Tells the story of an American couple's fated attempt to regenerate their strange and troubled marriage as they journey through North Africa. The book is a portrayal of a man's physical and mental disintegration and is written by the author of Midnight Mass.
When I'm right, I'm right.
The Book Report: Kit and Port Moresby (get the Australia/New Guinea colonial joke, huh? huh? How clever is Paul Bowles, right?) are not gonna make it as a couple. They just aren't. So, in time-honored rich-couple-in-over-relationship fashion, they Travel. They don't take a trip, or a vacation, oh perish forbid, they Travel. North Africa, they think, no one we know will be there so we won't have to confront how little is left of what was a marriage.
So, this being midcentury fiction, while they Travel, they pick up a guy named Tunner who is also Traveling with his Mama. (Code of the day for "he's a fag.") I would say "hijinks ensue," but they really, really don't.
My Review: Tunner and Kit. Tunner and Port. Port and Kit. Find me some sexual heat in any of these variations. G'wan g'wan double-dog dare ya.
Arab as Wily Native. Murrikin as Rich Rube. Okay, been there done that, even in 1949...sixty-three years ago this wasn't an under-used trope, and by now it's a dreary cliche when used without irony or other meta-element to waft away its corpse-like odor.
Books told in dialogue. Really now. Robert Pinget did it better.
So "tedious twaddle" remains my judgment. Gay rights have swept away the shock, shock! of Port and Tunner's implied affair. Kit's a dreary stereotype of the Bored White Woman Seeking Dusky Lover. Whatever value the book still has, it's in the language, which I myownself found very close to intolerably dull and lifeless.
I suppose I have to give this Ambien-between-covers two stars because there will be lynch mobs of admirers outside my door anyway, but if I gave it the 1/2 star I think it actually deserves, there'd be snipers and Inquisitionists too. But god, I feel hypocritical doing it.
Run Away! Run Away! Don't even accept a copy as a gift!
The Arab characters seem stereotypical, as do the French colonialists. On the good side, the writing style is fine, and until we get to the rape fantasy, the plot is interesting, and I suppose the book presents some sort of picture of the time and place (never having been there). However, I would only recommend this as a case study: a look into the mind of a man who really believes women enjoy being raped.
In The Sheltering Sky, a well-off married couple and their friend go to North Africa--not as tourists, but as travelers--to escape their ennui and find some meaning in their lives. (These people are idle rich; where do they get their money? Bowles never says.) All are poorly equipped for the journey and make extremely bad decisions. It is immediately apparent that the husband, Port, is a selfish prick and we feel no sympathy for him when he becomes ill with typhoid. (He didn't even bother getting immunized before going abroad.) The traveling companion, Tunner, is also completely self-absorbed and rather adolescent in his behavior. The wife, Kit, is a woman completely without agency, who lets things happen to her and then decides afterward how she feels about them. But even with such a character, and even though we know the desert is slowly driving her insane, it is still almost impossible to accept her actions during the final third of the book, and even more impossible to accept that her feelings about what happens to her as depicted are what an actual woman would feel. She seems to exist solely to depend on men and to feel grateful to them for their existence and willing to let them do whatever and to like it.
Here is where the male fantasy comes in. Both Abbey and Bowles have created women who think and behave as they would like to imagine women would behave, not as women actually do. The net result for this female reader is a growing sense of disgust with the writer. This attitude toward women seems much more common in older novels that have been labeled as "classic" than in contemporary novels by male writers, perhaps because men now realize that women are in fact people and should behave as such, or because those male writers who still depict women this way are no longer lauded by critics. Nevertheless, this novel has pretty much turned me off completely on reading classic books written by men, and I guess my education of the white male psyche as depicted in literature is pretty much complete anyway. I did major in English.
By contrast, my discoveries of classic books written by women have been, for the most part, a sheer delight, an unearthing of really good writing that I wasn't before exposed to, or exposed to only in limited qualities. At this point in my reading life, it seems a much more sensible use of my time to continue finding and reading the women writers that my education neglected. In the meantime, this novel sits side by side on the shelf next to the Abbey, waiting to be donated--they seem to deserve each other.
