The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949)

What it’s about: Oran, Algeria, 1945. Port Moresby and his wife Kit are wealthy Americans who have been travelling internationally for several years. They arrive in Algeria, accompanied by a fellow American George Tunner, who has a secret crush on Kit. Port, in the grip of an existential funk, has fallen out of love with Kit and they are sexually estranged. The night after their arrival in Oran, he wanders through the township and has a brief liaison with a local prostitute. The Moresbys meet the monstrous Mrs Lyle, an Australian travel writer and her sickly adult son Eric, a fantasist and rabid alcoholic. Eric asks Port if he can borrow money, and Port arranges to travel to Boussif with the Lyles in their car. Kit and Tunner follow by train, and after a long and uncomfortable journey, finally sleep together when they reach the hotel. Kit, wracked with guilt, conceals the affair from Port, while Port tries unsuccessfully to rekindle his sexual feelings for Kit. The Lyles announce they are leaving for Aïn Krorfa. Port arranges for Tunner to travel with the Lyles, so that he can travel alone with Kit. The Moresbys arrive in Aïn Krorfa where Port discovers that his passport is missing, and concludes that Eric must have been the thief. He persuades Kit to travel to El Ga’a, further into the desert, so as to avoid Tunner’s arrival. Port falls seriously ill on the bus. With the help of a young Arab man, Kit tries to find rooms at a hotel in El Ga’a, but they are turned away for fear that Port’s illness is contagious. Port and Kit travel on the back of a freight truck to Sbâ, where they find shelter with the French Foreign Legion. Port is diagnosed with typhoid and Kit spends several anxious nights nursing him. Tunner arrives in Sbâ and Kit rushes into the town to meet his car, while Port dies alone in the room. Kit returns and discovers Port’s body, then leaves without telling Tunner, taking shelter for the night with a Jewish shopkeeper and his wife. As news of Kit’s disappearance and Port’s death spreads in Sbâ, Kit wanders out into the desert. She meets a caravan of Arab men, who pick her up and continue their journey into the Sudan desert. The men force her to have sex with them repeatedly over several weeks. Kit submits completely to the younger man, Belqassim, who dresses her as a boy and brings her to his house, where he keeps her as a captive. Belqassim and Kit perform a marriage ceremony, and their affair continues, though Kit is violently abused by other members of the household when he is absent. Fearing that the servants are poisoning her, Kit escapes and wanders into the market, where she is nearly attacked by the crowd. She is rescued by a kindly Arab named Amar, and they briefly become lovers. Kit ends up at a convent hospital, disoriented and nearly insane, and the French authorities arrange for her to be flown back to Oran. Kit learns via the American Consulate that Tunner is returning to see her, having searched for her for some months. The novel ends with Kit disappearing into the crowd outside the hotel, presumably to avoid a reunion with Tunner.

Why it’s a classic: Before the publication of The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles was known chiefly as a composer. Released in 1949, his novel was instantly hailed as a modern classic that introduced something new and sinister to the American canon. The austere beauty of Bowles’ writing and the unremitting bleakness of his subject matter was, until then, largely the preserve of French Existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (who Bowles quotes at the start of the harrowing third chapter of The Sheltering Sky) and André Gide (whose novella The Immoralist also features a married man embarking on a doomed affair in a desert landscape). The uncompromising pessimism of Bowles’ vision, in which ‘civilised’ people lose their minds and submit to sexual slavery in the unforgiving landscapes of North Africa, inspired subsequent generations of writers. “Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip,” Norman Mailer wrote: “He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the end of the Square… the call of the orgy, the end of civilisation”. Bowles dismissed the statement as rubbish, but with the benefit of hindsight, Mailer’s point makes sense. After Bowles, the gloves were off, and the liberal humanist world of post-Enlightenment literature was decimated. Port asks himself “if any American can truthfully accept a definition of life which makes it synonymous with suffering.” Bowles’ novel answers that question by presenting a protagonist whose only virtue is to confront and accept his own suffering and death, stripped of any meaning or transcendence. The disorientation and sadness that saturates The Sheltering Sky must have had a particular resonance for a society devastated by the horrors of World War II, unable to trust established social orthodoxies.

Bowles lived in Algeria for over 50 years, and became something of a cult figure, attracting visitors from literary acolytes as his mentor Gertrude Stein had once ruled over Paris in the pre-War years. The Bowles visitors’ book reads like a Who’s Who of post-WWII American literature. Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs travelled to North Africa to worship at Bowles’ feet, and Christopher Isherwood was so impressed by Bowles that he named his most iconic character, Sally Bowles, after him. Part of the enduring appeal of The Sheltering Sky has something to do with Bowles himself, who embodied many of the qualities of his opaque, infuriating characters. Like Port and Kit, Bowles and his wife Jane Auer were Americans living abroad in elegant exile and conducting an unconventional open relationship – both pursued same-sex relationships with others but remained devoted to each other until Jane’s death in 1973. Bowles’ persistent reluctance to be interviewed, and his refusal to explain his work or reveal its meanings made him as enigmatic as his work. While I’m not suggesting that The Sheltering Sky is or should be read as autobiography, it’s tempting to read Port as Bowles’ doppelgänger – the disaffected American writer who disabuses himself of meaning or purpose and plunges head-first into the void.

