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Friday, November 19, 1999 Published at 21:53 GMT

World: Americas

Existentialist author Paul Bowles dies

Paul Bowles: friend of Copland, Stein and Cocteau

The American author and composer Paul Bowles, best known for The Sheltering Sky, has died in Morocco aged 88.

He died of a heart attack on Thursday in the port of Tangiers, where he had lived for most of his life. He had been in hospital with cardiac problems since 7 November.

He was the last survivor of a whole generation of American writers which included William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

Although not a 'beat' himself, Bowles was heavily influenced by the introspection which marked their works.

Wealthy family

His existentialist masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky, the film version of which was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, details the destruction of an American couple in the soporific decadence of 1930s Morocco, drawing upon his own experiences as a long-term American expatriate in Tangiers.

Paul Frederick Bowles was born in New York City in 1910 into a wealthy New England family.

During his early years an aunt and uncle introduced him to the esoterica of yoga, theosophy and transcendentalism, themes which he would explore further in later life.

His grandparents' agnosticism was also to play a central role in his outlook.

After graduating from high school, Paul Bowles enrolled at the University of Virginia, but soon ran away to the intellectual hothouse of Paris where he worked for a while as a switchboard operator at the International Herald Tribune.

Returning to the United States and a reconciliation with his parents, he became friends with the composer Aaron Copland, who taught him composition.

With Copland, Bowles travelled extensively in Europe, meeting Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B Toklas.

His surrealist poetry and nihilistic outlook irritated Stein who advised him and Copland to travel to Tangiers.

It was a journey which would change his life.

"As a result of this arbitrary action," he wrote later, "my life was permanently altered.

"If Morocco had been then as it is now, I should have spent the summer and gone away, probably not to return. But Morocco in 1931 provided an inexhaustible succession of fantastic spectacles."

Entranced by what he perceived to be the transcendental nature of North African life as well as by a society tolerant of homosexuality, Paul Bowles produced his first musical compositions.

Although these were often arcane pieces, including settings of Cocteau's poetry, Bowles was to gain himself a glowing reputation as a composer of incidental and other music for theatrical productions on Broadway.

Among his credits are such works as Love's Old Sweet Song, The Glass Menagerie and Sweet Bird of Youth.

A radical Marxist, Paul Bowles co-founded the Committee on Republican Spain, which raised money for the anti-Franco campaign during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1938 he married the woman considered to be his muse, the writer Jane Auer, author of the acclaimed play, In The Summer House. It was a loving marriage of opposites, even though both were homosexual.

In 1947 Bowles and his wife returned to Morocco and he wrote his first, and most celebrated, novel.

He described The Sheltering Sky as, "an adventure story in which the actual adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit."

The novel was on the New York Times best-seller list for ten weeks following its publication in 1949. The initial critical response to the novel was mixed: it was called 'gripping', 'puzzling' and 'strange'.

But, as the years went by, the novel gained the reputation of a cult classic.

His other novels defied any conventional pigeon-holing. Let It Come Down tells of an American bank clerk's descent into the seedy underworld of a Tangiers dope fiend.

The Spider's House looks at the effects of Morocco's anti-colonial struggle through the eyes of an American expatriate and a young Arab boy.

Bowles denied that his works were autobiographical but was resigned to the fact that no-one else agreed with him. Indeed, the idea of resignation to fate was central to much of Bowles' work.

Though he travelled widely, Paul Bowles always returned to his beloved Tangiers. Following his wife's death in 1973, he became increasingly reclusive.

In his book The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux paints a poignant picture of an aged and ill Paul Bowles: an American in an Arab city, still enjoying the illicit pleasures of kif and hashish jam but with one eye firmly on the past.

"His world had shrunk to these walls," writes Theroux, "But that was merely the way it seemed. It was an illusion. His world was within his mind, and his imagination was vast."

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