The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

“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)


11 responses to “The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

  1. this is a book I enjoyed the film is good but not as good as the book ,Bowles did a lot of translation in his time ,all the best stu

    • Stu – It sounds like Bowles was very versatile, I think he was a composer as well. Glad you enjoyed the book, I’m curious how the movie will capture the essence of the story, all the things that were unsaid.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. TRACEY!!! You are kidding me??!! I have this on top of my pile and I couldn’t believe you have read it just when I am about to read it soon!

    I am going to read your review in full when I finish the book, but for the time being, big hugs for being a like-minded literary friend! πŸ™‚

    • JoV – Aren’t you a sweetie?! Thank you and I hope you really enjoy it. I look forward to reading your review. Lots to comment on but I will wait until you have read it 0:)

  3. I read this a couple of years ago when I went to Morocco and was completely gripped by it. The tension in it is so heavy all the way through. A perfect classic.

  4. The film was what led me to the book. Vittorio Storaro [famous for ‘The Last Emperor’ and ‘Apocolypse Now’] was the cinematographer and he created an amazing atmosphere, using changes of colours to convey phases of the story and changes of mood. In fact I was haunted for many years by my memory of the film, and afraid to read the book for fear of it not matching up.

    I did, however, read the book a couple of years ago and found it utterly compelling. The film still stood up in its own right – reading the book didn’t ruin the film for me – but neither has the film ruined the book. It’s a wonderful piece of writing. Like Graham said above, full of tension, a gripping read and a perfect classic. As a novelist myself, there’s so much to be learned.

  5. Pauline – Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I was actually in the library at the weekend and really felt like trying another of Paul Bowles’s books – just my luck, there was nothing there but I have a bit of a craving for those atmospheric, exotic scenes he brought so vividly to life in The Sheltering Sky.

    I really agree that there is so much to be learned from the writing and thank you for your thoughts on the film, it certainly seems worth watching.

  6. Pingback: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles « Bibliojunkie

  7. I finally finished the book and wrote the review. I am still not sure what I feel about the book, but it is not one that I would forget.

    I’m going to the Sahara desert this October, reading this left me with trepidation, wish me luck! πŸ™‚

    • Jo – Yay, I have been looking forward to you finishing it and reading your thoughts. I’ve just popped over and read your really insightful review – thanks for letting me know. How wonderful to be travelling to the Sahara, what a fantastic experience that will be – I wish you luck and a wonderful time 0:)

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