The Sheltering Sky had a resurgence of interest in the late 1980s, when Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci fulfilled a long-standing desire to adapt Bowles’ novel for the screen. Riding high on the success of The Last Emperor, Bertolucci raised a $25 million budget, cast high-profile actors John Malkovich and Debra Winger as Port and Kit, and even managed to persuade Bowles to appear in a cameo in the film’s opening and finale. Sadly, sweeping historical dramas about depressed existentialists losing their minds in the desert were a hard sell. Released in 1990, the film bombed at the box office, and was one of Bertolucci’s most infamous commercial and critical failures. (Bowles, true to misanthropic form, was quite rude about it in later life – in a new preface to the novel written in 1998, he said “the less said about the film now, the better”). I rewatched Bertolucci’s film recently in preparation for this review. It’s ravishingly beautiful to look at, and surprisingly faithful to the novel, including its bleak, bizarre ending. Most importantly, it captures the weird mix of beauty and profound despair that courses through the story. It feels fitting that a film of The Sheltering Sky would be divisive and commercially ruinous, appropriate to its narrative of reckless self-destruction.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, drawn with a crooked finger in the desert sands. It’s taken me about seven years to confront and finally conquer The Sheltering Sky. Even after having read it twice, I’m torn between declaring it a masterpiece and wanting to tear it up and set it on fire. From its extraordinary opening lines (“He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come“), it’s clear that Bowles is a writer of superlative powers, with a terse, unsentimental prose style, a dazzlingly precise use of metaphor and a cool observant eye that lays bare his parched emotional and physical landscapes. His description “from the inside” of Port’s illness and death is some of the most breathtaking writing I’ve ever come across: “He opened his eyes, shut his eyes, saw only the thin sky stretched across to protect him. Slowly the split would occur, the sky draw back, and he would see what he never had doubted lay behind advance upon him with the speed of a million winds…. His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when the two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky’s clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”

That said, it’s a difficult novel to warm up to. A little Existentialist ennui goes a long way in prose fiction, and we get a lot of it in The Sheltering Sky, led by an anti-hero who is insensitive, manipulative, cruel, unrelentingly self-obsessed and apparently directionless. Although Bowles is scrupulously attentive to Port’s thoughts, he exists more as the literary embodiment of a philosophical idea than as a fully fleshed-out human being. A typical day out with Port requires enduring statements like “The soul is the weariest part of the body”, “One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen” and “It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking”, making him a bit of a drag. This is to some extent the point of the novel – Port isn’t meant to be heroic, and doesn’t grow or develop in the manner of a conventional protagonist. He dies understanding only the meaningless of his own existence and the gruesome reality of his own suffering. Bowles doesn’t signpost what we’re meant to think of this, but the moment of Port’s death is rendered in such breathtaking language that it’s impossible not to be moved. “The difference between something and nothing is nothing“, Port concludes, which is as close as the novel comes to any kind of philosophy or point-of-view. The “purity” of Port’s experiences are contrasted favourably with nearly all the other characters, who Bowles satirises with a bitchy glee: the “offensively chipper” Tunner, who is “astonishingly handsome in a late Paramount way“; the horrifically racist Mrs Lyle, locked in a nightmarish Freudian bond with her creepy son Eric; and minor characters like Lieutenant d’Armagnac and Miss Ferry who briefly take over the narrative, providing a beige, clueless backdrop against which Port and Kit’s suffering seems somehow more impressive.

This leaves Kit, as the slightly more relatable character – anxious, insecure and fearful, if not exactly likeable – to carry the rest of the narrative, in one of the most batshit crazy endings ever written. Her descent into sex slavery is a baffling read, and so implausible that it reads like a fever-dream, or a porn film in which all the eroticism has been leeched out. Perversely, it’s also the most compulsively readable part of the novel – the pace quickens, emotions are heightened, and there’s a huge amount of plot that feels like a relief after the languor of the earlier sections. Bowles seems more distanced and critical of Kit than he does of Port – he shows her frequently putting on make-up in an attempt to cling to her “civilised” past, and there’s a degree of sadism in his strategy to make her suffer until she learns that happiness lies in the total surrender of her freewill. Kit’s fate is doubly tragic, not just for her loss of Port and her repeated brutalisation, but because she is ultimately unable to escape her own suffering. Her attempts to keep her pain at bay are unsuccessful, and she is forced to comprehend the chaos lying behind the sheltering sky, dragged kicking and screaming back into life.

In many ways, The Sheltering Sky hasn’t aged well. Though Bowles was considered groundbreaking in his time for presenting a gritty, unromanticised view of North Africa, we’re now more likely to take him to task for trading in racial stereotypes of Arabs as stupid, mercenary and cruel, or roll our eyes at his use of an “exotic” Third World landscape as the backdrop for bored wealthy white people. One could also quite easily slap him over the head for his portrayal of women, who are solely defined by their sexuality and their relationships with men. These are fair criticisms, though my sense is that Bowles was quite aware of his racial and sexual politics. His descriptions of the filth and poverty of North Africa are bracing, and the jaded traveller in me enjoyed his presentation of a hostile culture wholly uninterested in providing any form of Eat, Pray, Love style inspiration for disaffected white people. I’m also impressed at the honesty with which he describes an unhappy, emotionally codependent marriage. Though not an especially erotic novel, there’s just enough of a flutter of excitement around Tunner to suggest that both the Moresbys view him with erotic interest. It’s also tempting to read Kit’s dark sexual journey as a form of literary projection, in which the discreetly gay Bowles played out his own fantasies about rough sex with Arab men.

Reading The Sheltering Sky was something of an ordeal, and it’s definitively put me off travel in North Africa for a while. That said, I’m haunted by this book – its intensity, the go-for-broke extremism of its storytelling and Bowles’ astonishingly beautiful prose creates a powerful, almost hallucinatory reading experience that I’m still lost in and trying to find my way out of. On some level we are all Port and Kit, wandering through the desert landscapes of our minds seeking our own annihilation, but at least we have Bowles as an articulate tour guide, leading us calmly towards the void.

Quotable Quotes:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveller. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another…. [A]nother important difference between tourist and traveller is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”

“[I]t occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savour the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time.”

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