on 18 May 1999
Port Moresby (probably the only fictional character to be named after a city in Papua New Guinea) and his wife Kit head off on a journey across North Africa in search of...actually they haven't a clue what they're looking for. All they find is heat, desert and a growing realisation that their marriage is collapsing within an environment that they are increasingly unable to cope with. Matters are complicated by the presence of Kit's clandestine lover and a boorish English mother and son combination who do little but encroach upon the Moresby's aimless quest. Nothing goes according to plan and as Port's health deteriorates, Kit finds that her terrible omens are about to be fulfilled.
This extraordinary novel envelops the reader with shimmering images and deft characterisation. Amongst all this, there is a message about the hollowness of the American post-war experience. The protagonists feel compelled to explore alien territory but their search for discovery is engulfed by the vastness of the desert. The way the plot unfolds is totally unexpected but conventional narrative wouldn't make sense here. North Africa is different and in this book Bowles lucidly demonstrates why this is the case.
on 31 May 2012
An intense and thoughtful novel with occasional flashes of brilliance, but I was expecting more from this "classic". The characters proved hard people to care about. I found the prose a little ponderous. And the final section about Kit and the camel-riders was unconvincing, even ludicrous (for some reason it brought to mind a terrible Wilbur Smith novel I once read). Disappointing: I finished it without regret.
In 1949, Porter and Kit Moresby learn that North Africa is one of the few places to which they can now obtain boat passage in the aftermath of World War II. Married twelve years but staying in separate bedrooms, the Moresbys travel to Morocco with another American named Tunner, a single man enamored with their spontaneous style (and possibly with Kit). This threesome and the Lyles, a mother and son from Australia, are uniformly self-centered, superficial, spoiled, ignorant, and insensitive, and Bowles's level of detail in showing the Lyles' cringe-worthy lack of respect for the local culture through their insulting dialogue suggests that he has overheard dialogue like this more than once during his two years as an expatriate in Tangier.
Eventually, Port and Kit decide to travel together, hoping, belatedly, to revitalize their marriage. Both are so self-absorbed, however, that improvement seems unlikely, especially since Kit suffers from personal "terrors", and Port, a nervous man to start with, begins to wake up from nightmares, sobbing in bed. In Ain Krorfa, as in the port where they first arrived, however, Port Moresby seeks a liaison with a local woman while his wife is sleeping. He also runs afoul of the commander of the military post of Bou Noura when he accuses a local corporal of having stolen his passport, only to have it found by Tunner.
The middle section of the book wanders a bit, lacking direction almost as much as the characters do, and focusing on Port and Kit's personal problems, which are legion. When Port becomes ill with typhoid on his way to a town that has shut down because of a meningitis outbreak, he and Kit find a primitive place to stay so Kit can be nursemaid to the seriously ill Port. "I'm very sick," he confesses. "I don't know whether I'll come back." Kit, however, gets tired of nursing and leaves him alone in the room, seriously ill, for hours. As his fever continues to rise, Port begins to panic, and he later begs Kit to stay beside him, but as he fades in and out, Kit thinks, "He says it's more than just being afraid. But it isn't. He's never lived for me. Never, Never," a highly revealing thought, under the circumstances. The final section continues Kit's story as she tries to deal with new problems which threaten to overwhelm her.
In this unusual and thoughtful debut novel, Bowles takes crass Americans out of their normal post-war environment, allowing the reader to see them in a more universal context. The two main characters are so limited, both in their relationships with their peers and in relationships with the wider, outside world, that neither is fully capable of feeling real emotion for anyone other than self. The novel raises the question of how much the characters fail because they are failures to begin with and how much they fail because they have never looked inside themselves or tested themselves in any serious way. Their casual "adventuring" in Morocco, while recently returned veterans at home are struggling with their memories of war and the aftereffects must have hit hard at the American readership when this novel was first published. Bowles's depiction of Americans like this may partially explain why he spent the last fifty-two years of his life living quietly as an expatriate in Morocco.
on 28 December 2004
'TSS' by Paul Bowles is the story of Kit and Port Moresby, who are travelling around North Africa in the years preceding World War II, accompanied by their friend Tunner. Kit and Port are married but estranged, a couple who are as close to perfection for the other as their personalities allow, but who share a love of isolation and secrecy that means that there will always be a chasm between them. Tunner is a fly in the ointment, a sexual rival for Port, an irritant for Kit. On their travels they stay in increasingly hellish places, each more alien than the last, and encounter the nightmarish inhabitants, both European and African, of that remote landscape.