Put it another way: there aren't many funny bits. The Sheltering Sky takes itself very seriously indeed.
Alas, Paul Bowles' enterprise is completely undermined by the (actually fairly well observed) characters: the lead roles in this Saharan melodrama are played by a husband and wife who have fallen out of love with each other. If this were all, I think Bowles might have got away with it. But crucially, the couple - Port and Kit - are also two of the most dislikeable lead characters to be found anywhere in contemporary fiction.
Port is selfish, unfaithful, rude and arrogant. Kit is hardly better: duplicitous, similarly unfaithful, hysterical, and given to an annoying irrationality which, towards the end of the book veers inexplicably towards sheer lunacy. Another reviewer has described them as "innocents abroad". That may be how they're regarded in the author's homeland; people in other parts of the world would recognise them as something rather different and, I'm bound to say, less appealing: "Americans abroad".
Port and Kit have the most irritating, implausible conversations; the sort which could only be invented by an author trying to explore Important Things. Consider the following exchange:
"`Why don't you extend your good wishes to all humanity, while you're at it?' she demanded.
"`Humanity?' cried Port. `What's that? Who is humanity? I'll tell you. Humanity is everyone but one's self. So of what interest can it be to anybody?'"
Anyone conducting this conversation in real life is, I respectfully submit, asking to have their lights punched out.
It is thus extremely hard to give a damn about either of the characters. And when an author has lost (or in this case, never really gained) his audience's sympathy for his protagonists, then any message that might be embedded in their experiences is likely to remain buried (because the reader can't be bothered to look for it) or worse, to be rejected altogether. Instead, one can take perverse pleasure from their misfortunes (which are many and varied) - but this can hardly have been what Paul Bowles intended.
It is hard to understand what Bowles did intend, though: his writing at critical points is oblique enough to be completely meaningless. Again, take an example - a complete paragraph which arrives pretty much out of nowhere:
"His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky's clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose."
If you know what on Earth that's all about, you've done better than me. And if you care, then this may be the book for you. If not, consider exchanging days of irritation for two short hours of it: rent Bartolucci's film version instead.
I was quite enjoying the novel, depsite its darkness and deeply nihilistic theme, when WHAM! All of a sudden I found myself in the middle of 'The Sheik' with Rudolph Valentino. I sat scratching my head for awhile, wondering what the heck just happened and how the novel had taken this weird turn. I still don't get it. At that point, I plodded through to the end, greatly disappointed (when I wasn't shaking my head or snorting).
I can't recommend this one. So much emotional investment building up to an unbelievable ending that was totally out of sync with the rest of the novel.
If I read anything else by Bowles, it will be because of his style--not his nearly-nonexistent agility with plot or character.
On the surface of it - a young American couple (even though in name only, for the moment), moderately seasoned by travel up to this point, with another friend by their side, escape to travel in North Africa, away from Europe, ravaged by Second World War. That's one thing. But dig deeper, and there is more to it. The two main characters agonizingly struggle with their feelings and intentions, revealing them (in their own minds) with brutal honesty that brings forth painful, raw emotions. Kit is fighting a feeling of constant doom that sometimes totally paralyzes her, leaving her deeply unhappy and disturbed; Port is dealing with issues of rekindling their relationship (if only she could think "his way"...) and seemingly cannot escape from the "cage he had built long ago to save himself from love". Both agree that Sahara can somehow be a magic remedy for them; and for both, as Port declares, the following is true: "We've never managed, either of us, to get all the way into life. We're hanging onto the outside for all we're worth, convinced we are going to fall off at the next bump."
The third companion plays the part only to the extent of being a pawn - they resort to him when needed and then they avoid him. Not that he doesn't deserve such treatment - for he has his own selfish motives that brought him on this journey.
