To Updike, predators everywhere in Morocco. (Heather Cowper)
I’m sure I’ve read a more repulsive Updike story. Right now I can’t recall one more repulsive than “Morocco.” Repulsive for its overt orientalism, its equally overt indulgence of racist tropes and travel writing’s laziest stereotypes.
The New Yorker rejected “Morocco” when he sent it in at the end of November 1978. He revised it, resubmitted it two months later, the New Yorker rejected it again. The Atlantic ran it in the November 1979 issue. He couldn’t bring himself to collect it in his next short story books, finally including it–as the very first story–in “My Father’s Tears” in 2009, three years after his Arabophobe “Terrorist.” Of course it’s not a story. It’s a travelogue of the trip he took with his wife and four children to Morocco in 1969. “A two-part Easter holiday began in Morocco, where they made an exhausting five-hundred-mile dash in a rented car from Tangier to Agadir,” Adam Begley writes in his biography; “they then flew to Paris for two days, but were too weary of living out of suitcases to enjoy it much.” Begley doesn’t mention the “story” that came out of it. I was looking around the web to see if I was reading something that wasn’t there. The story isn’t anthologized or referred to much, but I happened by a Maghrebi writer’s identical reaction.
Made up fears start in the first lines. Updike (let’s not pretend it’s a fictional dad) is afraid to stop his car anywhere. “What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits.” It devolves from there. Nothing he sees, nothing he smells or feels elevates. Somehow, in one of the more sublime parts of the world, every mile, every sight is “the bleak plazas, the boarded up arcades” (though I could have been reading about Daytona Beach). One of his daughters, apparently blond, “attracted stares from native men everywhere.” The predatory Arab man trope appears on the second page of the story, as if the very same girl would not attract stares from Updike’s country clubs everywhere back home, as if Updike’s own predatory stares after nubile girls (how many times does the word “nubile” appear in Updike works?) doesn’t heave through his pages. He tries to add a comic element here and there (“Allah be praised”) but it falls flat. On a beach in Agadir, another predator: a man not far from the family is masturbating. They escape, go to a hotel and its private pool “where all the Europeans were swimming and tanning safe from the surrounding culture.” Could the bigotry be more explicit? He’s reveling in it now, in the superiority of it, writing like a supremacist colonialist of the 1800s. They don’t leave Agadir. They “escaped.” He blows through a red light and doesn’t stop when a cop hails: more western contempt for Arab laws. And again, “We had escaped.”
When Updike is more objectively reassessed for the distastefulness of morals and judgments behind the gilded style, this “story” will figure prominently.
Toward the end of the story Aileen, the young protagonist college girl reluctantly spending her vacation with her mother and her mother’s homebreaking lover Prue in a Colombian jungle, Aileen is walking by the huts of poor natives. A young man beckons her over through a mesh fence, then spits a mouthful of water at her face and dress. Westerners are not liked in the jungle, because they presume too much: “if Luz could only learn a little more about what white people like to eat an how they like it served,” Aileen’s mother writes her in the three-page letter that opens the story as Aileen is flying in through the white clouds she wants to step on, like a comic book character. The letter hints at the way Prue broke up the marriage between Aileen’s father and mother. The tension between Aileen and Prue is obvious from the letter. Prue to Aileen is “ungracious, ugly and something of an interloper.” Tension builds: it’s the story’s most appealing strength, that build-up. It explodes in a physical pummeling, by Aileen of Prue, after Prue flicks water from her glass at Aileen the morning of Aileen’s early departure, after her mother essentially threw her out for not getting along with Prue. A sense of the primeval recurs down to that primeval fight and the scream Aileen lets out at the end, when she is reduced to something primal, bashing the woman who’s taken possession of her mother. There’s nothing appealing in Prue, but Aileen is not much more so, and the intrusive sense Bowles builds up, of Aileen’s visit, is secondary to how obliviously intrusive all three of these characters are on the jungle around them. None of them belongs, not just Aileen.
