‘Pages from Cold Point’ by Paul Bowles

Before I read any of Paul Bowles’ stories, I had the vague impression his works were like dark, more adult versions of a Tintin story, replete with white travellers in exotic lands who meet sticky ends. Certainly this is how his contemporaries viewed him in the 1950s: as an adventure writer first and foremost.

And if you wanted to read this kind of ‘Paul Bowles,’ there are plenty of stories you could choose. But Bowles’ best works are psychologically and emotionally rich: claustrophobic and twisted, with protagonists pushed to the brink, on the verge of collapse. Like Cortázar’s story, ‘Pages from Cold Point’ uses an epistolary form—here the diary, rather than a letter—to slowly ratchet up the narrative tension. And though, like many great short stories, this hinges on a turning point, where the reader only belatedly sees they have misunderstood the relationship at the heart of this story, the revelation is not a gimmick, but the dark truth essential to Bowles’ vision of the world.

Collected in The Delicate Prey, Random House 1950; Ecco Press 1972. Note: this story was omitted from the first British edition of Bowles’s stories, on advice from Somerset Maugham that it might lead to censorship or prosecution

‘A Distant Episode’ by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles’s works are disturbing. Not in the sense of a Stephen King or a Clive Barker but in that overused term “psychological”. I’m not one to divulge the storyline in a review, as I’d like the reader to enjoy (if that’s the word) the creeping sense of disquiet, the horripilation, the quickening of breath as the story unfolds. Bowles is sometimes grouped with the Beat Generation writers (he happened to be living in Tangier when William S. Burroughs moved there, later being visited by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso) but Bowles is a better and more subtle writer than all of them (even if Burroughs is the more experimental and influential). Bowles’s novels and short stories are full of violence and depravation – both actual and inferred – and infused with the desert’s silence and darkness. This is a North Africa where European/Americans are out of their depth, however much they feel integrated.

First published in Partisan Review, January–February, 1947. Collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Online here