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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.
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on 5 June 2017
A fascinating story and well told.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 September 2014
Paul Bowles (1910 -- 1999) was an American outsider. He first attained success as a composer but in 1949 left the United States for Tangiers and pursued a career as a writer. Bowles remained an expatriate for the rest of his long life, due in part to his unusual sexual lifestyle. Bowles published his first novel, "The Sheltering Sky" (1949) soon thereafter, and it became a financial and critical success. Bernardo Bertolucci made a film of the movie in 1990. I first read the book in 2005. I loved the book then even while missing a good deal. It is a book that will reward several rereadings.

Bowles' novel has many influences including existentialism, Fitzgerald, Conrad, and Malcolm Lowry. The book also shows the influence of American popular culture and its shows and songs about the exoticism of Arabia. But the character of this bleak novel is all its own.

The novel is set in French North Africa following the end of WW II. An American couple, Port(er) and Kit Moresby, travel to North Africa without fully understanding why. Port and Kit are New York intellectuals, and they, again, inexplicably, bring with them as a travelling companion a slightly younger man, Tunner, a journalist. Port and Kit have hopes of reviving their passionless, troubled marriage.

As the story unfolds, Port and Kit move from one small town in the desert to others, progressively shabbier and more threatening. Their behavior also becomes increasingly self-destructive. The couple are lost, alienated and alone in an unforgivingly hostile environment which they do not understand.

The book is tautly and densely written. Many of the scenes are small closely developed vignettes. The plot of the book is central but the setting and atmosphere are equally so. The book includes long descriptive passages of the desert, of its small towns, shabby hotels, buses, brothels, and markets. The primary characters are only elliptically and partially developed to keep a focus on fate and on the enveloping deterioration. But many characters in the book are vividly portrayed including the Lyles, an odious English couple, two French Army officers, a member of the American consulate, and a small Jewish merchant, Davoud Zoozeph who is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the novel. The Sahara Desert, its environs, and the brooding sky are the chief protagonists in the book.

The book is a mixture of exoticism and philosophy. It develops slowly and demands careful reading. In an early review, Bowles' friend Tennessee Williams described the novel as "An Allegory of Man and his Sahara." Williams wrote:

"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."

Director Bernardo Bertolucci described the novel as "full of poison on every page" while other critics have aptly seen the description of the desert as "alien but also spiritual" and the actions of the characters as "shocking" and "self-destructive." "The Sheltering Sky" is a remarkable, brooding novel that grew with me over the years and on a second reading.

Robin Friedman
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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.
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on 30 April 2014
The artistic reputation of Paul Bowles (1910-1999) rests on his four novels, his many short stories and various autobiographical writings, most of them written during the fifty years he spent as an expatriate in Tangier, Morocco. Bowles turned to writing fiction fairly late in life, having failed to establish himself as a poet in the Paris of the 1920s and then – against all the odds – having succeeded in making a living as a composer during the 1930s and 1940s in the US. Under the mentorship of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson he became a central figure in the New York music scene, writing a considerable amount of theatre music while also working as a music critic.

But Bowles appeared to reach some kind of a barrier in his musical development. His pieces are mostly cast in short forms that rarely span more than ten minutes and show little evidence of symphonic development. Due to the constant demand for him to write more incidental or film music, he only occasionally had the opportunity to compose more ambitious works, such as The Concerto for Two Pianos (1946-7) and the opera The Wind Remains (1941-2). Depression set in. “I felt: ‘if this goes on, my creativity will always have to be poured into a vessel held by others,’” he told music journalist Robert Schwarz in 1996.

His rapid transition from composer to successful author occurred just as he left America for Morocco in 1947. “There were a great many things I wanted to say that were too precise to express in musical terms,” he said. The Sheltering Sky, his first novel, was published in Great Britain in 1948 and the following year in the US. It entered the New York Times best seller list in January 1950 and stayed there for ten weeks. Influential literary friends such as Tennessee Williams and William Carlos Williams helped the process along with highly positive reviews. Bowles explicitly compared the novel to music in a 1952 letter to Harvey Breit. “I did think of the three parts as separate ‘movements’ but I can see that was an error. A novel is not a symphony or a sonata. If it’s anything that can be compared to music, it’s a melody.”
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Kit and Port Moresby are an American couple who do not need to work and after the war have no idea what to do with themselves. Driven by Port's need to find some kind of authentic experience to counter the emptiness he finds in himself, they set off to explore Africa. Kit is the more passive of the pair, aware that her marriage to Port is loveless and arid, she hopes that by bending to his will she will find a way to give meaning back to their relationship, but is beset by premonitions of disaster.

The journey is spoiled by the inclusion of their mutual friend Tunner, and running into a bizarre English couple who interrupt their quest in a variety of deceitful ways that corrupt what the couple are trying to do.

This is a beautifully written piece of nihilism, which one reviewer has called a modern day Heart of Darkness. I don't see the comparison myself. There is none of the brooding tension and mystery that elevates Conrad's novel into something spectacular. This is more like how F. Scott Fitzgerald would write if you plonked him in the desert, although for me, without the empathy I feel for Fitzgerald's characters.

The problem for me was that I found all the characters repellent, and couldn't bring myself to care what happened to them. It is masterful writing, but not engaging.
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VINE VOICEon 30 September 2015
This book describes Kit and Port, two Americans travelling in North Africa with a friend just after the Second World War. They seem to float through life with a disregard of the world around them. A spolit, moneyed attitude clashes with their intent to experience the world.
There is no doubt that this book is written beautifully and I can see why it is considered to be a classic but the problem for me is the characters.
The people are all hateful and there wasn't one that I could find anything about to like. That shouldn't be a problem if they have been written well but this characters aren't as there is also no connection created to the reader, which is so important when they are such horrible people.
The plot is disjointed and doesn't see to know whether it wants to be a travel journal, charting the journey of the author, or a true novel. However, it does pose plenty of questions which are explored at depth.
I was glad when I got to the end as I didn't enjoy it but there were some elements I enjoyed.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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