The first part of the book is mostly this kind of pensive mental struggle, in the second one - the struggle becomes physical, brought on by the alien to them climate and culture and by other trials. From this point it becomes more than just painful philosophical ruminations on life and their place in it. Struggle for survival ensues. For one of them the end is ambiguous.
A local man observes to Kit: "Here we say that life is a cliff, and you must never turn around and look back when you are climbing". But even a statement like that, close to the end of the book, could not lift the oppressively heavy feeling I had after reading it. The book wore me out. Emotionally. Plus, one thing that I thought lacking - the history of the couple's relationship leading up to this extraordinary and tragic trip through North Africa (the meager hints of that didn't seem to be enough).
Much of the novel consists of Kit, Port, and Tunner scurrying from one African city to another, in search of what even they probably do not know. Even though Kit loathes Tunner, they end up taking a train ride together to one of the cities during which they romantically bond (rather unrealistically, considering her contempt for him). In fact, romantic (or at least physical) connections, with the possible exception of the one between Port and Kit, were idealized. For example, early on, Port is led to the tent of a prostitute, Marnhia, whose decoy insists that she is not a prostitute. What seems to be a misunderstanding is really a cultural difference. Much like Nature herself, Marnhia is bleak, alluring, and ultimately incomprehensible.
Halfway through the book, Port begins to show some portentous symptoms, including fever and hot and cold spells. Even though he shows no signs of getting any better, Kit has no qualms about leaving him in their hotel room. It will surprise few readers that in this land of exclusion, disconnectedness even from those next to you, and disorientation, Port dies. Just as unbelievable as the trysts between Tunner and Kit and then between Port and Marnhia, as soon as Port dies she leaves the hotel without pausing or grieving. The story of their marriage up to this point had me fairly convinced that they did care for one another, but reading this made me wonder whether Port's love was fully reciprocated.
Port Moresby, the name of one of the protagonists, is also the name of Papua New Guinea's capital. I'm not sure whether this could be pure coincidence, but I would be eager to know what anyone else thought of it. Did anyone notice this? It popped right out at me, but I just saw it mentioned in one or two other reviews.
Gore Vidal said that Bowles' short stories are "emblematic of the helplessness of an over-civilized sensibility when confronted with an alien culture." Port also makes it clear that he's a traveller instead of a tourist. Those points are central to the book. The first of these will genuinely frustrate those who think that some sort of genuine connection can be made between people of different cultures, and maybe even those of the same culture. As someone who still holds hope, perhaps naively so, for this kind of communication, I found the characters proportionately unconvincing. Personally, I find myself much more oriented toward E. M. Forster's exhortation to "Only connect!" It is what informs all of my reading, my curiosity about the world, and my relationships with others. I realize that my choice is purely an aesthetic one, but Bowles' central message diverged so much from it that I found difficulty making the connection. However, as Forster might be the first to point out, even though I had trouble with its message and characters, this book offered still another opportunity to connect - one which, unfortunately, I'm a worse person for not being able to make.
I found Kit and Port strangely impenetrable - and found Kit's near ending in sexual thrall to a Bedouin difficult to stomach in many ways - but the book was in the main compelling.
All this may be taken straight as simply a lurid, supersexy Sahara adventure story completely outfitted with camel trains, handsome Arabs, French officers and a harem
—TIME Magazine, Dec. 5, 1949
Of all the Time Magazine 100 All Time list books that I've read this year, I found this one the most interesting and least annoying. Katherine (Kit) and Porter Moresby originally from New York travel to Africa with friend Tunner, in an attempt to resolve their marital difficulties. As they move further and further towards the Sahara, they seem to forget about the dangers implicit in their trip. When Porter is struck down by typhoid two thirds of the way through, Kit is slowly driven crazy and the last section of the book deals with her descent into madness and debauchery.
This was a pretty fascinating story, although the main characters were somewhat one-dimensional and hard to work up a large amount of empathy for the supporting characters were realistic and amusing. Especially the mother/son team that plague the Moresby's by showing up everywhere.