A stifling story. A couple on honeymoon in Panama. On honeymoon, though it isn;t long before the woman cheats on her husband, who buys a monkey, “a little horror like that,” as she calls it, to haunt their honeymoon, because by looking at it, he says, “I’d be reminded of how stupid I was ever to get upset.” The monkey sums up her hatred of all things wild, the jungle and the trip included. They’re not a good match: “I’m crazy too, U know,” she tells him. “But I wish there were some way I could just once feel that my giving in meant anything to you. I wish you knew how to be gracious about it.” He doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, self-conscious, as his occasional dips into the self-referential notebook he keeps tell us. He blames her for “always being disillusioned and going around wondering how mankind can be so bestial.” He blames her: “You can never enter into the spirit of s thing, can you?”
There are frequent condescending lines throughout, about the natives, who are all faceless, nameless, crudely drawn, servants both to the honeymooners and to Bowles’s story: “with fewer teeth missing they would be a handsome people.” Is this the best he can find to say about them? And he blames the wife for wondering how mankind can be bestial? Worse, he goes Jules Verne on the natives, comparing them to animals, even monkeys: About an employee on board (possibly the man she’d end up cheating on him with) Bowles writes: “he gave an impression of purely animal force, his broad, somewhat simian face was handsome…” There are also a couple of passages about the man’s childhood, which haunts him: “… the strangeness of his dreams persuaded him that at last he had turned the corner, that the dark place had finally been left behind, that he was out of hearing,” but the mere look of a common object “and the accustomed feeling of infinite futility and sadness would recur.”
She likes to booze with whisky. She disappears. He eventually finds her asleep half naked with another man. He packs up, leaves, boards a train. He thinks he sees her rushing toward him, but the train is whistling off.
Jeffrey Meyers in the Spring 2011 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review begins his essay, “The Oddest Couple: Paul and Jane Bowles” with three paragraphs that explain much of the 13-page “Call at Corazon”—the husband’s anxiety about his childhood, the husband’s need for a monkey, the wife’s boozing and eventual fling on board the boat as the couple was honeymooning:
The strange marriage of Paul and Jane Bowles, two extraordinarily eccentric characters, exemplified the change in mores from the Edwardian to the modern era and anticipated many of the sexual practices that became common after the social revolution of the 1960s. Both bisexual writers, with wildly different personalities, often separated but closely bound to each other, preferred to have sex with their own kind. Far from hiding their homosexuality, marriage allowed them to express it. The mysterious question of what held them together, as they encouraged each other’s work but became rivals in fiction, fascinated and baffled their friends.
Paul Bowles (1910–1999), born in New York and raised on Long Island, was the son of a cruel, tyrannical father, a frustrated would-be violinist who became a dentist. While still in his teens Paul published poems in the French avant-garde magazine transition. He left the University of Virginia after one semester, lived in Paris, studied composition with Aaron Copland, and met Gertrude Stein and many other writers. Always nomadic, in his twenties he traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and Central America and composed concert works as well as incidental music for ballet, theater, and film.
Jane Auer (1917–1973) was born to an affluent New York family and moved to Long Island when she was ten years
old. Her father died three years later; and in 1931, while at a girls’ school in Massachusetts, she broke her leg in a serious riding accident. In the early 1930s she was treated in a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis of the knee. After returning to New York in 1937, she met Paul and impulsively invited herself to join him and his Dutch friends on their trip to Mexico. But she hated the primitive country and, soon after arriving, flew straight back to America—not a promising start for their future travels together. Paul and Jane had a certain amount in common. Both were only children, grew up on Long Island, had lived in Europe, and were fluent in French. They did not want to have children, who would interfere with their work and their travels, were essentially homosexual, and felt free to pursue their own sexual interests. In 1938 they surprised all their friends by getting married.
As to the story, Meyers summarizes it this way:
Paul’s story “Call at Corazón” (1947), like Jane’s Two Serious Ladies, is based on their rather awful 1938 honeymoon in Panama. These works show how a husband and wife portray different views of the same miserable experience. (Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald had also done this in Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night.) Paul did seem to take cruel delight in dragging Jane into the jungle. As he wrote Gertrude Stein, “I am married to a girl who hates nature, and so we are here with volcanoes, earthquakes and monkeys.”