This book has been described as 'African Gothic', and this seems as good a label as any. A dark, brooding atmosphere persists throughout, although there is no horror in the traditional sense. Port and Kit are travelling through their own personal heart of darkness, weighed down by the metaphorical baggage the carry with them, and by each other. They attempt to escape this ever-decreasing circle by sexual liaisons that are both erotic and grotesque in equal measure, and by running as far from westerners and the western way of life as possible. However, their fear of the new, frightening, world they encounter, and their inability to rid themselves of the influences of their past lives lead them ever closer to their own personal hell.
'TSS' is brilliantly written, conjuring strong visual images of the world the Moresby's find themselves plunging into. The powerful writing style reminded me of Malcolm Lowry, and I recommend that fans of one try the other. Bowles' writing is less well structured, but just as successful at bringing the nightmare to life. It isn't an especially easy read, both because of Bowles' occasionally meandering prose and the grimness of the events being recounted. I was also a little bemused by the finale, which seemed to take Kit's African horror a little too far. Despite this, it was still an excellent book to have read, and one I can recommend to anyone interested in great writing.
on 6 August 2012
This is a book that is set in the physical landscape of North Africa but actually occurs within the minds of the main characters - three self-obsessed Americans on a journey to self-discovery that leads nowhere.
No European writer could have written such a work as he would have been tempted to take sides and see life through the eyes of the "natives" or the representatives of the imperialist/colonial power as Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess and William Boyd definitely and, perhaps Albert Camus, would.
However, as Americans of Bowles' generation still regarded colonialism as a quaint habit that they had not acquired, they were free to use the (exotic) background as they wished. This book was first published in 1949 and was a precursor of the hippyism that erupted about 20 years later.
Bowles and his compatriots were lucky as they were able to use the natives and the imperialists as fair game whether they were Arabs, French, black Africans or English, as occurs here.
Now that my sermon is over, I would say this is a very good book that is probably less pretentious than my introduction would imply.
It is not a work to be seen in terms of realism but it is also not obscure and the physical description of the heat, cold, sand, grit, squalor, filth, cruelty and backwardness of life in North Africa is well done.
The reader - especially the modern female reader - might find the portrayal of the main female character offensive - just as the politically correct modern reader, of either sex, will probably not approve of how the Arabs and blacks are portrayed.
The general reader will find himself in a book that presents one of the main characters in a way that - without revealing the plot - is captivating and daring and must have been a great challenge for the writer.
He might also feel - like me - that the ending is just too contrived.
on 15 June 2008
Initially, Kit and Port, the preppy primary characters in THE SHELTERING SKY, seem more like attitudes than people. The character Kit, for example, observes: "Other people rule my life." Early in his narration, Bowles adds: "The terror was already there inside her ready to take command."
Meanwhile, Port, despite his charms, is a sadly isolated person. Bowles says: "Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it."
Early in TSS, these concept-driven characters have experiences of slightly bogus theatricality, with the insightful Bowles explaining the interaction between characters but not really bringing them to life. Kit and Port, in other words, have experiences that just don't ring true.
But then Bowles takes his characters and puts them on a bus on a heedless journey into the Sahara. And, their adventure, a truly riveting tale, is the perfect vehicle to explore the wacko personalities that Bowles has defined. "Book Two, The Earth's Sharp Edge," starts in Bou Noura, a desolate outpost where the European influence is negligible. Thereafter, everything that happens to Kit and Port is frighteningly real. And the writing becomes first-rate.
"The sun poured down on the bare earth; there was not a square inch of shadow, save at their feet. Her mind went back to the many times when, as a child, she had held a reading glass over some hapless insect, following it along the ground in its frenzied attempts to escape the increasingly accurate focusing of the lens, until finally she touched it with the blinding pinpoint of light, when as if by magic it ceased running, and she watched it slowly wither and begin to smoke. She felt that if she looked up she would find the sun grown to monstrous proportions.