A lot of shit goes down. At first you might think that you are just witnessing the deterioration of a marriage or at least the complexities of relationships, but those issues become minor compared to the dangers surrounding the travellers. It's almost as if you imagined the worst things that could happen while in a foreign country and then they all happened. It plays out very much like a nightmare, and makes for a compelling read to witness the downward spirals of all of the main characters.
In any case, the overall story is one of travel without appropriately assessing the dangers of the region; arrogant Americans blundering off into the desert without a second thought and badly hurting themselves as a result. The final fifty pages of the book were somewhat more interesting than the rest, since they deal with imprisonment, a favoured theme of mine - alas, not interesting enough to salvage the other two hundred pages of meandering philosophical passages.
I always feel frustrated whenever I read a classic of literature and fail to enjoy it. Am I somehow missing something? Am I not intelligent enough to appreciate it? Should I skulk off back to my Playstation and Doritos like the wretched product of the public school system that I am?
...no. No, it's the literary critics who are wrong.
The characters are remarkably believable and his portrait of the decaying marriage has so many facets-- each described perfectly from both Kit's and Port's viewpoints.
I don't want to spoil the plot, but Book 3 was completely unexpected. I read it in one sitting and it felt like a dream/nightmare. Once I have emerged from the hypnosis of Bowles writing Book 3 will either disgust me or amaze me with its provocative and disturbing insight. I won't know which for a while.
I highly recommend this book-- it is not a difficult or long read but high in enjoyment and thought-provoking content. 4 stars (maybe more later)
And yet, this is no simple travelogue novel. Everything has a surface story and then reveals itself later to have far-reaching consequence. As a minor character points out later in the story, The desert's a big place, but nothing really ever gets lost there...Things turn up sometimes months later. There is little that goes on in this novel that does not have consequence in some manner later. For arrogant travelers who have not had a genuine human encounter in years, this is a double-edged sword.
Bowle's depictions of the Sahara are beautiful, even as you see the damage that can be inflicted to the physically and spiritually unprepared. But his greater talent seems to be in presenting you three characters who are rather unlikable at first and transforming them not into different people, but into characters in a story you want to finish.
the story centers on three travelers, husband and wife duo Port and Kit, and their hapless friend Tunner, in the African Sahara desert. though never explicitly stated, they come from a life of advantage and are careless with their money, which gives the impression that they are almost careless with their lives. they travel without an agenda and are merely observers of the culture, life and scenery as the various cities (and their inhabitants) present themselves. there is no real plot per se, which makes for slow reading, but there are underlying threads related to Port and Kit’s inability to relate to one another and their faltering loyalty and friendship with Tunner.
"The wind at the window celebrated her dark sensation of having attained a new depth of solitude."
the characterization really was excellent – each of the three was flawed and distinctively both arrogant and innocent. though i don’t particularly like any of them, i could see pieces of each that were so uniquely genuine and honest that it was very easy to relate and find meaningful moments. i found the inner dialogues of Port and Kit to be the most fascinating, with some very deep personal moments of self doubt and loathing and triumphant self discovery.
in addition to the wonderful characterization, the descriptions of the desert were phenomenal and i can understand how many readers find the desert to almost be a character in and of itself. it lived and breathed with a life that i wouldn’t have expected from something so barren and it alone made the reading worthwhile.
"Even as she stood in the window she was struck with the silence of the place. She could have thought there was not a living being within a thousand miles. The famous silence of the Sahara."
where the book fell flat for me was mostly in the loose endings. the finale was a total curveball and not sure i followed the intention. it seemed almost tacked on and i didn’t find any resolution in the personal conflicts that the three characters had presented.
altogether, this was an enjoyable read with beautiful imagery and heartfelt characterization and i would recommend this book for those interested in the language and shape that forms the Sahara. however, if long winded passages and aimless plot lines irk you, don’t bother because this will bore you to tears.