Corazón de Jesús is a real island port off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Though corazón is the most frequently recurring word in Spanish love songs, in Paul’s story, the woman’s heart does not answer the call. The unnamed wife constantly complains and is more irritating than “amusing.” She hates the cramped cabins on the stinking ships (Paul always traveled with an enormous amount of luggage), the intrusive cockroaches who share their quarters, and the destructive pet monkey (a symbol of primitive unreason) who tears out the pages of his book. She also fears the sick-making food, biting insects, torrid heat, poisonous snakes, and tropical diseases. He complains that she refuses to enter into the adventurous spirit of their travels; when he tries to be caustic, she tells him he’s boring.
The husband can’t sleep when the alcoholic wife is prowling around at night: “he began to feel pangs of anxiety as to where she might be. . . . The comfort of her presence was lacking, and there was also the fear of being awakened by her return.” He gets up, searches for her, and finds her on deck next to a strange man, asleep and half-naked after having had sex with him. The husband then returns to the cabin, packs his bags, leaves the boat, and boards the train that’s waiting near the dock. As the train departs, “he thought he saw a figure in white running among the dogs and children toward the station, but the train started up as he watched, and the street was lost to view.” The exasperated but coldly efficient husband takes revenge by abandoning his wife, who suddenly needs him, to an uncertain fate in the jungly port.
Like reading a Barnett Newman. It is mostly in what Hemingway doesn’t say, in the silences between glimpses of terror and cruelty: “The worst, he said, were the women with the dead babies. You couldn’t get the women to give up their dead babies.” They scream at midnight until the soldiers point searchlights at them. One woman dies and goes immediately stiff. They’re refugees of the Greek-Turkish war of 1922, seen by a seemingly dissociated narrator, either a British or American soldier in charge of managing the situation while Turks, a little too Paul Bowles-like summed- and smudged up in the person of one “Turk,” are portrayed as complicating the situation. But that narrator is either unnerving or maddening, or both. Or mad: “You remember the harbor. There were plenty of nice things floating around in it.” Who is he talking to? Why this reference to “plenty of nice things floating around” in the midst of horrors? What nice things ever float in a harbor? Ever? It’s throw-away details like that, that you know would never be throw-aways in Hemingway, that make you think he’s just throwing a line for effect rather than meaning/ Nothing wrong with that of course. Viz, Newman, his Vir Heroicus Sublimis (the “Heroic Sublime”), whom we just saw at MoMa. See my picture above. Maybe that’s a Turkish man wondering yet again why he’s being thrown under the big red bus and those “zips,” as Newman called those lines. I don’t know why the photo utility I just used dulled the reds as it did. Maybe Kazyo Shigara’s 1964 “Untitled” is more apt:
Kazuo Shiraga’s Untitled,” 1964. (c FlaglerLive)
The two-page vignette was originally the introduction to In Our Time. He unfortunately renamed it, pretentiously, “On the Quai at Smyrna.”
Really? (During a safari in Africa in 1934. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Man and woman on safari. Man acts cowardly when first rushed by a lion. Woman is embarrassed, ashamed. So is he. She sleeps with the safari man. He regains his courage, kills a bull, then gets ready to kill a lion rushing him, but she shoots from the car–and hits him in the head, killing him. His happiness was those few hours of feeling courageous. It may be one of his most famous stories, but in retrospect the fame should’ve dimmed. The story is schematic, solipsistic, a tinge misogynistic.
From Wikipedia: In “The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story,” author and literary critic Frank O’Connor, though generally an admirer of Hemingway, gives one of the most colorful and uncharitable summations of “The Short Happy Life”: “Francis runs away from a lion, which is what most sensible men would do if faced by a lion, and his wife promptly cuckolds him with the English manager of their big-game hunting expedition. As we all know, good wives admire nothing in a husband except his capacity to deal with lions, so we can sympathize with the poor woman in her trouble. But next day Macomber, faced with a buffalo, suddenly becomes a man of superb courage, and his wife, recognizing that[…] for the future she must be a virtuous wife, blows his head off. […] To say that the psychology of this story is childish would be to waste good words. As farce it ranks with Ten Nights in a Bar Room or any other Victorian morality you can think of. Clearly, it is the working out of a personal problem that for the vast majority of men and women has no validity whatever.”