The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

July 29, 2009

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.

or this:

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.

ShelteringSkyI 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.


The Immoralist by Andre Gide

July 9, 2009

I have been going through old classics on my shelves recently. A couple months ago, I re-read Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER and THE FALL. My own view is that THE FALL (published in 1957) is a more mature and a deeper work than THE STRANGER (published in 1946). However, reading them back-to-back enriched the effect of both. Camus was obviously influenced by his good friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was also influenced by the literature of Andre Gide. I decided to ride the theme and re-read THE IMMORALIST.

TheImmoralistTHE IMMORALIST (written in 1902) precedes Camus’ works both chronologically and in the philosophical sense. Gide posed questions with which Camus later grappled. I probably should have read Gide before Camus, to follow the historical progression, but reading Gide out of order probably gives me greater appreciation of Gide. Gide’s work is outstanding.

He wrote in the preface: “One may without too much conceit, I think, prefer the risk of failing to interest the moment by what is genuinely interesting — to beguiling momentarily a public fond of trash.” Whether conceited or not, Gide did tackle the genuinely interesting. I am very glad he did.

Most of the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Michel. However, Michel’s narrative is related to us secondhand through one of his friends. The novel begins with a letter from one friend of Michel’s to a government official. The short letter poses an opening question: “Can we accommodate so much intelligence, so much strength–or must we refuse them any place among us?”

While the question is posed in the context of a letter examining whether Michel could be of use to the state, I think this is the question Gide is really asking the reader about such supermen and society. (Nietzsche’s WILL TO POWER was written one year later.) Gide does not answer the question. He explained: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment.”

The text of the letter is followed by a purportedly verbatim account by Michel of his recent life. Michel’s account begins with his marriage to Marceline, a woman he did not love; unless “love means tenderness, a kind of pity, as well as a good deal of respect.” Prior to the marriage, Michel was single-mindedly bookish. He tells his friend that his “excessively sedentary life…weakened and protected [him] at the same time.” His wife, in contrast, was physically strong and healthy.

Michel describes the transformation of his life by marriage:

I had lived for myself or at least on my own terms till then; I had married without imagining my wife as anything but a comrade, without really supposing that, by our union, my life might be transformed. I had just understood at last that the monologue was ending now.

Michel’s wife seems more engaged in the marriage. When Michel contracts tuberculosis in a small desert town, Marceline dutiful nurses him. Michel is sure “that her devoted care, that her love and nothing else, saved [him].” The disaparity in their affection for each other persists throughout the novel. Marceline seems always to be trying to win Michel’s affection while Michel more often sees the marriage as an obligation. The view presented of marriage is rather bleak. But then, Gide’s own marriage ended unhappily when he eloped with the sixteen year-old son of his best man. While Gide warned against confusing Michel with Gide, Gide was at least writing what he knew.

Michel’s illness awakens him, he believes, to life.

What matters is that merely being alive became quite amazing for me, and that the daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance. Till now, I would think, I never realized that I was alive. Now I would make the thrilling discovery of life.

Michel’s recovery is slow, if sure. In his recovery, he determined that he must redefine “Good” and “Right” to mean “whatever was healthy for [him].” This is an important turning point. However, despite his earlier assurance that only Marceline’s “devoted care” saved him, he soon sees her as, if not an impediment to recovery, then a irritant. He discovers that Marceline has been become acquainted with a group of local boys and rejects Marceline’s company in favor of the company of the boys. The boys are, after all, vigorously alive and youthful.

Michel spends the rest of the novel exploring the world and his newfound philosophy of life. For Michel, “sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.” Gide magnificently manages Michel’s transformation from a dependable, bookish man of means to a rather self-centered, erratic, pleasure-seeker. But Michel’s pleasure-seeking is not simple hedonism, he is trying to navigate between living in the past (as in his previous vocation as scholar of history) and living only for the future.

A man Michel meets, Menalque, encourages him in his new life. Menalque explains his own philosophy:

I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?

The conflict between Michel’s “will to power” and his obligations, including those to Marceline, provides the tension for the remainder of the novel. Marceline becomes ill and it is Michel’s handling of her illness that poses the most serious question to the reader. Michel is bent on living the remainder of his life in the present, yet he cannot quite abandon Marceline, at least not completely.

For long stretches he is preoccupied with new friendships, all of which are interesting and illuminating. His obligations as a landlord constrict him and social obligations oppress. But the central pull, preventing Michel from living entirely as he would, is Marceline and her illness. By the end of the book, Michel feels he has liberated himself, but that: “This useless freedom tortures me.”

As one would expect from a writer who inspired Sartre, Camus, and many others, Gide has written a book with the power to be life changing. At the least, THE IMMORALIST raises profound questions that are difficult to ignore.

I am already partial to the absurdists and the existentialists. Gide is a necessary part of that group. If you do not have a similar bent, you may not get quite the same enjoyment from THE IMMORALIST, but it is almost certain to be intellectually stimulating. While I would not go so far as to say that I consider THE IMMORALIST to be an essential novel like Camus’ THE FALL, I do think it is one of those novels than can enrich one’s worldview and, certainly, enrich one’s appreciation of Camus’ absurdism and Sartre’s existentialism.