“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Paul Bowles was an American author who spent many years living in North Africa and this was the setting he chose for The Sheltering Sky. I finished it last weekend and have spent the past few days thinking about it. There were things about the story I really liked. Much of it was spellbinding. A vast journey in a beautiful setting along with the spiritual transformation of the characters. A winning combination. I could have loved the book if the characters had been more likeable. I found it hard to really care about them despite the dramatic turns their story took.
Port and Kit Moresby are a young couple from New York in the post war years of the 1940s. The story begins with them in Morocco and follows their journey deep into the Sahara. Accompanied by a friend from home, Tunner, whose presence prevents them from addressing the deteriorating state of their marriage.
The pages ooze atmosphere and tension, the desert and it’s people reluctantly hospitable and unforgiving. Although Port and Kit are married and travelling with each other, they hardly interact at all and there is a feeling that they are each on a personal and solitary journey. Perhaps because of this the characters seem a little detached, from each other and also from the reader. In fact, I think the author intended this, despite the presence of a solid plot the book is more about those deeper questions in life around existence, intimacy, solitude, survival.
I would like to watch the film and will be interested to see if the characters, particulary Kit who I couldn’t bring myself to like, are portrayed. I have a feeling the film will be more sympathetic to Kit than I have been.
368 pages, 1949 (Penguin Modern Classics 2009)