Penguin Modern Classics – Paul Bowles

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One of my favourite things at the moment is the Penguin Modern Classics series. Little books with a silvery-grey cover, each containing two or three short stories by one of the twentieth century’s most noted authors—authors who sought to push boundaries, be they social, sexual or linguistic. It includes works by luminaries such as Kafka, Joseph Conrad and Dorothy Parker, as well as lesser known names like Ryunosuke Akutagawa and M.R. James.

I recently picked up The Delicate Prey, by Paul Bowles. I’d been told to read it by D. Foy. “It’s a masterpiece across the board,” he said. “And creeeeeeepy.” Well, I like creepy, and the first two stories in this volume are exactly that… and then some. The third, however—titled The Circular Valley—is something else entirely. It tells the story of an abandoned monastery and the Atlájala: a strange, restless spirit by which the monastery is haunted. Capable of inhabiting any being it chooses, the Atlájala has survived for generations, using the bodies of man and beast as its own personal plaything, until, one day, a young couple arrives in the valley…

This story absolutely floored me—not least for the beauty of its prose, or its ability to shift the reader’s perspective, or the fact that, in one single paragraph, it sums up my own unending obsession with womankind:

“The pain of his suffering was too intense; gently the Atlájala left the man and slipped into the woman. And now it would have believed itself to be housed in nothing, to be in its own spaceless self, so completely was it aware of the wandering wind, the small fluttering of the leaves, and the bright air that surrounded it. Yet there was a difference: each element was magnified in intensity, the whole sphere of being was immense, limitless. Now it understood what the man sought in the woman, and it knew that he suffered because he never would attain that sense of completion he sought. But the Atlájala, being one with the woman, had attained it, and being aware of possessing it, trembled with delight. The woman shuddered as her lips met those of the man. There on the grass in the shade of the tree their joy reached new heights; the Atlájala, knowing them both, formed a single channel between the secret springs of their desires. Throughout, it remained within the woman, and began vaguely to devise ways of keeping her, if not inside the valley, at least nearby, so that she might return.”

Amazing, no? Small wonder this guy became something of a cult figure in literary circles, fascinating everyone from Norman Mailer to Allen Ginsberg. There are several other collections by Paul Bowles available, but this is as good a place to start as any. Check it out.