The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles: “A Novel Approach”

In 1955, former composer turned writer Paul Bowles published “The Spider’s House”, intended to be a record of daily life in the Moroccan city of Fez, a medieval throwback operating in the C20 world. The extreme unrest which broke out at the time, as French colonial rule was attacked by Istiqlal, the independence movement, whose leaders in fact wanted to modernise the country themselves, transformed the book into what he regarded as the political novel he had not meant to write. It struck me as more of an exploration of contrasting, clashing cultures, observed through the eyes of two very different individuals whose paths eventually cross by chance.

Stenham is a cynical, sophisticated, rootless American expat author, apparently modelled on Bowles himself, who has mastered Arabic and acquired a deep knowledge of traditional Moroccan life. He realises that, whoever wins, Fez will be destroyed beyond recognition, but has the further telling insight that “It did not really matter whether they worshipped Allah or carburettors… He would have liked to preserve the status quo because the décor that went with it suited his personal taste”.

On the other hand, the Arab viewpoint is conveyed through Amar, an intelligent and resourceful young Moroccan, the illiterate son of a healer who has allowed him to skip school and indoctrinated him with the traditional teaching of Allah, so that he accepts Fate, and is easily shocked and perplexed by western social habits. So he would have understood at once the quotation from the Koran which gave the book its title:

“The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.”

This novel is remarkable for its vivid descriptions of Fez, enabling one to experience walking through the ancient city, and to visualise the surrounding landscape: “…wandering through the Medina at night was very much like being blindfolded…. He knew just how each section of a familiar way sounded when he walked it alone at night….. The footsteps had an infinite variety of sound.…..the water was the same, following its countless courses behind the partitions of earth and stone….”.

Streets of Fez or Fes Medina - Souks Stock Photo - Image of prayer,  lantern: 135258934

Bowles also has the ability to capture the fleeting thoughts of his main characters, a particular achievement in the case of Amar. However, the tourist Polly Burroughs, who trots out the simplistic view of Moroccans as being entitled to rebel in order to live like westerners, is portrayed in a stereotyped, even sexist way, perhaps reflecting attitudes to women when the novel was written.Despite moments of high tension, the meandering plot has probably driven away many readers. Digressions into apparently minor scenes last for pages, major incidents may only be implied. It is too frequently unclear who some characters are and exactly what is happening – rather like real life. Yet the hypnotic power of the prose, the continual insights, kept me reading and thinking. I doubt whether I have ever taken so long to read a 400 page novel, because Bowles forces one to focus on his words and reflect on them. So if the book had been edited more ruthlessly, would a vital quality have been sapped in the process?

I agree that some aspects of the plot are implausible, and I understand why even admirers of the novel find the end an unsatisfactory anticlimax. At first, I assumed that plot was unimportant to Bowles, but it could be argued that he drifted between events, with occasional bursts of action, to provide the flavour of what the experiences of life felt like to the characters. Also, the carefully constructed final scene, although superficially inconclusive, can be viewed as a very powerful final comment on the attitudes and relationships between the main players.

This deserves to be regarded as a classic, and to be read slowly, possibly more than once – if one has the time.

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