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Excerpt: The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag

Cover image of "The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag" by Edward Fields

Note: These passages from Chapter 14 tell of a trip to Morocco to see the writer Paul Bowles with a variety of bohemian-era personalities, including Field's partner, Neil Derrick.

I'd caught a bug and lay feverish in our Gibraltar hotel room, while Neil went down to the docks to meet the Jerusalem. Crossing the Atlantic, Alfred had an affair with a woman for the first time. In this he was following the advice of his women friends, Maria Irene Fornes, Harriet Sohmers, and Susan Sontag, all sexually ambiguous themselves, that he was "really" straight. His partner in this experiment was a young woman going to Israel to study at Hebrew University for a year. She had ambitions to be a poet, and when she heard that Robert Friend, who was on the faculty there, had taught me to write, she planned to appeal to him to perform the same miracle on her. Enlaced with her on the deck, Alfred had basked in the approval of the other passengers, a pleasant change from the usual reaction he got with his male lovers. But Alfred described the sexual act itself with a mixture of hilarity and disgust, as feeling "like a bowl of oatmeal."

The day after his arrival I was miraculously well again, and together with Columbine and Skoura on leashes and the weighty 14 footlocker, the three of us took the ferry across the Straits to Tangier, a two-hour trip from the modern world to a place that might be described as medieval but is essentially timeless. As picturesque a country as anywhere on earth, the populace swarms through the streets in biblical hooded robes and skullcaps, the women still mysteriously veiled, the medina a movie set of whitewashed cubist dwellings clustered on the slope above the harbor, with mysteriously twisting alleys leading up to the casbah, the walled fortress, at the peak.

Alfred was nervous about being alone with Paul Bowles, and begged Neil and me to accompany him to the house that Paul had rented for the summer. This was in Asilah, a fishing village about twenty miles from Tangier on the Atlantic coast, which was not then the artsy resort it is today. We would have to take a taxi, and Alfred, slipping into Spanish, the alternate language of Tangier at the time, easily negotiated with the driver over the price. Tennessee Williams had visited Paul in Asilah and had used it as the model for the town with rapacious boys in "Suddenly Last Summer."


Overlooking the sea, Paul's rented house was built into the ramparts of the town's old fortifications that also incorporated a derelict palace. He was obviously not happy that two unexpected guests had come along with Alfred, any more than Neil and I were comfortable about showing up uninvited. But with Alfred's longed-for arrival, he agreed to put all three of us up for the night. Alfred was going to stay on as planned, and Neil and I would go back to Tangier the next day. Paul had Larbi, his manservant, serve us lunch, though after several severe bouts with typhus, he himself would only eat a can of salmon, and when I questioned him about the delicious looking goat cheese I had seen in a market stall on the way—round white cakes nesting on fresh grape leaves—he dismissed them as "typhoid pie." I had always thought of Paul Bowles as an adventurer, but this was the first indication to me of his complexity, the paradox of his self-protective nature, while at the same time choosing to live in a place that he saw as dangerous. But quite the opposite of him and never cautious when it would have been wiser to be, it could be argued that both his wife, Jane, and Alfred fully embraced, and were destroyed by, Morocco.

Alfred and Jane's lives followed a similar path. Enthralled with Morocco and its exoticism, they both threw themselves into the life there with abandon, living for the moment and to the hilt, as a more cautious Paul Bowles had never done. They had fairytale relationships with Moroccan lovers (though in Jane's case she married the witch), used alcohol and drugs immoderately, went crazy, and died in exile within a few years of each other.


Lending weight to my supposition that Alfred had been invited as a "playmate/nurse/companion" for Paul's troublesome wife, Jane seemed to have been primed to meet Alfred, and almost immediately showed up from Tangier with her Moroccan lover, Sharifa, a silent, saturnine butch in Levis. We all sat on Paul's terrace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, as Jane chattered on in a tone of sophisticated mockery that I found quite unnerving. She stunned us right off by proudly announcing that Sharifa carried a doctor’s certificate attesting to her virginity. Jane was obviously performing not for Neil and me but for Alfred, who immediately fascinated her.

Alfred and Jane soon became intimate friends. Perhaps he brought out her maternal instincts. She got him to a doctor when a fungus sprouted on his eyelids, and loaned him money when he was broke.

After Jane and Sharifa left, we all lay on mats on the terrace and our first kif pipe was passed around, leading to a strange reaction on Alfred's part, in which he saw my face distorted hideously—he looked at me, his best friend, with horror—indicative of his ultrasensitivity to drugs. Throughout his stay in Morocco, he was both alarmed and fascinated by the effects of the kif, and wouldn't stop taking drugs, even if they brought on terrors and panic.


Alfred was not like so many expatriates who never learn the language of the country they live in. His French was fluent and idiomatic, and "having a pride in languages," as he put it, meant he made the effort to learn to speak the language of any country he was in. Perhaps the Jewish tradition of exile has a good deal to do with this. Like Paul and Jane, he learned to speak Moghrebi, the language of Morocco compounded of Arabic and local dialects, a rare feat in the foreign colony. Paul Bowles said he never saw any one adapt to Moroccan life as fast as Alfred Chester. And indeed, Morocco was paradise for Alfred from the beginning. Even with periods of extreme poverty, psychotic episodes, and a variety of exotic diseases, Morocco was the high point of his life.

From Field, Edward. The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era. Copyright 2005. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

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