The Sheltering Sky – The point when there is no longer any turning back

This is my review of  The Sheltering Sky  by Paul Bowles.

In post-war North Africa, three young Americans, Port Moresby and his wife Kit with friend Tunner playing gooseberry, travel somewhat aimlessly to remote towns in the Algerian desert. Port is introspective, self-absorbed, fascinated by the desert, holding himself distant from others even in his promiscuity, whereas Kit is frightened by insecurity, dislikes being made too think too hard, rejects Port’s quest for meaning in the world and is passive and needy in her sexual adventures.

Although closely tied by a bond which is hard to understand, the marriage is clearly in trouble. The two occupy separate rooms, are casually unfaithful to each other, and have incompatible views. As Kit reflects, it “made her sad to realise that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed”.

It is only some way into the book that background details are provided on, for instance, how Port manages to support himself during his lengthy travels. I am not sure we are ever told how or why the couple left their social circle in New York to end up in Africa for an unlimited period. I concluded that it was the author’s intention to pare details down to focus on the remote beauty of the desert, and the isolation, disorientation and exposure to danger of westerners who leave their own culture to enter it. The fragility and irrelevance of a civilisation they have taken for granted as superior is suddenly revealed. Perhaps at a deeper level the aim is to show how to understand the true nature of our existence we have to be uprooted from familiar territory. As Port tells Kit, “The sky hides the night behind it and shelters the people beneath from the horror that lies above.” Bowles aims to fracture the protective sky to reveal the loneliness of living, and the delusory nature of our preoccupation with time – from which Kit is released eventually by the loss of her watch.

Paul Bowles was apparently a gifted composer, and there is a kind of poetic musicality in his writing: “the ereg with its sea of motionless waves”; at night “the brightness was intense; each grain of sand sent out a fragment from the polar light shed from above”; “the pale infected light of daybreak”, “the insistent wind”; the “sun-drugged stupor” of the towns with their “haphazard design of towers”; how the “angry lamps of the stallholders gutter and flare; the detritus of “fish skeletons and dust”.

For Bowles, speaking through Port, “the desert symbolises freedom, but it is also savage and arouses savagery in the characters who must choose their own bleak fate”. The author also has a gift for getting us inside the minds of his characters at critical points in their lives, however little we may engage with them.

A strong illustration of the author’s skill is in the following description of approaching an oasis , which reminded me of a striking scene in Lawrence of Arabia:

“Soon a solitary thing detached itself from the undecided mass of the horizon, rising suddenly like a djinn into the air. A moment later is subsided, shortened, was merely a distant palm standing quite still on the edge of the oasis. Quietly they continued for another hour or so, and presently they were among trees. The well was enclosed by a low wall. There were no people, no signs of people. The palms grew sparsely; their branches, still more grey than green, shone with a metallic glister and gave almost no shade.”

I understood the book better when I read that the author Paul Bowles and his wife Jane provide the models for Port and Kit. He wrote: “I wanted to tell the story of what the desert can do to us. . . . The desert is the protagonist. . . . It is an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit. The occasional oasis provides a relief from the natural desert, but the sexual adventures fail to provide relief”.

Paul, who spent year living in Tangier and wandering in North Africa was charming, self-controlled but essentially somewhat aloof, remaining discreet about his sexual adventures and regarding the use of hashish as essential to his creative writing, which may account for some of the more mind-bending passages, such as impressions at the point if death, or the experience of madness. Mainly homosexual, he amazed friends by marrying the extrovert, childish, attention-seeking, overtly promiscuous and heavy-drinking, essentially lesbian Jane. A close friend “was absolutely dumbfounded by the intimacy and closeness between them, more so than any two people I’ve ever known. They had remarkable, unique rapport”. This helps to explain why the marital relationship between Port and Kit is so outside the norm, and hard for the reader to empathise with and understand.

Overall, this is a bleak yet original novel, which Inspires admiration for its descriptions and insightful observations rather than a true liking or enjoyment.

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