I've never read much Paul Bowles. I started The Sheltering Sky when I was in college but soon had to turn back--all that aimless wandering in the desert, the sand shifting one pebble at a time. Still, I was looking forward to Jennifer Baichwal's documentary Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, which is screening this Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 109 of Union South. Perhaps Baichwal could convince me to give America's most thoroughly expatriated writer another chance. Bowles left for Tangier in 1947 and never really came back. Instead, the world came to him--the Beat writers, for example, who got a lot more out of Bowles' novels and short stories than I did. Where I saw aimless wandering they saw an existential, sun-baked travelogue reminiscent of Camus' The Stranger. "The horror that the sky reveals," Bowles wrote in his first novel, "is the horror of oblivion in an empty universe." (Oh, that horror.) Let's hear it for Baichwal, then, because Let It Come Down has indeed re-whetted my appetite for Bowles' work. It probably doesn't hurt that, at 44, I'm that much closer to oblivion myself. But Baichwal shows us a man who, though nicknamed "Gloompot" by his wife (writer Jane Bowles, Zelda to Paul's Scott), seems to get a bit of a kick out of life's utter meaninglessness. Interviewed a few years before his death in 1999, Bowles has straggly hair, leathery skin and rheumy eyes. But there's still a glint in those blue eyes and, often as not, a little chuckle at the end of his sentences. "No one has the right to expect or want anything," he says at one point, and I almost believed him until I noticed how comfy he looked there in his bathrobe, smoking kif. (Kif makes life possible, he says--"no pain, no worries, nothing scratching at the door.") Baichwal takes us through the highlights reel of Bowles' life. There was the upbringing on Long Island by a dentist father from whom receiving love was like pulling teeth. There were the years as a composer--a quite well-respected composer. There was the friendship with Gertrude Stein. (She called him Freddie, which he hated, which is why she called him that.) There was the marriage to Jane, which was at once a marriage of convenience (she preferred women, he preferred men), a marriage of inconvenience (they often lived apart) and a true wedding of minds. Finally, there is the last meeting ever with the Beats, when Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs stop by the Mayflower Hotel during Bowles' 1995 visit to New York. With two of them hobbling on canes, the three amigos seem a long ways from the sun and fun of Morocco.
Within the limits of a 73-minute documentary, Baichwal also does a nice job of evoking and explaining Bowles' work. The movie opens to the sound of typing while the camera glides across mountainous sand dunes. Then an excerpt--perhaps the most dispassionate castration in the entire history of literature--from The Delicate Prey appears, sentence by sentence, on the screen, after which we're taken to a Moroccan abattoir where a butcher methodically removes the edible portions of what I presume to be a lamb's head. No wonder Tad Friend, in a recent New Yorker article marking The Sheltering Sky's 50th anniversary, quipped that Bowles "set Saharan tourism back by a thousand years." For at the end of all that aimless wandering, as often as not in Bowles' fiction, is an act of violence that both lacerates and purifies. And now if you'll excuse me, I have to head over to the library.