Saturday, October 07, 2017
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Perhaps it was the idea of the film that had put me off reading this novel previously. In the 1980s there seemed to be a whole range of slick adaptions of 20th century literary classics – mostly from Merchant-Ivory though “The Sheltering Sky” was Bertolucci – and Bowles’ debut novel probably got tainted by it; though I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen the film either.
Port Moresby is with his wife Kit on an escape from a devastated post-war Europe. His father has died leaving him the money to do as he pleases – anything other than work – and he insists that he is a traveller rather than a tourist, though he always carries too much luggage, speaks only European languages, and insists on staying in the best hotel wherever he is. They are joined on this trip by the younger Tunner, an amiable adventurer who has fallen in love with Kit, but truthfully, is in love with them both in some way.
The style of the book shifts in terms of sympathies – written often as not in a localised internalised third person, only zooming out every now and then, a technique that creates the quiet claustrophobia that sets in from the very first page.
They are in Northern Algeria, but Port is unhappy there. His relationship with Kit is now sexless and they have adjoining rooms. He wants, more than anything it seems, to be away from everything, to be alone, but he can’t quite manage that true adventurer’s calling, and has dragged her and her luggage – and at the last minute, his friend Tunner – along for the ride. Port hates the world he has come from, hates Europe, America, and civilisation, but he also dislikes the colonial French, and more than that he loathes the Arabs and other indigenous populations, whilst being drawn into the potential excitement of an unmediated world. Kit, on the other hand, is there because she is scared of losing him – though in many ways he is already lost – and because her fear requires her to have someone to hang on to. Tunner’s puppy love asphyxiates her and she just wants time spent with Port, but when they are together they argue, or worse, fail to communicate. His very seriousness – his existential consideration of where he – they – are going is in itself something that Kit finds hard to take seriously; it as if the very emptiness of his life, and of his dreams, is now so obvious that she can only be drawn along with it. Her vibrancy is an affront in some ways to Port; who does as much as he can to hurt her, and in doing so, to double up on the hurt he feels himself.
He might be devastated to know she has been unfaithful to him, but before this happens, he thinks nothing of going off into the town and finding a young woman prostitute, who then steals his wallet. He is an American out of sorts in a world that is still in bits, and yet he is enough of an American to resent the theft, to want to use his money as more than currency – hating the haggling of the Arabs he meets, but at the same time wanting to always buy more than just a good or a service with his money. He at one point sees a blind woman dancing in a bordello, and is desperate to have her, but she is gone before he can make it happen. He is certain he has lost the chance of love.
The book is nevertheless one of stories told. The famous story of three girls who go to have tea in the Sahara, and are found with only sand in their cups. The great desert is always on the corner of the tale, until, as they head further south into it, it also becomes the tale, and in the third part of the book, becomes Kit’s very existence.
Along the way they keep bumping into an English con man and his mother/wife, who they try and avoid, except when it is expedient to take a lift with them. By separating himself from Kit and Tunner as he goes south with them – leaving them to take the train – Port seems to be willing the action to happen; yet he doesn’t find out about the betrayal (his betrayals of Kit are the greater.) There’s a compelling existentialism to all of this. The man who has no longer got a belief in anything, and the woman for whom there is still hope – but where the hope resides in her husband. Throughout, the prose is remarkable. The interior knowledge we have of each of the characters only makes more complex their motivations, rather than allowing us to understand them. The usual motivations – money, lust – are replaced by different ones; of living a meaningful life. A dark reading of the novel could see it as being a book about the devastation we all must feel, when we realise life is not leading to something, as much as away from something. Port’s illness manifests itself as he takes them further and further away from civilisation; where only Kit can see him suffer. In this she finds her own motivations to live – but then – unable to escape and lost in a desert where she could just as easily perish, she becomes herself another victim of circumstance; perhaps achieving the negation of personality that Port was looking for.
Posted by Adrian Slatcher at 4:29 AM