My daughter told me this book was great and she was right! Highly recommended.
on 9 November 2014
Has literary merit (very fine descriptions of North African locations of their time, and the experience of feverish delirium, for example), and quite an interesting plot in its way, but none of the main characters are likeable or even particularly interesting (they're pretty annoying) so I suspect a lot of readers would just give up on this novel. The ending's a real anti-climax after some of the most engaging events in the story, too. All this might be part of the author's intention in writing an existentialist novel, but that doesn't make it a better read.
on 17 November 2014
I found this book to be profoundly disturbing and quite depressing - nobody ends up well and all the main characters are deeply flawed. You probably don't want to spend too much time wondering if it was really likely that a rich American couple would wander round remotest North Africa eating terrible food and with no prior vaccinations and no clear plan of where they were going or what they were doing.
The book is made by the description of the landscapes and small towns and their peoples, plus the characters that inhabit the novel - primarily the married couple Port and Kit, their friend Tunner and the truly terrible Lyles (are they son and mother or weird lovers?). The predominant feature is loneliness, unrequited love and self loathing which leads to an ever descending cycle of depression and destruction; the viewpoint is omnipresent so the reader is flipped into and out of the characters' heads and you really feel their hopelessness in a very barren and hostile landscape.
on 14 September 2004
On my first attempt at reading this book, I will admit I became quickly bored and gave up. I perservered more diligently on my second attempt, although mainly through a lack of anything better to read. I'm glad I did, as once I had read through the opening chapters I quickly became absorbed. The wealth of detail Bowles incorporates into his pastiches is breathtaking, hauntingly echoing the emotions of the central characters. Kit and Port's travels into the desert are used to cleverly underline their increasingly conflicting personalities, both with similarly obscure views on the meaning of existence, yet too different to be easily reconciled. The minor characters in the book are also a joy to read about, bringing their own turbulence to the relationship. As the hostility, vastness and emptiness of the desert increase, so does Port's obsession, yet the desert is anathema to Kit and her 'omens' and the underlying tensions increase, subtley resulting in both their downfalls. A powerful and fascinating read, if only to lose oneself in the landscape for a while.
The introduction by Michael Hofman is disappointing. I feel Hoffman has attempted to straddle a gap between scholarly interest and those reading for leisure, but has failed. There is nothing here that would be terrinbly useful to student readership except as a general background to Bowles' production of the novel, yet it is perhaps to specific and mildy boring to appeal to general interest readers.
Kit and her husband Port Moresby (sic) have turned their backs on the futility of an idle New York life to embark on a journey without an end in North Africa, still French-owned at the time this is set. The couple is troubled, and finding an aim amid the sandy waste is also expected to solve their sexual problems. But what can be expected from a journey to nowhere, except that it should lead into the void?
Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky differs in all respects from the movie. Bowles's Sahara isn't that of Bertolucci's technicolor photo; it is cruel, unforgiving, dirty; it is full of flies, of petty colonial officials and impenetrable locals, a stark and treacherous place. Port and Kit aren't a romantic and courageous couple, at least not initially, more a spoilt pair, self-centred, sometimes mean. Kit only comes into her own later, and Port never does, though the typhoid scene is beautifully written (the same in the movie must be Malkovich's worst piece of acting).
Indeed, that's just the thing: Bowles's novel is convincing; it feels real. At the same time, this is a philosophical as well as a psychological piece. Two characters search for meaning in a vast, bleak, empty landscape where they can only hope to get lost; life's quest must end in death, and all meaning can only be incidental, such as the devotion to Port Kit rediscovers in herself when it is too late. The strength of The Sheltering Sky is that it does not lecture, however; it is never blatant or pompous. Only the ending is dubious; here the philosophical point takes over, perhaps, at the expense of psychological likelihood. Bowles himself is supposed to have declared later, in an interview, that it was `idiotic'. More equivoque and provocation? You will have to judge for yourself.