The sheltering sky by Paul Bowles
New York : The Library of America, 2002 ISBN 1931082197
(Many editions extant)
As a self-confessed admirer of the modernist novel, it's very negligent of me not to have read any Paul Bowles until now, and I'm disappointed I didn't make the effort earlier.
Back in 1949, when this book was first released, I can imagine it caused quite a few ripples, with it's very modern style, structure and philosophy. That effect is lost somewhat on the reader of today, as there are now so many books written in this way that they are almost a genre in themselves (check out the "literary fiction" section of your local bookshop, for instance).
Much as I am fighting against the notion, I struggle to find The sheltering sky anything other than completely nihilist - the book believes in nothing, loves nothing and predicts nothing. That is the most arresting thing about the book, and the most shocking.
Bowles describes a landscape that is evanescent, but deadly, a people that as a whole are unintelligible, ignorant and disgusting, and as individuals are foolish, arrogant, repulsive and mad. The fact that by the end of the book the reader is aware they've read a minor masterpiece is confirmation of Bowles' skill as a writer.
Despite being set in the African desert, Bowles has managed to give The sheltering sky a claustrophobic feel by using landscape and interiors cleverly, and limiting the characters in the novel to the barest necessity. And what characters they are - Port: lost, arrogant, insecure; Kit: immature, alcoholic, on the verge of insanity; Tunner: vapid, thoughtless and narcissistic; and the Lyles: scheming, degenerate and fake.
Port drives the action in this story, even though ultimately it is a tale of Kit. We are dropped into the middle of the menage, with Port intent on reaching the Sahara, although it soon becomes clear that, rather than heading to somewhere, Port, Kit and Tunner are in reality fleeing from something, in this case their lives as they have lived them. Like much fiction written by Americans, the sense that of life as it is lived not being enough is palpable, and again like much American writing, there is an inability of the characters to focus on a destination to be arrived at in their quest (vide Kerouac, Hemingway, Faulkner etc. etc.).
Port and Kit try and fail to resurrect their marriage, Tunner succeeds in seducing Kit but then realises that his achievement doesn't mean as much to him as he thought, Port is searching for something "real" amongst the Arabs that isn't there: certainly they are not as bad as the French soldiers and officials sprinkled through the novel make them seem, but neither are they better than any other group of people, with their lusts, greed and squalor.
Eventually Kit is reduced to mere existence, which in some ways seems to be the point that Bowles is making - there is nothing else other than just being alive - nothing makes any sense, the things one does have no real meaning, and one's own life is meaningless when taken in the whole. The (unintentional?) irony of the book is that Bowles' writing is in parts so beautiful it does show that there is something more than existance - literature.
This novel is deep and complex, and I am far too simple and impatient to give it the review that it deserves. Recommended.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell
P.S. I'm not sure how well this has been noticed by other readers, and from my reading Paul Bowles never visited the Southern Hemisphere, but surely there must be a backstory to why he named one of the main characters Port Morseby and made the Lyles nationality Australian? Intriguing....