I did not really know much about either The Sheltering Sky or Paul Bowles when I picked this book up. A friend had read it and suggested that it was interesting. It is.
One thing Bowles does extremely well is to give a sense of place. Place is critical to this novel. Africa, particularly the Sahara, is central to the story both as the setting and as allegorical device. Porter (Port) Moresby, his wife Katherine (Kit) Moresby, and their friend Tunner could have traveled Europe but, at the behest of Port, they had come to North Africa instead. Even Port has doubts about the choice at first:
Their little freighter had spewed them out from its comfortable maw the day before onto the hot docks, sweating and scowling with anxiety, where for a long time no one had paid them the slightest attention. As he [Port] stood there in the burning sun, he had been tempted to go back aboard and see about taking passage for the continuing voyage to Istanbul, but it would have been difficult to do without losing face, since it was he who had cajoled them into coming to North Africa. So he had cast a matter-of-fact glance up and down the dock, made a few reasonably unflattering remarks about the place, and let it go at that, silently resolving to start inland as quickly as possible.
And, after making an unfortunate acquaintance with the Lyles, a very strange English mother and son, they do head inland. They become separated early due to Port’s eagerness to get away from Tunner. This theme of separation runs throughout the novel. The three friends cannot manage to stay together, partly by design, partly not.
The novel is particularly successful in several ways. Paul Bowles based the novel on his own travels in North Africa and his first hand knowledge shows. His descriptions of the landscape, the small towns, decrepit hotels, dusty buses, crowded trains, swarming flies, busy casbahs, labyrinthine alleyways, and other particularities of North African travel are outstanding. Even recalling the novel makes me want to brush the dust out of my clothes.
Bowles can also be a very entertaining descriptor of character. His description of Tunner is both amusing and psychologically adept:
Tunner himself was an essentially simple individual irresistibly attracted by whatever remained just beyond his intellectual grasp. Contenting himself with not quite being able to seize an idea was a habit he had acquired in adolescence, and it operated in him now with still greater force. If he could get on all sides of a thought, he concluded that it was an inferior one; there had to be an inaccessible part of it for his interest to be aroused. His attention, however, did not spur him to additional thought. On the contrary, it merely provided him with an emotional satisfaction vis-à-vis the idea, making it possible for him to relax and admire it at a distance.
Bowles knows something about people and it shows. This is one of the great successes of the novel. The characters are almost all given depth and roundness. Their interactions are usually full of meaning, motives, and schemes, sometimes explicitly so, but as often the reader is made aware through Bowles skillful writing. While Bowles is adept at explicit description, he also can convey essential characteristics of person without explicit description. Subtle cues tip the reader off. Bowles generally succeeds with his characterizations.
He also manages to keep the story interesting, so the reader is never left languishing for too long, waiting for something to happen. The novel is not particularly fast paced, but there is a building psychological thrill.
I am less sure that Bowles succeeded in his philosophical aims. He certainly addresses some central questions of meaning and man’s place in the universe. I think he does this best in the context of individual character:
[Port] felt a sudden shudder of self pity that was almost pleasurable, it was such a complete expression of his mood. It was a physical shudder; he was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially – a deep interior cold nothing could change. Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it.
And there are some gems, such as this:
But there was never any knowing or any certitude; the time to come always had more than one possible direction. One could not even give up hope. The wind would blow, the sand would settle, and in some as yet unforeseen manner time would bring about a change which could only be terrifying, since it would not be a continuation of the present.
Illness reduces man to his basic state: a cloaca in which the chemical processes continue. The meaningless hegemony of the involuntary.
Bowles certainly was trying to make a statement with some depth and, in many ways, he succeeded. However, I am not entirely satisfied with the novel. I am finding it hard to describe my dissatisfactions without reference to spoilers. My own opinion is that Bowles loses some control over character. His usually excellent insights are lost in service to his plot, I think.
I think Bowles’ philosophical axe, as the three preceding quotes suggest, is the essential coldness and isolation of humans, and the razor’s edge that separates the human as intelligent and active agent from “the meaningless hegemony of the involuntary”.
And, perhaps, the action that follows a climactic event in the relations between the three travelers serves to further Bowles’ philosophical aims. But the actions feel entirely unnatural, unreal. The characters no longer feel three dimensional and authentic, but dissolve into caricatures bent into service of the author’s designs. Madness was not effectively explored, but neither was the character acting in a believably rational manner. It seemed to me that Bowles wanted to hit certain plot points and so he did, disregarding the psychological reality the character would experience. But this reduction of the character from ostensibly independent actor to involuntary plot-device may serve the novel’s ends too. Though I found it unreal, the use of one particular character in this way may further serve Bowles’ larger goals. Perhaps even in this failure, there is some success.
The novel is still very good, notwithstanding the fairly serious flaws in the final one hundred or so pages. I cannot describe or discuss the flaws further without revealing important plot points, but I was disappointed that one of the early strengths became a weakness. However, the novel does more than enough well to warrant being read.
My further thoughts after reading Tennessee Williams’ review in 1949 entitled “An Allegory of Man and His Sahara”, which is included in the front of the 50th Anniversary Edition:
Well, my own views of what Bowles was attempting, what he did well, and why the novel is worth reading mostly track Tennessee Williams’ with one major exception. Williams does not see the same flaw that I do. Where I see subjugation of character to plot, Williams sees a beautiful story that furthers the examination the effects of liberation on the civilized.
Be aware, Tennessee Williams discusses some central plot points with more specificity than I have, i.e. arguably his review contains spoilers.
The novel has more than sufficient depth to sustain an extended discussion, so I would welcome comments from anyone who has read the book.