, “If I said Tangier struck me as a dream city, I should mean it in the strict sense. Its topography was rich in prototypal dream scenes; covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so that they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons and cliffs…” Forty years later, as an older man writing his autobiographical memoir, Without Stopping, he would add: “I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of unsuspecting recipients. Spells are being cast, poison is running its course; souls are being dispossessed of the parasitic pseudo-consciousness that lurks in the unguarded recesses of the mind. There is drumming out there most nights. It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dream, like the mighty call of the muezzins. Even if in the dream I am in New York, the first cry of Allah Akhbar effaces the backdrop and carries whatever comes next to North Afrca, and the dream goes on.”


Barnaby Rogerson, first visited Tangier when he was sixteen. In the subsequent three decades he has written a number of guidebooks to Morocco, a history of North Africa, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, a history of the first four Caliphs, and most recently The Last Crusaders that chronicles the 150 year war between Portugal and Morocco. His day job is at Eland, a tiny version of Penguin, which has a list of some hundred classics of travel literature, www.travelbooks.co.uk

Those wanting to find out more about Paul Bowles should start by reading their way through the following half dozen books.

  • Paul Bowles, Without Stopping - his own autobiographical memoir, which is top heavy with famous names and so lacking in self reflection that it was nick named by his friends, ‘Without Telling.’ Still it provides the back bone of facts, dates and travels upon which all other works have based themselves upon.
  • Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, An Invisible Spectator; a biography of Paul Bowles
  • Ian Finlayson, Tangier; City of the Dream
  • Michelle Green, The Dream at the end of the world, Paul Bowles and the literary renegades in Tangier
  • Paul Bowles, Photographs, edited with a text by Simon Bischoff, Scalo Publishers, 1994
  • Paul Bowles, Too far from Home; the selected writings of Paul Bowles, Harper Perennial has a useful selection of writings, stories and interviews with a very useful bibliography.

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