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Paul Frederick Bowles was a composer, author, poet and literary translator of multiple languages. Born in Jamaica, he spent most of his life in Tangier, Morocco, writing and composing.
As a composer of music for stage and screen, he had a knack for enmeshing the audience in the feeling and ambience of the production, and his fiction novels were known for an eloquent portrayal of Westerners encountering violence and psychological breakdown when coming into contact with traditional cultures.
Born Dec. 30, 1910, to mother Rena and father Claude Bowles, a dentist, the Queens native had a materially comfortable middle-class upbringing with little warmth or emotional support from his overbearing father. From an early age, he sought comfort from his mother, who read to him the works of great American writers such as Edgar Alan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. By age 3, he could read and began writing his own stories.
The precocious youngster also showed an early love of music, and his parents provided him a phonograph and piano. Attending a Stravinsky performance at Carnegie Hall as a teenager had a lasting impact: “Hearing ‘The Firebird’ made me determined to continue improvising on the piano when my father was out of the house .... I had happened upon a new and exciting mode of expression.”
In 1928, Bowles enrolled at the University of Virginia, but the footloose young man soon dropped out and purchased a one-way ticket to Paris. He later reminisced that he was “running toward something, although I didn’t know what at the time.”
Although he briefly returned home, he was soon back in Paris with composer Aaron Copland. Here he composed “Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet,” which premiered in New York in 1931.
The 1930s were a watershed decade for the young expatriate. He traveled extensively through North Africa, including his future adoptive homeland of Morocco, and returned to New York in 1937 to compose music with the likes of Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams. The following year, he married author and playwright Jane Auer and the pair settled permanently in Tangier in 1947.
In Morocco, Bowles wrote prolifically. In 1949, he published his first novel, “The Sheltering Storm,” a tale of descent into madness as three American tourists explore the Sahara Desert. The book was a New York Times bestseller, and he followed up this work in the 1950s with “Let it Come Down” and “The Spider’s House,” both dealing with similar themes of expatriate alienation.
Former New Yorkers, Paul and Jane quickly became fixtures in the foreign community in Tangier. They were visited by celebrity friends including Capote, Gore Vidal and beat writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
The Queens native also continued composing, his work appearing in plays performed at the American School of Tangier. Always exploring new avenues of musical expression, he began studying the traditional music of his newly independent, adoptive country. Starting in the late ’50s, he also translated the works of Moroccan writers. As his wife’s health deteriorated due to the effects of a stroke, Bowles and a friend founded the literary magazine Antaeus, which included some of her work. He remained in Tangier and continued to write after Jane died in 1973.
Bowles’ later work included translations of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and a 1990 cameo appearance in a film version of “The Sheltering Sky.” In 1995, he made a final return to New York City for a festival at Lincoln Center celebrating his music. He continued welcoming visitors and interviewers to his Tangier home up to his death in 1999.
His ashes were buried in Lakemont, N.Y., next to the graves of his parents.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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