Week Sixteen: “East Side, North Africa” by Jane Bowles and “A Matter of Optics” by Warren Breckman


“East Side, North Africa” by Jane Bowles

This week, we’ll traverse the streets of “the city.”

“1950’s Tangier was a seedy port city where artists, pirates, picaros, philistines, lapsed aristocrats, real aristocrats, and paupers posing as kings had found refuge for centuries.

The writer Jane Bowles and her husband Paul Bowles presided over an enviable literary and artistic milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and others. Djuna Barnes typed up “Nightwood” there. Jane made a reputation out of being a sort of resident literary muse, and a sort of avante-garde literary salon was established.”
Yet not everything in Tangier becomes a glamorous and social occasion, as we learn in Jane Bowles’ account, “East Side, North Africa”
“East Side: North Africa” describes a day in Tangier during which Jane (“Jeanie”) is invited to visit with Moroccan women who know her housekeeper and companion Cherifa.

For in real life, it wasn’t the glamorous jet set but rather Cherifa, who some say inspired Bowles the most.

Here is “East Side: North Africa” by Jane Bowles.

A bit about Jane Bowles . . .


Jane and Paul Bowles in Tangiers with Truman Capote and Friends

From The Library of America website:

“Jane Bowles, whose limited oeuvre—one novel, one play, half a dozen short stories—belies a stellar reputation among critics and writers.

In 1948, when Jane arrived in Tangier, Morocco, to meet up with her husband, the novelist and composer Paul Bowles, she greeted their new home with enthusiastic admiration. “I love Tangier—the market and the Arab language, the Casbah, etc. And I long to go now to Marrakech and Taroudant.” As it turned out, the language was to prove a source of frustration, but Jane and Paul remained in Tangier for much of the rest of their lives.

Very little of Jane Bowles’s published writing concerns her adopted homeland, however. The notable exception is the essay “East Side: North Africa,” which Paul fictionalized (over her initial objections) into a short story, “Everything Is Nice.” In both its forms, the piece concerns the awkwardness of a young New Yorker’s attempt to fit into the urban society of Moroccan women.”


Author Jane Bowles and her friend Cherifa (wearing chador) walking the streets of Tangier. (Tanger). (Photo by Terence/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

“I consider her the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters. Her work, her life: deep truth, observed without pretension, with humor and humanity. An artist and person, an angel.”—Tennessee Williams

Jane Bowles (Jane Sydney Auer) ( February 22, 1917 – May 4, 1973) was an American writer and playwright.

Here’s a fabulous article on Jane Bowles, the author of “East Side, North Africa.” ” Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and John Ashbery all professing their admiration” . . .and yet she was hardly known in literary canon. Succumbing to the devastation of strokes and alcoholism, she passed away at the age of 56.


A documentary remembrance of Jane Bowles in several languages

“A Matter of Optics” by Warren Breckman (Lapham’s Quarterly)


Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is referenced in Breckman’s article

From Kublai Khan to Jane Jacobs, for centuries people have been designing and writing about the layout of cities.

What would yours look like? And what would you call it? Would you prefer to dwell amidst the bustle at street level, or do you prefer a “gods-eye” perspective?

“People,” says Breckman,  love vantage points from which they can take in the city. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary does not observe Rouen from the street, but from a hilltop, where seen from above, “the whole landscape had the static quality of a painting.” William Wordsworth paused on Westminster Bridge in 1802 to observe London laid out before him . . .”

Breckman provides us with a good “survey 101” of his theories of city planning, and vantage point as large in scope as the many rich literary and historic references.

What a fascinating subject!

Here’s his gorgeous read from Lapham’s Quarterly. Enjoy!



a rare photo of the Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

A bit about Jane Jacobs . . .


Jane Jacobs is mentioned in Breckman’s article: of course no study of city planning would be complete without mention of Jacobs and her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which  argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of most city-dwellers. The book also introduced sociological concepts such as “eyes on the street”. Here for comparison (by those who prefer the street view!) is her classic essay from 1958, “Downtown is for People.”http://fortune.com/…/downtown-is-for-people-fortune…/


See also Jacob Riis, who Breckman discusses as well. Riis photographed slums, brothels, tenements and other parts of poverty-stricken urban landscape to spark public reform: Jacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC


Riis’s portrait of Hester Street, New York City. His photographs helped to spark civic social reform

Bonus Material: Three Poems by C.P. Cavafy: “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Ithaka” and “The City”

Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born in Alexandria on 29 April 1863. Both his parents were natives of Constantinople. Cavafy was a cosmopolitan by birth, his family roots extending from Constantinople to London (via Alexandria, Trebizond, Chios, Trieste, Venice and Vienna.

His first work was as a journalist; then he took a position with the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.

One of Cavafy’s most important works is his 1904 poem Waiting for the Barbarians.The poem begins by describing a city-state in decline, whose population and legislators are waiting for the arrival of the barbarians. When night falls, the barbarians have not arrived. The poem ends: “What is to become of us without barbarians? Those people were a solution of a sort.”

In 1911, Cavafy wrote “Ithaka”, inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey.

“The City” is another poem by Cavafy which readers may enjoy if studying a unit on the idea of the city, civil planning and the concept of the city as a phenomenon in literature.

The City

C. P. Cavafy, 18631933

You said: “I’ll go to another country. go to another shore,
find another city better than this one. 
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong 
and my heart lies buried like something dead. 
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look, 
I see the black ruins of my life, here, 
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. 
This city will always pursue you. 
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old 
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. 
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: 
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

From C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1972 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s