Monday, June 22, 2009

Bellow and Bowles

Bellow made me catch my breath the other day, as he seldom does, with this passage: 'And what is "common" about the "common life"? What if some genius were to do with "common life" what Einstein did with "matter"? Finding its energetics, uncovering its radiance.'

Interesting reading, recently--some new to me, some not. I thought I'd share some thoughts about a couple of recent reads: Mr. Sammler's Planet (Bellow), and Let it Come Down (Bowles); maybe I'll touch briefly on these two old favorites: Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (Greene) and The Devil's Advocate (West).

As I began Let it Come Down, I felt a slight sense of character deja-vu, and after thinking for awhile I decided that Dyar was reminding me of Jim Dixon, of Lucky Jim. Even despite the fact that Dixon is English, and Dyar is quite American. I think this has something to do with the time--a gestalt?--of the early 1950s (1952 and 1954 respectively). But where Dixon is mired in England, English values and academic work, Dyar has just arrived in Morocco, at a politically ephemeral moment, without a clear prospect or understanding of the work he is supposed to be taking with his acquaintance Wilcox. It is apparent in the first few pages, without the aid of an introduction or a back-cover blurb, that Wilcox's operation is a front for illegal business, but Dyar seems innocent, ignorant--bloody stupid. I'll admit to feeling this way about Dyar until the fourth part, at which point I'm not sure quite how to understand him, if I can't see him as a blundering idiot--then what? He is portrayed, maybe purposefully, as a blank slate, an empty vessel: even Daisy says this when she reads his palm at the beginning. Somewhat oddly, I had another recollection of a similarly empty innocent--Pyle (Greene, The Quiet American, 1955)--though ostensibly Pyle is not living a "purposeless" life.

So, if I am horrified (I am) by Dyar in almost every way, I'm not sure how Bowles intended the reader to feel--if he intended at all. His other characters are flawed--Thami, Eunice, Daisy, Hadija--but not hateful. And it is as if Dyar, by his arrival in Tangier, upsets the precariously balanced ecosystem made up of varied political, social and economic interests in the international zone. By the finish, he has unraveled everything for himself--by missing a bank appointment, by taking off with 1,260,000 pesetas, by killing Thami in a haze of majoun hashish. Because (why?, I asked. Because) something has to happen in his life? Because he wanted to be sure he was alive? Or for no reason at all?

Bowles, at least in this novel, is not quite the fine storyteller Greene is, and so I'm left (as I never am with Greene) with quite a lot of doubt about the intention. It seems, among other things, somewhere between farce and tragedy, and about the evil of innocence, possibly of rationality (in opposition to morality). However, some readers may see this as a strength (for every individual his own interpretation). There is an unarguable strength, which left me wanting more, and that was the essence of Morocco in the thing. Its foreigners (Holland, in particular, is a small bright spot) and its natives, and also the dancer with the knife in some of the final pages--a scene which I recognized from "Moon Over Morocco" and from which I could remember the music and singing (which were taken from Paul Bowles' recordings.)


Marble tombstone in Westford. (mew)

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