An occasional series on what I’m reading and why…
Paul Bowles, ‘The Sheltering Sky’, 1949 Penguin (Republished, 2009 with introduction by Paul Theroux)
I talked about the book voyeur phenomenon here. I’m always interested in the randomness and reasons around what others are reading, carrying around with them to read and also now reading on the kindle and internet. I contribute my reading experiences here in this same spirit.
I love a classic, especially one that may not be right out there and that has in any case bypassed me. Paul Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’ has been such a discovery. It’s the first book of his I have read and I look forward to reading his other writing now. The edition I have is one of the republished Penguin classics; available here in Australia for $9.95 and with a new introduction by Paul Theroux. I loved the introduction, but wisely left it to read till after ‘The Sheltering Sky’ itself as it tells you what happens.
I haven’t come across Paul Bowles in my literature travels and reading journey and I wonder why he has escaped me. His style is dark and hypnotic; beautiful prose describing horrific scenes that repulse and attract you at once. It’s like watching a train wreck, but a compelling and stylish one.
My reading experience was interrupted. Too much reading of blogs and a lot of work in the day job meant ‘The Sheltering Sky’ didn’t get read as well as it deserved; at least for half of it, it was piecemeal and interrupted. Ironically, some time away for work delivered some excellent uninterrupted reading time en route and over dinner at night on my own. Then, finally, I lost myself in the second half of the book and surrendered to its prose and unrelenting entropy. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.
It’s not a happy story; I won’t tell you everything that happens. Husband and wife, Port and Kit Moresby travel to the Northern Africa and into the Sahara to escape something: their marriage, themselves, boredom, society. You wonder why they are making this journey. The landscape and people are haunting and alien, hostile and threatening, and Port and Kit, along with their acquired companion, Tunner, make the journey deeper and deeper. It’s exotic and spell-binding even as you want them to turn back and you also turn away.
As Theroux concludes in the introduction:
…it is obvious that he wanted to give the desert a face and a mood – or moods; he often depicts a landscape in anatomical terms, and he could only do that by describing people somewhat like ourselves crawling around it and becoming its victims.
I loved the quote accompanying Book One ‘Tea in the Sahara’:
Each man’s journey is personal only insofar as it may resemble what is already in his memory. Eduardo Mallea
The book has that same unobtainable quality, like a maze of mirrors or a mirage; hard to pin down and unsure of its destination. Theroux describes the novel as ‘strange, uneven and somewhat hallucinatory…’ A journey, a process, but one full of breath-taking prose, the sheltering sky of the title woven through-out as a recurring image in different forms. Tennessee Williams’ 1949 review in the New York Times, ‘An Allegory of Man and his Sahara’ talks of the layers and depth experienced as a reader:
There is a curiously double level to this novel. The surface is enthralling as narrative. It is impressive as writing. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire. And that is the surface of the novel that has filled me with such excitement.
I am chasing up the Bertolucci movie of the book which I’m sure is equally hypnotic. I’ll also be chasing up more of Paul Bowles’ books to indulge myself in his beautiful, dark, spare and eloquent prose. And I’ll be reading the work of his wife, Jane Bowles, who I have not had the pleasure of reading yet. If you haven’t experienced the strange pleasure of ‘The Sheltering Sky,’ do surrender to its allure.
I have learnt more about Paul Bowles and his wife Jane Bowles through the following excellent article:
The Forces Within: The Millicent Dillon Interview on Jane Bowles Part 1 on A Victoria Mixon’s Editor’s blog
There are other resources and background here:
The Authorised Paul Bowles website – extensive links and resources including many reviews
The Sheltering Sky – wikipedia Fascinating to see how ‘The Sheltering Sky’ has emerged in so many modern songs and lyrics