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The Sheltering Sky

Review - The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Any review of this book must be largely impressionistic. It is difficult to categorise. Is it a novel, or a travelogue or a tourist brochure or a philosophical tract?

The New York Times calls it a novel, so we may as well go along with that.

When I began reading it, I was about a third of the way through, and asked myself a question, namely : ‘Is this a meaningless account of existential angst, or is it just staggeringly boring?’

The book – yes, let’s call it a book – deals with the fate of Kit and Port, an American couple who travel to North Africa after the Second World War. They are disaffected  from American civilization for reasons which are not made clear. And they don’t seem to like Europe much either. Nor do they like each other very much.

They do not talk to each other, except in acerbic exchanges, and have separate bedrooms. There is a third person, Tunner, who makes up the triangle. He seems to be attracted to Kit, but we are not sure whether this is because he is lonely, needs some excitement in his aimless life, or whether he really likes her. Kit and Port can never be alone together which is probably just as well. In fact we gain no sense of what the feelings are of anyone towards anyone else throughout the novel.

Port, in his enforced idleness tends to go off on long walks. These walks just happen to end up in North African brothels where he falls victim to the varied charms of the occupants, one of whom happens to be blind. These walks take him down endless Arab alleys – as endless as the prose which Mr Bowles uses to describe them.

Mr Bowles seems confident of his descriptive powers. When he is not describing the alleyways, he is describing the light, and the sky, and the desert and the silent vistas.

Into this tepid pool of aimlessness a few others appear. There is an English mother and son and some Australians. The English mother covers her son with tirades of vituperation, which he seems curiously unaffected by. The nature of their relationship does cause some bizarre speculations, none of which can be proved. And the Australians are protrayed as loud, vacuous, stupid and ignorant.

They all seem, despite their disparate backgrounds, intent on taking bus journeys to the next town. It is almost like an obsession. I couldn’t work out why they wanted to do this, because one town is like another. But it does give Mr Bowles another chance to display his inexhaustible powers of linguistic portraiture.

Early in the novel there is a train journey. Port goes off in a car and Kit and Tunner are left alone in a compartment on the train. They are thus alone together and able to consummate their temporary feelings for each other. Tunner manages this with the help of a case of champagne. This is a very useful tip – the only one in an otherwise bleakly unhelpful text.

Our reading group were highly amused by this.

Kit’s submission to Tunner weighs heavily on her conscience and her unease about her betrayal remains in her mind throughout the novel.

What struck me was that their basic approach to hygiene and medicine was cavalier in the extreme. They all dismissed the idea of vaccinations as tiresome and unnecessary. In the absence of hospitals, this was either brave or very stupid. Later in the novel Port contracts typhoid and is nursed by his wife Kit. When he dies, Kit just walks out and leaves him. It is the oddest event in the novel. Most of our reading group were quite perplexed by this. It didn’t seem to square with Kit’s character.

Kit then embarks on a series of adventures, on her own, and ends up as the sexual slave of an Arab who combines his predatory endeavours with some compassion and even feeling. He hands her around to his friends who use her at will. And yet, at times, Kit shows some tenderness to her slave-master. Our reading group found that somewhat odd – a view I share.

The last third of the novel reads like one of those pornographic B movies where sex and violence are depicted in loving detail for the demanding audience. At the end of the novel we are left wondering about Kit. We assumed that she would want to return to a secure and safe environment. But she did not seem to want that. Why was that? Was there some deep reason for this, or was she just mad?

There is a clue in the last paragraph when her carer says : “God. The woman’s nuts!”

The Sheltering Sky is one of those novels that have an iconic status, like the Great Gatsby. They are famous, but we are not sure why. And when you read them and analyse them you are still not sure why. Perhaps it is because you can read into them anything you want. They are ready vehicles for your own thoughts and judgements about the world. In the sense that they are sufficiently malleable to reflect any view that you wish to impose upon them, this means that your view cannot be disproved either. The other problem is the intention of the author. Do we know what Mr Bowles’ intention was? Do we know what Scott-Fitzgerald’s intention was?

We can only have our own view.

When I look at The Sheltering Sky I see a group of alienated Americans. They are alienated from their own culture, but when they seek solace in another culture they are even more alienated. Perhaps if you do not understand your own culture you will not understand anyone else’s. And you will not care about other cultures.

I think that Rosemarie Carty puts her finger on it when she says : 
‘I found the characters to be damaged and the overall impression disturbing.   I noted towards the end of the book there was a reference to the sky sheltering so that one went ever onwards and was comparing that to the notion that the traveller did just that - travelled - with no idea where they were going…….’  
As I was reading the book I could not help feeling that the whole problem centred around the presence or the absence of a belief-system. The Arabs come across as a shadowy, somewhat sinister people. And they simply conform to the stereotypes that Bowles presents to us. Also, the portraits of the Australians and the English are gruesome in the extreme.

There are attempts to formulate a philosophy in the book, such as the uninspiring : “When a day is finished, it is finished.”  Do we conclude that, if you do not have a belief-system, you will end up in a bus in North Africa, your body will be abused by sinister people, and you will die of typhoid?

Alienation, aimlessness - or a belief-system?

Belief-systems are OK in themselves. The problem is that some people use them as a justification for dreadful misdeeds. It’s what you do with them that counts.

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