Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Things Gone & Things Still Here

The pieces in this little volume have all been republished in subsequent collections of Bowles's stories, but I still prefer to read them as they first appeared, in an edition published by Black Sparrow Press in 1977. Four of the stories -- "Allal," "Mejdoub," "The Fqih," and "The Waters of Izli," form a natural group, both in style and setting. "Istikahara, Anaya, Medagan and the Medaganat" and the title story, though also set in North Africa, stand somewhat apart as they take the form of historical anecdotes rather than fiction. All take place in a Moslem Maghreb in which European influence is felt only distantly, if at all. Women are hardly present, and when they are they're generally up to no good. "Afternoon with Antaeus" is a mythological jeu d'esprit, and only in "Reminders of Bouselham" do Europeans share the stage with Maghrebis. "You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus," a description of an outing with some Buddhist monks in Thailand which may be either fiction or travelogue, is the only piece not set in North Africa.

The narratives are not much concerned with interior states, and descriptive detail is kept to a minimum; the unraveling of the tale is all, with each step provoking the next by inexorable fate -- "everything is decided by Allah." If the stories convey anything beyond fatalism, it's a sense of the impossibility of penetrating the consciousness of another, especially across cultures. This is so even in the one story, "Allal," where identities are literally exchanged, in this case between a young Maghrebi and a snake, under the influence of kif paste; the transaction ends in the destruction of both parties.

I miss John Martin's Black Sparrow Press. Back in its heyday, in the '70s and '80s, these colorful, matte-surfaced books were a refreshing alternative to the glossy trade paperbacks that were the standard in the publishing world. (There were also hardcover editions with acetate jackets and paper spine labels, but I could never afford them.) A lot of bookstores wouldn't touch them -- I'm not sure Martin really pushed their distribution all that much -- but they were always on prominent display in places like the Gotham Book Mart.

Much of the Black Sparrow list was devoted to writers like Charles Bukowski and lesser-known Beat poets I wasn't all that interested in, but it also included people like Bowles who had kind of fallen between the cracks of the publishing business at the time. (Bowles, by the way, firmly disavowed Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno's statement that he had complained of never being paid royalties for the Black Sparrow editions of his work.) Martin also put out a series of numbered pamphlets, entitled Sparrow, usually showcasing excerpts from the full-length books. He sold the bulk of his list to David Godine when he retired in 2002, the balance (Bowles, Bukowski, and John Fante) going to Dan Halpern's Ecco Press, which also had a long relationship with Bowles.

All of these books have colored endpapers and all except Midnight Mass below (perhaps because my copy is a second edition) have colored title pages as well. The designer was Barbara Martin.

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